When it comes to writing on popular culture. American journalist Greil Marcus has the last word. As his latest collection of essays The Dustbin ()f History hits the shelves. he tells Damien Love why.
One of the original board members of Rolling Stone magazine. (ireil Marcus is today regarded as one of the foremost writers on popular culture. His Mystery Train is cited as perhaps the most important book on American music published in the last twenty years.
To read Marcus is to witness the critical process in action — to watch a mind being seized by and confronting a subject. attempt to connect to that subject. make sense of it and then make sense of its own response. using whatever tools suit the work.
Reading the criticism of Marcus is akin to being turned. suddenly. from a familiar thoroughfare. detoured into a strange. shadier network of deserted streets and interconnecting alleyways; an unfamiliar world. but one you were half aware of all along. pressing behind the facade of the familiar. In his Lipstick 'I'rru'es: The Sec/“(’1 History ()fT/tt’ iit't’lllit’iii Century. what starts out as a musing on the Sex Pistols' final moments. soon spirals into a freewheeling series of associations spanning centuries. each thought spawning a host of relations. the author pulling seemingly unrelated strands from the air and knitting them together until a pattern somehow seems to emerge. Of course. the connections he‘s making don‘t exist. But. equally. of course they do.
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‘Whether or not a reader reads what I've written and says: “Oh yes. I agree. Isn't he smart to have made those connections." that's not important at all.‘ claims Marcus. ‘What‘s important is that. if the book succeeds. it gives the reader a sense that there is a matrix of connections that are less obvious than is apparent. and that those connections really make up the world of thought and action. I would argue seriously that the way I see the world is valid. and not only valid. but useful.
‘In other words. the question of whether or not the Sex Pistols and the Situationist International have something to do with each other -- which of course Johnny Rotten vehemently denies. and I insist on — is less important than the question of whether or not two such seemingly different. radically different. entities mulrl have something profound to do with each other.‘
Marcus's new book. The Dustbin (l/‘llisuny a nonchronological selection ofessays written over the past two decades. tackles subjects ranging from John Wayne to ’I‘iananmen Square. The book's
uniting factor lies in the author's desire to dernonstraie his belief that that past lies implicit in the trash of our cultural moments. shaping our understanding of the present and. therefore. the present itself. How a turn of phrase. a note of music. or whatever. can cause a shift in our perceptions. bringing the world of the dead into focus as being in fact all around —- indeed. in front of us constantly.
‘l have an argument that I wanna make that that happens.‘ he explains. ‘I hope people will examine that in their own circumstances. and realise the world they live in is really a lot richer and also more contingent than might have been expected. When I argue against the idea that history exists only in the past. that seems like an obvious thing to say -- of course history is in the past. l don't think it's in the past at all. I think it‘s with us in ways that are mysterious and marvellous . . . and very dangerous. and to pretend otherwise is to not only set yourself up for a fall. but also to lead a diminished life.‘
The Dustbin ()inHrn')‘ by (irr'i/ il’Iu/‘r'us is published by l’ir'tir/(n' (3/ £75.99.
Carving artist: Mike Mcconneck
Once you learn that Galway author Mike McCormack was once a part- time butcher, his short story collection Getting It In The Head tends to send a shiver down the spine and a spasm through your psyche. McCormack is a man seemingly obsessed with death, destruction and a team of characters who are seriously off beam and off kilter when it comes to pursuing a healthy psychological life.
Meet ten-year-old Owl from the title story whose pastimes include the study of leprosy, the migration of rats and assembling home-made bombs. Or the cross-dressing Mayo lad in Oestrogen who enjoys nothing better 3 ,, ; than growing breasts and merry ‘ midnight runs round the fields in women’s clothing. 0r there’s the surgeon in Thomas Crumlesh who is in
I’m neither of those.’
the service of a talented sculptor whose specialised art form is personal
So, Mike, working in that butcher’s shop with all that flesh and blood swilling about has perhaps infiltrated your visceral imagination? ‘You know, it came as news to me that I was so taken up with the notion of death,’ he responds in a cheery Irish lilt before explaining his reservations about the former butcher’s job becoming common knowledge. ‘I didn’t want the publishers to put it in because it’s a bit disfiguring and has an aura of “slavering” or “deranged” about it.
It would be wrong to tar 30-year-old McCormack’s beautifully written collection with the same schlock horror mush-brush as, say, Tim
Willocks. These stories have a deep, macabre humour pumping through them and a sense of the bizarre that elevates them to another weird and wonderful literary sphere altogether. ‘All my stories revolve around or start with a ridiculous premise and all my characters have a bee in their obsessed bonnet, but the trick is to make that work,’ says McCormack. ‘That’s what I like doing - yoking things together that have no business being together.’
As McConnack notes, the collection is decidedly not ‘feel-good or cuddly’ but it sure as hell is guaranteed to linger in your imagination for weeks to come. (Ann Donald)
Getting It In The Head by Mike McBormack is published by Jonathan Cape at £9.99.
70 The List 26 Jan-8 Feb 1996