Freddy's Book is a novel, written by John Gardner of Grendel fame and first published in 1980. It's a weird one.
Gardner wasted a lot of time in the 1970s writing worthless novels about modern life: Mickelsson's Ghosts, October Light, The Sunlight Dialogues, and other nonsense. It was a criminal waste of his time. He didn't know how little of that he had left, I suppose (and neither do you, so quit whining and create something worthwhile).
Freddy's Book is something of a return to form, but it's one of those story-within-a-story things. The Freddy of the title is the neurotic and gigantic son of a reclusive and neurotic history professor, and the book of the title is one that Freddy wrote. The narrator is a visiting academic, and stays at their vast old house on a cold, snowy Wisconsin night. Clichés aplenty! Gardner knew the travelling academic life as well as anybody, I suppose, and he describes it well enough, but his chronic problem in writing about modern times was the fact that he couldn't write normal characters. They're all freaks. Most of them aren't thanophagous half-human beasts, but they're all monstrous and they're all larger than life. Gardner's kind of monsters look idiotic in a faculty lounge and they look idiotic on a farm in Vermont. You just can't buy into it -- but Gardner's monstrosities spring into wondrous life in their natural habitat: Ancient Greece or medieval northern Europe. They sing and they shine. They're truer and more human than any of Gardner's allegedly plausible creations ever were. When it's all fantastical, none of it looks forced.
That's why it's a good thing that Gardner cuts to the chase on page 57. The focus shifts to sixteenth century Sweden and things liven up enormously. The Devil, you see, has decided to intervene in Swedish politics. He's the good old conventional Christian devil, horns and tail and forked tongue, big as life.
For the next hundred and fifty pages, we wade through blood, intrigue, and revolution. The Devil interferes in human affairs at every turn, always working to undo the good, to turn all things ugly and evil. That's his job, after all. We see all of this over the shoulder of a knight named Lars-Goren, a good, brave, and loyal man drawn from his country estate into the national political nightmare by his own loyalty and courage.
Here's the snapper: The Devil is vastly powerful and relentlessly malevolent. The Devil is also an idiot. The Devil is a lot like what lay people think of as "entropy"1: He screws things up. He sows chaos and discord. It's all very destructive, but it's really just kids' stuff compared to really organized and shrewd evil. At the end of the book, Lars-Goren kills the Devil and we enter the modern era, where humanity's innate capacity for clever and relentless evil is left to spin its vast machineries in peace.
It turns out we were better off with the Devil alive and on the job.
There's not one idea here that you can't call facile, if you really want to, but it's not an exercise in logic. It's a novel. A craftsman as fine as Gardner can get away with murder when he works with the grain of his talent rather than against it.
What perplexes me is why the author had to stick the Gothic-Wisconsin-academia mess on the front of it. I get a feeling that he wanted to write for a more mainstream audience, and of course the mainstream audience isn't comfortable with being thrown straight into the unknown: That's why Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote in the trashy, boring disaster novel format of Footfall2 when they wanted to make a quick buck. So he put fifty pages of mundanity on the front, to sweeten the pill. The problem is that by putting the weird and nervy Devil novel at one remove, he kills some of the impact. It's that old cheap "and then he woke up" story-wrecker, dressed up in different clothes. The real novel here, the one that begins and ends in Sweden five hundred years ago, is a killer. Writing a novel where the Devil is a real, literal person -- and not from a mawkish polyester-suit-Christian perspective -- is not a bad stunt to pull these days, and he got away with it. It's a shame he lost his nerve at the last moment.
1 Being one of them, I won't attempt to comment on whether they're wrong.
2 You know what I mean: Dozens of dull characters wade through two hundred boring pages of perfectly ordinary mindless life before the spaceships show up. Borrr-inggg.