On the third page of the Preface, Frank says flat out that “this is a work of theory.” His aim, as put forth on page 3, is to figure out how we can make “sense of illness stories as being told through the diseased body.” With such an upfront description of what was to follow, I don’t know why I was surprised at finding myself frustrated with the material two chapters in.
At its core, Frank’s thesis is simple. He wants to convince the reader that the telling of illness stories is a moral act. He claims medical culture acts to silence the ill, and by finding the language with which to convey a story of illness, the storyteller enters into a moral relationship with the person to whom he or she is telling the story. By telling the story, the storyteller not only organizes his or her thoughts and feelings about a body that has become alien, but he or she acts as a witness to his or her own suffering. This testimony charges the listener to take the story and learn from it. Frank claims that a moral listener will hear of another person’s suffering and become mobilized to help others who are suffering. They can help by doing activist work, by telling their own stories, by helping the sick, or by simply listening to more people.
Obviously, the book was clear enough to leave me with a decent understanding of its contents. Even so, while the theory whore in me enjoyed most of the text, there were several aspects of it that kept tripping me up. One was Frank’s tendency to continually repeat the point he was making. He would make one point, than reiterate it in the following paragraph, and then again in the paragraph after that. Now, I can understand the logic in reiterating a point that was made in an early chapter but does not come into play until a later one. In that case a reader may need to be reminded. But considering that most people would not choose a theory book as pleasure reading, I’d think he would imagine his readers intelligent enough not to require the repeated explaining of a point two sentences after it has already been fully explained to them.
Another was his refusal to define words used throughout the text to describe his theory. For example, the term “postmodern” is used liberally yet, on page 4 he writes, “Illness has come to feel different during the last twenty years, and today the sum of those differences can be labeled postmodern. I make no attempt to define postmodernism; the utility of the term lies only in thick descriptions of the feel of the differences.” What? The problem with this is the word postmodern isn’t used solely to describe the narratives he references in later chapters. It is used to describe aspects of his theory and having no definition of the term makes those descriptions sound esoteric and meaningless.
And then there’s his decision to spend an entire chapter describing terms he uses maybe six or seven times throughout the course of the rest of the text, terms that could have been sufficiently described in a single paragraph!
What I’m getting at with all of this is Frank seems to have a skewed sense of what is important to the text and what is not. You need to provide the reader with definitions of otherwise nebulous terms you plan to use repeatedly. But, the reader is not stupid, so you do not need to over explain those definitions.
That aside, Frank has provided us with a fine theoretical framework within which to tell and listen to illness stories. After finishing this book I found myself applying Frank’s theories to other books and stories I was reading. And, though I’m not sure I whole heartedly agree with Frank that storytelling is a moral act, he gave me more than enough good material to chew on and experiment with. If you can get past all the extraneous content, you will probably enjoy this thoughtful book.