It is written in the oldest legends that all are born in prison. This prison is all they know. Literature describes life in it. Religion hints at redemption from it. Having lived here all their lives, humans have ceased to see it as a prison.
So begins Ben Okri's new novel, The Freedom Artist. The same page ends this way: "[Humans'] civilizations became so successful that they forgot they were in prison. They began to think they were free." If you're not feeling a deep, doubting terror yet, you're better at compartmentalization than I am.
The nature of reality has long preoccupied Okri. In a 2011 interview with The National, he said, "We like to think that the world is rational and precise and exactly how we see it, but something erupts in our reality which makes us sense that there's more to the fabric of life." He added that he was "fascinated by the mysterious element that runs through our lives. Everyone is looking out of the world through their emotion and history. Nobody has an absolute reality."
But what happens when a dominant culture, or a powerful hierarchy, makes decisions about what is real and what is not? How long until the consequences of those decisions — impossible to maintain forever — come to bear upon the nature of reality as a whole? I'd argue that we're experiencing those consequences right now, in what some call this post-truth era, where switching between two TV channels can mean switching between two entirely different realities. But The Freedom Artist isn't a simple, direct comment on our present era; instead, it's a questioning book, one that puts its faith not in any particular social justice movements but rather in a collective, existential desire for freedom and a plurality of stories and myths.
The Freedom Artist fits no exact genre: It's about a near and terrible future, where humanity has accepted the Hierarchy — a faceless, undefined entity — that regulates everything and deploys police to arrest anyone who dares question its decisions. At one point, the police force begins to eat people rather than imprison them. Still, it's really not a dystopian novel. The book also acts as a series of fables that interlock and lead to what is a pretty clear moral, but one that has to be deeply felt, and truly believed, because it's not actionable in any immediate way.
Another way to look at it is as a set of richly symbolic and evocative dreams that explore themes of storytelling and what humanity as a whole loses when stories told for the sake of forging connection are replaced with stories spurred by a desire for money, social cache, or power. In other words, it's a complex book to talk about. And yet, it's a deceptively simple read, written in a style that manages to convey certain rhythms of oral storytelling despite being a printed text. (The page just after the dedication pleads quietly that we "Read Slowly.")
More than anything, The Freedom Artist is preoccupied with questions. Remember the prison we started with? For much of the book, characters puzzle over what it is, where it is, who its prisoners are, and how it can be escaped or evaded or transcended. It haunts the book, real and tangible and taking people away but also clearly metaphorical. In one chapter, a girl named Ruslana and her father — one of the last people to maintain a collection of books — have a conversation that is largely an exchange of questions about the nature of reality, the body, and the world. Many of the symbols Okri presents raise more questions than they answer, too, especially the peculiar but delightful appearance of images directly correlating to Tarot's Major Arcana figures in the last third or so of the novel. And throughout, as the society living under the Hierarchy is plagued by fits of nightly wailing, daily weeping, and an increased blood-lust, I found myself asking two deeply upsetting questions: How do we avoid becoming like this? Are we already too late?
The Freedom Artist is an unsettling read — its tone lulled me, as if I were a child reading a fairy tale, into a sense of comfort, only to yank me to attention when it reminded me this wasn't the Disney version, as it were, but the one with all the blood and injustice left in — but it is not hopeless. Hope is everywhere in it, because its very form — storytelling — is a slap in the face to the terror looming over it.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, critic, and founder/host of the podcast The Other Stories. Her debut novel, All My Mother's Lovers, is forthcoming from Dutton in 2020.