Narrative Structures and the Language of the Self by Matthew Clark offers a new way of thinking about the interrelation of character and plot. Clark investigates the characters brought together in a narrative, considering them not as random collections but as structured sets that correspond to various manifestations of the self. The shape and structure of these sets can be thought of as narrative geometry, and various geometries imply various theories of the self.
Part One, “Philosophical Fables of the Self,” examines narratives such as The Talented Mr. Ripley, A Farewell to Arms, A Separate Peace, and The Master of Ballantrae in order to show successively more complex versions of the self as modeled by Descartes, Hegel, Freud, and Mead. Part Two, “The Case of the Subject,” uses Case Grammar to extend the discussion to additional roles of the self in narratives such as The Waves, The Great Gatsby, Fifth Business, and Howards End as examples of the self as experiencer, the self as observer, the instrumental self, and the locative self.
The audiobook ends with an extended analysis of the subject in Hartley’s The Go-Between. Throughout, the discussion is concerned with practical analysis of specific narratives and with the development of an understanding of the self that moves beyond the simple dichotomy of the self and the other, the subject and the object.
It is encouraging to see audible offering academic texts on fascinating topics, but this selection has serious shortcomings both in terms of its substance and implementation. The author is exploring how models of selfhood appear in literature, but after a brief introduction the book is mostly a discussion of the plot and themes of various works of fiction, in which the author slots them into various categories of types of treatments of the self (Hegelian, Aristophanic, dyadic,) and while these books seem sensibly organized, the larger implications of the presence of these patterns of selfhood is inadequately considered. The book is thin in terms of cultural theory, historical context, cognitive science . . . any larger framing, really. The author fails to answer the crucial question of “so what?”
Another problem with this selection is that it is incompetently read, with many distracting, ridiculous mispronunciations of commonplace intellectual words that draw the listener out of the argument. This book requires that the reader be able to speak French and German, neither of which he can. The French passages, for instance, are read in an effete, comically high-pitched caricature of how a provincial American might imagine French people talk. Hiring an academic adviser to coach readers on pronunciations of big words, and using readers who can competently speak in the requisite foreign languages, could improve the quality of books like this.
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