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Promising start, disappointing finish
on 24 February 2012
I started this book with high hopes, and had it been only half as long I would happily have given it a five star rating. That in the end I only gave two is not so much due to the fact that it's overly long, but entirely due to the point Booker tries to make in the second half of the book.
In the first half of the book Booker very convincingly argues that there are 7 basic types of plot that constantly reoccur in stories throughout the ages and throughout the world. All of them in their own way, Booker argues, in fact reflect upon a basic human (unconscious) yearning for 'resolution': the proverbial happy ending in which the masculine values of the hero are joined with the feminine values of the heroine, and they live 'happily ever after'. He draws heavily on Jung's theories here, but there's no denying that his argument makes sense, and he provides plenty of examples (not just from novels but from films, plays, opera, etc.) for each of these seven basic plots in all their possible nuances and versions.
So why only two stars? Well, to my mind it's one thing to 'discover' that there are 7 basic types of plot, but it's quite another to argue that only the stories that conform to these types are 'worthwhile'. And that is what Booker (to my mind erroneously, and certainly subjectively) does in the second half of the book. In that part he analyzes what - to his mind - went wrong with the stories being written in the last 200 years. True enough (again, he provides plenty of examples), there have been plenty of stories written in the last 200 years that do not end in 'resolution': the forces of 'light' do not win, the hero does not 'get the girl' in the end (or if he does she turns out to be not much of a catch), ...
Time and again Booker argues that the fault (although he doesn't use the word) lies with the individual authors of these stories: the protagonist of Stendhal's 'The Scarlet and the Black' is 'a fantasy projection of the emotionally immature author himself' (p. 369), George Lucas 'had not got the pattern right' in his script for Star Wars (p. 382), William Burroughs is catalogued as 'an American homosexual and heroin addict' (p.481), Goethe invites us (in 'The Sorrows of Young Werther') 'to identify with the foolish young central figure in his infatuation with the cardboard heroine' (p. 650), Proust's 'Remembrance of Time Past' is an 'immense essay in self-absorbed futility' (p. 660) because Proust had an unresolved tie to the Mother-figure, etc. etc. etc.
The real issue here I think is that Booker is convinced that 'The underlying purpose of all art is to create patterns of imagery which somehow convey a sense of life set in a framework of order' (p. 552). I don't know about your life of course, but mine certainly isn't always 'set in a framework of order', and however gratifying it may be from time to time to read stories about people whose lives are, it is to my mind as necessary and equally enriching (and/or challenging) to read stories that do not end with a 'happily ever after', that (dare to) show that in real life there isn't always a happy resolution.
In this second half of the book the whole theory comes across as very conservative. What would Booker have authors do? Submit their manuscripts to a 'Basic Plot Conformity Board' before publishing and re-write according to their remarks? I think the world would be much the poorer for it if only stories that come to a full resolution had survived.