But it got me thinking. The heroic journey, a sort of narrative manifestation of the psychological journey we all undertake to become adults, has been an obsession of mine since I first read Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces in graduate school. We simply assume, reading novels, that our characters will undertake some journey; even if they remain rooted in place, the changes they undertake internally will fill the role quests played in medieval myth.
Though Campbell didn’t craft a writers’ guide, many writers have used his book thus. George Lucas famously wrote the original Star Wars with two books on his desk: a dictionary and Campbell. Although Campbell only intended to describe patterns he and others identified in comparative religion and world folklore, subsequent readers have found his description sufficiently insightful that they’ve consciously mimicked what past storytellers did unconsciously.
In his introduction, Campbell quotes several case studies in psychological literature of people who, for whatever reason, failed to become adults. They retained childhood identities, repeated patterns they established in high school, never transcended the family dynamic they began with. Symbolic dreams of oedipal inclinations, wounds that replicate Christ or the Fisher King, and other Jungian forms abound. Campbells point is, adulthood remains astonishingly rare.
Maybe I missed Jennifer Handford’s point. Maybe her book isn’t about a character who fails to grow up. Maybe her book is about the protracted adolescence that defines modernity. French philosopher Alain Badiou recently wrote that permanent adolescence has become modernity’s default setting, especially for men: “The adult becomes someone who’s a little better able than the young person to afford to buy big toys.”
That’s Handford’s story. Missy affords a big house, lavish dinners, a nice car. She has her own office with elaborate IT setup and her own receptionist. She inherits her father’s status as Richmond’s leading voice in financial planning for the extremely well-heeled. Yet somehow, she never does anything; resplendent gold-plated inaction defines her life. She spends hundreds of pages failing to start… as, arguably, do we.
Because that’s life today, isn’t it? College or trade school provides a chute to transition us from dependence on parents, to dependence on employers. The rise of automation means fewer low-skilled jobs even exist, while technology races ahead so fast that high-skilled workers need constant retraining. An IT specialist I know tells me, if he doesn’t have regular continuing education, his skills become obsolete and unmarketable in just eighteen months.
Several years ago, I critiqued Harry Potter for having his journey largely internally. Harry goes to school, and enemies and monsters assail him there; his journey doesn’t involve actually going anywhere. Even in book seven, when he finally does journey, or more accurately meander, his path returns him to school, where he confronts the bugbears of adolescence, avenges his parents, and apparently, marries his high school sweetheart.
This doesn’t excuse Handford’s writing style. As her protagonist narrates hundreds of pages of waffle, I struggled to care. She tells a story of somebody who sabotages herself, then seeks our sympathy for it. But setting aside Handford’s book as artifact, maybe she understands something us willful myth-makers keep missing: that life today isn’t about the journey. Somebody else needs to finish the thought, but Handford’s gotten it started.