BOOK REVIEW / American graffiti

THE DUSTBIN OF HISTORY by Greil Marcus, Picador pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
STARTING and ending with the Sex Pistols, via a series of crazy conceptual leaps from Dutch heretics to French Lettrists and back again, Greil Marcus's epic 1989 thought-odyssey Lipstick Traces sought to map out a "secret history of the 20th century".

The Dustbin of History seeks to pick up where Lipstick Traces left off. From Tiananmen to the thrillers of Eric Ambler, Picasso's Guernica to The Manchurian Candidate, it certainly has a broad sweep. The problem is that ambitiousness of scope is not matched by the ambitiousness of Marcus's undertaking: basically, this is a collection of old articles, not a bold new historiographical vision.

It may be true that what Marcus calls "cultural happenstance" can sometimes have more to tell us than history's "master-narratives" (whatever they might be). But the real reason for his bias towards culture is that culture is what he knows about (he got a C for history in his sophomore year) and his significance as a writer increases in inverse proportion to the perceived significance of his subject matter. He is not at his most valuable writing about the horrors of Nazism, but pinning down just what it was about American Graffiti that depressed him so much: "because it made every received, even culturally determined gesture you might remember as a spontaneous response seem like a self-conscious calculation". At times like this, Marcus's aesthetic precision conveys the peculiar thrill of someone using a lot of long words to get across an idea that couldn't be expressed in fewer syllables.

Marcus's credo that "a cultural artefact that has sparked the enthusiasm, discomfort, or confusion of the critic will ... give up untold and nearly infinite secrets" makes his occasional shrug of the shoulders worth waiting for. On John Wayne, for example: "what Wayne represents is not, after all this time, very interesting". That other quintessential American hero, Susan Sontag, also gets a good kicking. Sontag's, Marcus insists with beguiling cattiness, is "an aesthetic manifesto of daunting irrelevance". What separates her from greater critics such as Pauline Kael is that she is "soft on genius" while they are "artists of the tension between genius and democracy".

Marcus himself normally falls into the latter category, but this book - which is actually just marking time before his long-awaited Bob Dylan tome - is a lapse into hubris. It can't even be bothered to keep to its own premise. Here is Marcus on Robert Johnson and the blues of the Twenties and Thirties: "many of the great singers and most of the minor ones recede into that tradition ... the tradition speaks for them and finally they become sociology." Blues singers beware: beyond the dustbin of history lurks the waste disposal unit of critical condescension.