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.