I’m having some trouble knowing whether or not to finish Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a 600+ page book of which I’ve read about 90 pages.  So far, it’s been a comforting read, a book with a well-developed story and believable characters that takes you deep into its world. 

 

But even though Franzen has declared his own anti-establishment persona as a writer (wouldn’t go on Oprah for his last novel, The Corrections, because he was troubled by the commercialism; he’s claimed that good fiction is always a “form of social opposition”), I’m having trouble feeling the political relevance in his most recent novel. 

 

A necessary caveat here: Most reviewers claim that Freedom does eventually stage a brilliant critique of modern America. But after just 90 pages, the novel feels indulgent to me. It feels like another extremely well-painted portrait of WASPs who are ego-obsessed but detached from important issues of class in America. In terms of enjoying fiction for its social insight, I’m wondering if I’d rather spend the next month of my life with a novel that gets more directly to important issues in this country: our failed public school system, for instance (I’m loving reading Sapphire’s Push), or about the insults inherent to the immigration debate. Freedom is feeling like a nice bedtime treat because it’s so clearly well-crafted, but it’s also feeling like a fluffy trip through wealthy white life.

 

In this light, I’ve also been thinking about what it means to read a story for the sake of the story alone. I keep reading Franzen in bed each night because he’s such a solid storyteller who builds fleshy characters, and it simply feels delicious to sink into a well-built world. So (if the book doesn’t eventually get to the heart of a more pressing social problem): What’s the value of a story for the pure sake of story?

 

When I was applying for academic jobs in literature, I used to get asked this question a lot, for which I had well-rehearsed answers. That is, universities would expect me to be able to argue why strictly literary skills (as opposed to political insight, or scientific expertise, or otherwise practical skills) were worth teaching.

 

My answers included versions of the following: Developing your ear for a good story—for pure literature—helps develop moral nuance. (After all, a good reader is sensitive to tensions in the plot that hinge on a character’s moral ambivalence, on the character's mixed motives or conflicting obligations to others. You don’t get that realistic study of real-world dilemmas in most other places.) Or: Understanding the complexities behind a character in a novel teaches us nuance in human psychology. Or: Learning about how to use language is learning about effective human communication in general.

 

But all of those answers still convert the literary into another field to make it practical. These evenings—because I’ve felt a guilty pleasure in spending hours simply sinking into a well-written story without a compelling or practical social critique—I’ve been thinking more about storytelling as its own good. 

 

Here perhaps evoke the image of a shaman on a hill. He’s got callused heels from his weary traveling, and he awaits other tired travelers under his oak tree, willing to tell them stories to revive them on their journeys or to comfort them in their sorrows. A story is a slowing-down and stitching-together, a form of healing that works through the pure beauty of story.

 

A story stitches up the world into something we can hear. That is: When raw, experience is unscripted and unorganized—a potentially disorienting onslaught of events. Organizing that oncoming information is taxing. But a story organizes information for us. That’s one reason we feel soothed by bedtime stories: They are like the kiss of a parent who organizes the world, so it feels less chaotic. A story told by someone else provides a chance to rest. It soothes because it offers a world that’s constructed.

 

Reading a story is also soothing because it has rhythm. I’m thinking of other activities with a sustained rhythm that are soothing: listening to music, long walks (feet as metronome), steady rainfall (drops as beats), and massage (hands as steady pulse). To lie down with a book and read is to do something sustained at the pace that you happen to read—however many words a minute. You set the pace of life, for a while, to a counter. That sort of pace-setting doesn’t happen when you look at a painting. But reading is like breathing during meditation: It forces the chaos of the day to take one pace. Now, we digest information at however many clips per minute.

 

Perhaps the metaphors in my mind (the shaman, the meditative pace) are relaxation-oriented because I just read a neat article on massage, which says what you probably intuit. It says that people who get massages do not just get the obvious superficial benefits of looser muscles, but are also deeply changed inside: After a 45-minute Swedish massage, subjects in the study showed significantly lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in their blood and saliva. They also had increased lymphocytes, a key part of the immune system. Subjects who had a lighter form of massage also showed increases in oxytocin, a hormone associated with interpersonal commitment and contentment. In other words, being tended to by careful hands that move you in rhythmic motion is a biologically healing thing.

 

I imagine there might be similar deep-body effects from the soothing completeness and rhythm a good story provides.  Perhaps we could run a study: trace the levels of cortisol and oxytocin in people before and after they’ve been told their bedtime stories. I’m thinking of good stories as our lullaby, the evening music. 

 

All that said, I’m a sucker for the obviously practical—and I’m still not sure if I’m going to keep reading Franzen. I’m open to votes and input.

 

Is anyone else reading Freedom and want to offer insight and advice?

 

 

 

Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.

Comments
by librarysusie on ‎09-24-2010 05:12 PM

I got about halfway through the audio version of this book and quit. After a while it was all just blahblahblah boring. I didn't care about these people , I didn't care where they were going or what their problems were or who was sleeping with who or wanted to. If this is the next great American novel I'll pass.

by Blogger Albert_Rolls on ‎09-24-2010 10:21 PM

I bought McCarthy's C instead of Franzen's Freedom.  I admire Franzen on the sentence/paragraph level and will eventually read Freedom, probably late next year, but McCarthy's experimentalism is more appealing to me. 

 

By the way, good fiction is not always a “form of social opposition." You discussed in one of your previous posts how the stories we tell ourselves determine how we approach the world and how therapists work to get their patients to alter the negative stories by which they live. Literature can be regarded as that which carries or relates the stories through which a culture defines itself--see Benjamin's "The Storyteller" for a discussion of the idea, though numerous other sources can be consulted--and the view that it must perform a form of social opposition assumes the cultural stories are somehow defective, making the writer something of a cultural therapist. I’m sure many would oppose that way of putting it, but in any case, engaging with literature is never done simply for itself: the stories etc. become part of who we are, at least if they are worth remembering. 

by on ‎09-24-2010 10:50 PM

Nah I don't get the popularity. Of course I don't understand why people by into the Ayn Rand thing either.

 

by xamier on ‎09-25-2010 10:50 AM

If you like the book read it, if you don't, don't. Why does a book have to provide social commentary , be popular, or...To be a good book?

 

Death of a salesman, the pearl.... are classics, very good for you etc., but sad and maybe not what you want to read going to sleep.

 

I read for pleasure mostly and I will read what I enjoy no matter what the critics think/say about the books I choose.

by on ‎09-26-2010 03:03 PM

Ilana,

 

I've not read Freedom.  After finishing the tome, Passage, 766 pages of heaviness, I can't hold large books, no matter how they read.

 

I don't have much to say to this....I think most everything has been said. You could run a study of this, no doubt, but would it prove any more than you already know, except to the scientific world?  Would we benefit from this?

 

I love those metaphors of yours - they, in and of themselves, were soothing for me.

 

I think you've answered your own questions.  I think, also, with your intellect, you struggle with the necessities that seem to loom over you, in the professional/academic/artistic world...you do know you live in more than one dimensional world, don't you?....the what should I read, against, what do I want to read.  They're inside of you...and I rather think those arguments will never be satisfied until you relax and accept what feels right at the moment you're reading.  What do you need to read?  I'm reading two books at the moment...one I need to read to soothe the turmoil the other is causing.

 

This is my struggle, and perhaps I'm simply projecting this on to your scenario. 

 

Songs, and lullabies, and stories that soothe; they rhyme and rhythm your beat; or a walk in the park.  Rest your mind, which is certainly active most of the time, I have no doubt.  I feel guilt of my own that struggles with this.  Again, I may be projecting.  I think you should write a book of metaphors.  The Philosophy of Metaphor!  I'll buy it!

 

Kathy

by on ‎09-26-2010 03:43 PM

P.S..  I see the use of the word, value.   What is it we need, or seek, to value in our reading?  We're all so different in our histories.

 

I was interested in metaphor...just a couple of places to read about their application.

 

http://www.hihohiho.com/magazine/features/cafmetaphor.html

 

http://www.rchcweb.com/Portals/0/foundational_metaphors_and_theories_of_rcadmin.pdf

 

 

 

by naomi_l on ‎10-01-2010 01:37 PM

In the course of the last 6 months I have read two books that, to my mind, are 'great' - the first being 'A Short History of Women' and the second 'The Imperfectionists'.  Franzen's new book is not in their league.  True, I expected a lot.  i pre-ordered the booy based on the hype.  And, I'll admit this, because Franzen effectively turned down Oprah's offer to increase the sales of his last book (I have not read The Corrections).  Freedom, the book, disappointed me.  I kept waiting for something 'great' to happen and it didn't.  Point one.  The two main characters were well developed but I had a hard time understanding the more minor ones.  Who the heck is Connie and what motivated her to be such a door mat?  Was she supposed to be in some way challenged?  What drove Joey, after the first blush of puberty passed, to continue his relationship with her, let alone marry her?  What about Connie was remotely interesting?  Point two.  Certain characters either disappeared or came out of nowhere.  Patty's two sisters are discussed at the beginning of the book but either a brother was not mentioned or he was mentioned so fleetingly as to be forgotten.  Then suddenly he appears at the end of the book.  Point three.  What about Patty and Walter's daughter?  Although Joey figures in the plot and is a catalyst, the daughter is mentioned by name only, until the final chapters.  Even then she plays a relatively minor role and her persona is never developed.  Point four.  What motivated a gorgeous 25 year old Asian woman whose brains are rivaled only by her beauty to fall head over heels in love with middle aged, frumpy Walter?  She seems so savvy and edgy in every other way.  Point five.  How could any self-respecting environmentalist, for whatever reason, sanction, let alone promote, strip mining?  It's absolutely absurd.  Would a PETA activist contract wtih the Whale Harpooner Society so as to save tuna?  Hard to believe.  Finally, certainly a decent book.  But no, not great and not the GAN.  I've been looking for a venue to 'vent' about Freedom.  Whhooossshh.  Feels good.

by on ‎10-01-2010 02:35 PM

Ilana,

 

Did you finally finish this book, Freedom?  How do you feel about it, now?  Any further comments? 

 

Naomi,

 

I think, at times, we really do need to vent (or talk) about these books that cause us to question our writers, or the stories they give us; and how we process those stories, are they applicable to ourselves or to society in general?  You bring up a lot of questions.  Maybe one of these discussion boards will have it up for discussion soon, and maybe then you can find your answers there!

 

Happy reading!

Kathy

by Blogger IlanaSimons on ‎10-01-2010 07:11 PM

naomi,

thanks for the vent. 

no--i never finished it...

great article about it by David Brooks here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/21/opinion/21brooks.html?_r=2&hp

by naomi_l on ‎10-06-2010 04:07 AM

kathy and ilana

 

thanks for the input.  but i'm still not convinced.  david brooks' op ed piece is one of a long list of kudos and i'm fully aware of the fact that my disappontment in 'freedom' is not in sync with the rave reviews.  but try this: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/sep/27/freedom-jonathan-franzen-digested-read'

 

all the best,

 

naomi

by on ‎10-06-2010 09:41 AM

Hi Naomi,

 

I didn't see David Brooks' review as a full-on kudo.  Even though I haven't read the book, I've heard other reviews by readers, here on these boards, and there seems to be something lacking, or unfulfilled in this story, as Brooks put it, “brilliantly written book that is nonetheless trapped in an intellectual cul de sac — overly gimlet-eyed about American life and lacking an alternative vision of higher ground."

 

I personally feel, for my own sake (to read a story such as this, to be deemed the GAN), there should be something more, something redeeming.....something we sometimes call hope, for these stereotypical characters.  Otherwise, for lack of a better word, it leaves me depressed.

 

It doesn't mean that this book is badly written, or showing truly a cross section of the unfulfilled American in it's negativity;  it just means that, as a reader, we all seek something different in our reading, call it emotional fulfilling, or intellectually satisfying, or politically challenging.  And if what we are reading doesn't fit those categories, we simply have to back away from it at those times.

 

Our expectations, or preconceived ideas,  can, and do, deem what that GAN should sound like.  Anyway, just a footnote to something I haven't read, and probably won't read.

 

Kathy

by Blogger IlanaSimons on ‎10-06-2010 01:44 PM

Hi Naomi,

I second what Kathy said about Brooks: I put that review link up there because I think he does a great job of bashing the book, not praising it.

by candisita on ‎10-06-2010 07:20 PM

Personally, I cannot wait to read this book.   The fact that Frazen refused to go on Oprah just makes it that much better for me.  Oprah's "effect" on the book world, while good for the bottom line just emphasizes the lemming-like mentality of the majority of our nation's population.  This one is definately on my must read list!

by on ‎10-06-2010 10:24 PM

Lemming-like:  Any of various short-tailed rodents found mostly in northern regions and noted for recurrent mass migrations.  

 

I think there is a pro and con version to Oprah's recommends.....not every read is significant....but, sounds to me, Franzen is simply anti-establishment?  Social?  Who knows....and has attracted more attention by not going with the Oprah show.....but to choose a book,  because he didn't want to be on Oprah, has really no significance as to whether or not I choose a book to read....He's become more like the Pied Piper,  and the lemmiings will follow..... :smileyhappy:

 

I do, sincerely, hope you like this book, candisita.

by naomi_l on ‎10-20-2010 01:41 PM

Kathy and Ilana,

 

Thanks for your comments.  I think my frustration, almost bordering on anger for being 'had' stems from the way the book was hyped.  Perhaps if it hadn't been dubbed the GAN, I'd have taken it less seriously and might have enjoyed it more.  Obviously, not every book suits everyone.  And I agree with Candisita, the fact that Franzen turned down Oprah's offer after The Corrections was published, made him seem a bit more 'high brow' (please don't misunderstand, I think that Oprah's encouraging people to read is a truly great thing).  Thankfully, there are plenty of very good books around and debating their merits is a wonderful and energizing.

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