Tuesday, September 22, 2020

why I say that The Golden Compass has "a crudely manipulative plot"

The driving engine of the plot of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass is Lyra's gradual discovery of the facts about her own life and background. Events, as opposed to information, happen in the book, but the pacing and grip of the plot are driven by these revelations.

Most of them occur with Lyra overhearing conversations that she's not supposed to be hearing. Characters discuss Lyra and her background for the purpose of having her overhear them, even though they don't know that she's within earshot. It's enough that Pullman knows she's there, so he can make the characters talk about her.

Why do I say these conversations are being held at the author's direction, rather than as the characters would naturally behave? For several reasons. 1) They're full of "as you know, Bob," the technique beloved of all bad fiction writers whereby characters tell each other things that they both already know, so that the reader can catch up. 2) Although each conversation is supposed to be independent, each rests on the knowledge base established by the previous conversations. For instance, that Lord Asrael is Lyra's father is the deepest of dark secrets until she finds it out, after which it's just assumed background knowledge. 3) The remarkable frequency with which Lyra happens to be perfectly placed to overhear critical conversations.

From the beginning, where she crawls into a cupboard (or something: I forget) at an Oxford college fortuitously positioned to hear the first such conversation, to the end, where she overhears Lord Asrael and Mrs Coulter emoting loudly and as-you-know-Bobbishly at each other, the whole book is built around this.

It's a terrible, terrible way to structure a novel.

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