The Seven Basic Plots
by Christopher Booker
Continuum 728 pp. £25
No book on which someone as clever and diligent as Christopher Booker spends thirty years can be wholly worthless. It can, however, be wrong-headed and disappointing if, as has happened with 'The Seven Basic Plots', his extended reading and deep pondering has not changed him fundamentally. It should not have been possible, as alas! it is, to sit down in advance of reading and make a list of his likely heroes and villains, the writers he thinks of as touching psychic health and those he regards as symptoms of a universal malaise which this book is meant to signal and help cure.
There is, let it be said, something quite arbitrary about his naming of certain plots as the crucial ones that underly all story-telling.. Some of them - the Killing of the Monster - are rather too specific and others - Comedy and Tragedy - so vague even in his definitions as to be almost useless. Most of them end up having sub-divisions - the entire literature of 'conversion narrative', which, let it be remembered, includes most stories of black, gay and women's liberation would have to be crammed into Booker's Rebirth plot, not, of course, that he does any such thing.
There are major works of literature which fall outside his definitions - 'The Tale of Genji' is, it seems to me, a book whose relationship with any of Booker's seven plots is remarkably tenuous. But of course Lady Murasaki was a woman, and not a European. It is remarkably notable that almost every text or film Booker cites is European or North American, and how few women make it into his canon; he sees vast parts of the world as primitive societies citable only for creation myths. Someone who sneers at 'political correctness', as Booker does, might bother first to acquaint himself with the basic intellectual courtesy that he is insulting.
Booker has not contented himself with delineating the seven plots , a book on which, heaven knows, would have been vast and ambitious enough. He goes on to discuss the underlying single theme which unites those plots and then to consider the whole of human history in the light of this theme - story is the means by which the collective unconscious calls us sinners to order, to abandon the selfish pursuit of ego in the name of a greater self which accepts a place in the hierarchy of an organic society, the sort of society in which everyone has a place and some people's place is on top of a bonfire of dangerous books.
Booker's heroes, almost all male, are a mixed lot - Plato, Jung, Solzhenitsyn, JRR Tolkien- but a shared theme is visible almost at once. They are all patriarchs who believe that a single universal truth about human aspirations and needs is possible, and that they are in possession of it, if not necessarily its creator. Every story that Booker admires - from 'Beowulf' to 'The Terminator' - is a theodicy in which the natural order of things is threatened and restored; every story that he dislikes, and usually misrepresents, is one which throws the idea of a natural order into question.
What he dislikes in James Joyce, for example, is Joyce's elevation of the common-place compromises of an ordinary man's middle-aged life to universal significance; Joyce shows us all the dirty little secrets of Bloom's life in order to argue that it is in the richness that goes along with them that we find an inalienable essence of human dignity. Christopher Booker cannot cope with the idea that a day in June in 1904 might be worth as much as all the epics of martial aristocratic society, and smears it with prim distaste for the masturbation scenes that are part of Joyce's unflinching determination to represent everything. Bloom is a representation of a democratic urban ego; for Booker, a murderous ego like that of Achilles or Ulysses is better, closer to being a healthy self, because more noble.
Booker regards much of what has happened in the arts since Beethoven and Schubert as a decline - Romanticism would have been a blind alley had it not led to modernism which was far worse. He does not fail to remind us of the elitism of much modernist thought, a fair point to which he himself, like most of those who make it, is not entitled. Yet you have only to look at his selection of modernists of whom he disapproves to notice a polemical shading which comes close to mendacity - he decries Stravinsky and Schoenberg, for example, but never mentions Bartok, a composer of equally difficult music far harder to claim for selfish elitism.
One of the positive things about Booker, and one of the few areas in which he seems to have changed and grown as work on this book proceeded, is his preparedness to acknowledge the importance and worth of popular culture - his respect for 'The Lord of the Rings' is not purely based on politics he finds congenial, but also on the excellence of the Peter Jackson films.
Yet he has failed to notice, except with vague disapproval, the way that popular arts, and most especially television, have reinvented one of story's purest essences. Booker talks of legend cycles like the Arthurian mythos or Robin Hood, as if their point were to be definitive and as if they had a single author. They are though something else, random accumulations of story elements that become his plots only by accretion.
Some of the most interesting story-telling of our time - that contained in long-running television shows - operates by the same mechanisms. Auteurs like Aaron Sorkin or Joss Whedon have only the vaguest sense of where the arcs of their shows are going - contingent factors like the availability of stars and the pressures of network executives will constantly change things - and yet the seven seasons of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' ended up looking something like a coherent story in spite of its many authors, which include, let us be clear, the fans whose discussion of plot sometimes influenced the show. If collective story-telling is part of humanity, it is rather more of a democratic enterprise than it is solitary geniuses dragging us back to health.
There is one further point to be made. Booker mostly concerns himself with fiction, ignoring the fact that all books and stories are made things, and that his own book is as much a story as anything he discusses. It is a tale of the Fall, in which a culture declines from grace and order and heroes call it back to itself, heroes which include Booker himself. There are many virtues to the democratic spirit and one of them is humility, a humility which sometimes stops intelligent men making asses of themselves in public.