The Plot Thins


I want to let the, uh, movie exist rather, rather than be artificially plot-driven. . . . I don’t want to cram in . . . characters learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end. —Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation (2002)

Though it’s intently concerned with conflict, adversity, and triumph, Christopher Booker’s imposing new tome, The Seven Basic Plots, should tempt few serious challengers in the momentous Battle of the Blurbs. “One of the most important books to have appeared in my lifetime!” —Anthony Stevens, Jungian analyst. “Booker now interprets the mind of God!” —Fay Weldon, novelist. Big praise for a Big, albeit familiar, Idea, as The Seven Basic Plots (Continuum) proposes a cosmic septet on the order of the seven wonders, seven deadly sins, and seven habits of highly effective people. Booker compiles a Jungian taxonomy of stories, distilling the entire history of the fictive arts into a handful of flexible but unbreakable archetypes—Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth—and then extracts from those seven imaginative drops a single battle royal between Dark and Light.

A founding editor of the indispensable British satirical magazine Private Eye and a formidable political columnist for London’s Telegraph, Booker hastens to admit in his first pages that The Seven Basic Plots is hardly the maiden attempt to identify a markedly finite number of story species. Boswell reported that Dr. Johnson once intended to write a book on “how small a quantity of REAL FICTION there is in the world”; Carlo Gozzi and George Polti counted up 36 “dramatic solutions”; Joseph Campbell conceived his monomyth; the German ethnologist Adolf Bastian identified a stream of elementargedenken or “elemental ideas” in folktales. But the book gets by for a couple hundred pages (“It is so well planned with an excellent beginning!” —John Bayley) on a charming eclecticism that mixes canonical texts with popular spectacle. Booker begins with Jaws, which is just Beowulf redux. He finds a genetic through-line from Aristophanes to Crocodile Dundee, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to The Terminator. It’s a good lark, up to a point.

We all write in a genre; we must find our originality within that genre. See, it turns out there hasn’t been a new genre since Fellini invented the mockumentary. My genre’s thriller. What’s yours? —Donald Kaufman to Charlie Kaufman, Adaptation

At college, the English major generally takes courses inscribed by time, not type, with names like “Shakespeare’s Late Comedies,” “The 19th-Century American Novel,” “Postcolonial Narrative 1981-2001.” Historical and cultural context—an inherent assumption of the progression, evolution, and mutation of accepted forms—is a given when the syllabus is primarily set by the hands of the clock. The creative-writing tutor guides her pupils toward situations, formal strategies, a mode of one’s own; when William Boyd proposed seven types of short story in The Guardian this past October, his allocations owed more to movements and style than to plot. For Booker, however, the seven plots are autonomous and universal, existing outside of culture and history, part of what Jung called our “preconscious psychic disposition”—and, as Booker intones, “the archetypes programmed into the human psyche cannot be cheated and can never die”!

If you accept those terms and conditions, then Booker’s lifework (34 years in the toil) becomes an unusually thickset instruction manual for a serviceable parlor game: Which Basic Plot Are You? Recent film critics’ darling Sideways is a textbook melding of Voyage and Return and Comedy. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars announces itself as Tragedy as soon as we learn that the hero is “making love with his ego”—imminent tragedy for Icarus figure Ziggy, of course, but also for fiction as Booker knows it, since Seven Basic Plots posits that storytelling started going to hell about 200 years ago, when “the archetypal patterns underlying stories began to be refracted through the storyteller’s ego.” The Plot Against America is classic Overcoming the Monster, though the only mention Booker gives Philip Roth—or Henry James, for that matter—is when he lists the egotistical American writers guilty of “an endemic immaturity” (also Melville, Fitzgerald, Mailer, et al.).

Reading The Seven Basic Plots is also to watch it age: from a passionate, book-devouring student armed with a tenuous but amusing thesis to a cranky old man muttering to himself about the good old days before the Romantics slurred our speech with their befogging opiates and hippie dream visions. John Simon would be hard-pressed to match Booker’s one-liners for jowly indignation. On Shelley’s verse: “no more than a catalogue of suggestive imagery and violent sounds working themselves into a frenzy that is ultimately meaningless.” On Ulysses: “a mind churning away out of contact with meaning.” On the finale of Remembrance of Things Past: “Thus ends the greatest monument to human egotism in the history of storytelling.” On ’70s feminism: “Never before had the idea of women behaving so egocentrically on behalf of their sex become so acceptable.” Because Booker’s view of stories is essentially ahistorical, the sharp-elbowed incursions of sociocultural shifts and upheavals come as an affront, not as a given.

Sir, what if the writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens, where people don’t change, they don’t have any epiphanies, they struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved—more a reflection of the real world? —Charlie Kaufman addressing Robert McKee in Adaptation

Booker has written a manifesto for a fiction that believes in heroes capable of growth and change, a proudly overdetermined creature that forswears bleak fatalism and lurid sensation. Fair enough, but even if you excuse the metafictionists, the digressive social novel (ruling out Tristram Shandy and much of Salman Rushdie), and most short stories from the table, and concentrate solely on recent nonexperimental narrative fiction, it’s amazing how many largely optimistic, popularly successful stories of recent years don’t fit into any of Booker’s assigned slots. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections doesn’t. Nor does Zadie Smith’s White Teeth or Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. (Nonwhite, non-male writers don’t exist in Bookerland.) Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a Quest, maybe, but the hero is too passive and unassuming for Booker’s tastes. Adaptation and Toni Morrison’s Beloved both amalgamate Overcoming the Monster with Rebirth, but if you cram a meta-comedy about a blocked, self-loathing screenwriter into the same pigeonhole as a supernatural novel that reckons with the legacy of slavery in America, you only succeed in trivializing them both.

The Seven Basic Plots, for its part, remains archetypal to its last breath. It begins as Overcoming the Monster and ends as a meta-Tragedy: The book crosses over to the dark side of the grumbling fuddy-duddies, while storytelling in all its polymorphic perversities continues skipping, shuffling, and crawling toward the light.

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