Foster asks the reader to imagine they are reading a story about an average sixteen-year-old boy named Kip during the summer of 1968. The boy rides his bike to the A&P to buy a loaf of Wonderbread; on the way, he encounters his crush, Karen, in the car of his enemy, Tony. At the store, he decides to lie about his age to a Marine recruiter, meaning he will be sent to Vietnam—or, alternatively, he sees a vision of St. Abillard in a balloon. This story is simply a hypothetical invention, but Foster explains that an English professor would read it as a knight going on a quest. Although on the surface the story simply describes an average American boy’s trip to the store, Foster identifies different elements of the story that represent the key components of the quest narrative: a knight (Kip), a princess (Karen), a nemesis (Tony), a Holy Grail (the Wonderbread), and so on.
This hypothetical account of the “quest” to obtain Wonderbread helps to demonstrate the concept of intertextuality. Just because a story might be set in 1960s suburban America does not mean it is disconnected from the medieval stories of knights and the Holy Grail. This comparison in turn suggests that literary genres that might feel far away from our own personal experience could be more relevant than we expect. Although a story might be set in a time and place different from ours, the symbols and figures it employs (such as quests, crushes, and enemies) are often universal.
In order to see how a boy’s trip to the grocery store to buy some bread can fit the archetype of the quest narrative, readers must view the story structurally. A quest narrative doesn’t need to be set in any particular time or place, but it does need to contain five structural elements: 1) a quester 2) a place to go 3) a reason to go there 4) obstacles along the way and 5) the real reason for the quest. The reason to go (3) is different from the real reason for why the quest takes place (5) because the real reason for any quest is to gain self-knowledge.
Although it involves “stepping back” from the story, reading structurally is also a form of deep reading. It means looking beyond the surface facts of the story in order to view the story’s components in an analytical way. Pay particular attention to the end of this passage; the reason why the quest narrative is so enduring is because the journey to gain self-knowledge is universal.
Foster turns to a real example, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), which he claims is the best quest novel of the 20th century. Some people find the book odd due to its “cartoonish” quality, yet Foster argues that many classic quest stories, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Faerie Queen, share this cartoonish side. Foster explains how The Crying of Lot 49—despite its modern elements, including a female protagonist and setting in San Francisco—does indeed have the five structural points necessary to qualify it as a quest story.
Here, Foster provides an example of how deep reading can make literature more enjoyable. He implies that the reason some people object to Pynchon’s “Crying of Lot 49” is because they don’t understand its cartoonish quality. However, if people read widely and develop their ability to pick up on intertextual connections, they will better understand (and enjoy) more works of literature.
The Crying of Lot 49 is not the only contemporary book that fits the archetype of the quest narrative. Other texts, such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Lord of the Rings, and even Star Wars can also be read as quests. Foster finishes the chapter by reminding the reader not to get stuck on figuring out the “right” or “wrong” analysis of a work of literature, as this is not what literary study is about. Words like “always” and “never” do not have concrete meaning within the language of reading. Rules such as those governing the quest narrative are routinely twisted and broken by authors reacting against previous literary conventions.
Although it might seem that Foster is encouraging the reader to follow a very particular path of analysis, in fact he is simply providing a framework—a representative example of what “deep reading” looks like. Indeed, if the reader were to follow Foster’s example too faithfully, this would not constitute good literary analysis, as the important thing about interpretation is that it is unique.