I wrote this review of Freddy and Fredericka on September 30th, 2005 and I am reproducing it here upon request by a senior member.
Because I do not want to simply multiply nodes for the sake of monopolizing the magnetic surfaces of rotating storage media, I feel it is incumbent on me to add some value to this writeup that is pertinent to this current time in my history, which is December 12th, 2006.
My review of Freddy and Fredericka is not unbiased. For reasons I am not soon to codify, I am prone to adore the works of Mark Helprin. I have read several of his books, and two of them are now among the novels which have made me happiest. If Winter's Tale is not a work of inspired genius, then it brings credence to the notion that a physical human being can become the conduit for a deity. In my brief years I have not been a good student of literature despite my trying, and though my personal library is large and full of volumes I have tried to read, I have not before come across pages upon which has been bestowed such grace as those of Winter's Tale, and now the comedic Freddy and Fredericka. People wiser than me might explain to me that Helprin's prose is sewage, his characters two-dimensional, and his plot lines stale. Doctors could tell me that reading Mark Helprin puts me at greater risk to develop incurable cancer or cholesterol-related cardiac problems.
I do not care. The day I finished reading Freddy and Fredericka I knew I was honored to have been able to spend the time with the story, just as I had when I had finished Winter's Tale (the only true difference being that I had no tears in my eyes after F&F, as I did with WT.)
Over one year after I finished F&F I struggle to come up with the name of a book, other than the one I mentioned, I found even equally enjoyable.
Helprin is an odd duck, to say the least. I have read two interviews with him now, and as far as I can tell the path of his logic is either entirely random or multi-dimensional, taking curves that are not perceptible to three-dimensional mortals. He served in the military. He climbed mountains. Wrote for The New Yorker, and was a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal editorial pages.
Let's think about this, politically. On one hand you have: THE NEW YORKER. Then: THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. For non-Americans, we're speaking of a very left-leaning publication, and a very right-leaning publication. And the same guy wrote stories and opinions for both.
Tales are told of him rappelling down the side of the NEW YORKER building from the roof and entering his boss's office through the window. Tales are told of him being shy and retiring, a regular Howard Hughes in his quirkiness, unable to relate to other people.
I couldn't begin to claim I understand Mark Helprin's psyche. I want to say I share some of his traits, but that's wishful thinking. A Soldier of the Great War was marvelous. The Refiner's Fire was a classic tale. But neither of these convey the emotional power of either Winter's Tale or Freddy and Fredericka. Helprin has managed to capture the essence of the fundamental righteousness of humanity in two stories, one a drama, the other a comedy. His characters are magical. Whether or not we approve of their actions, Helprin's characters embody the characteristics the Church would ascribe to saints and angels, and yet they are mortal. If you can suspend disbelief to accept this writing, what you must come to, inevitably, is a visceral, non-verbal understanding of the immortality of the human soul, and how every one of us has the power to represent God on earth.
Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin Originally posted: September 30th, 2005
I turned the last page before bed last night. This morning I have decided this is the best novel I have ever read.
Those of you who have trusted my judgment on literature before have now slotted Mark Helprin's latest into the cubby bearing the peeling dymo label: "dreck". And I really don't care if you do. I can't remember when a book has given me this much enjoyment since his "Winter's Tale". I have read his others and until now "Winter's Tale" was his best. But "Freddy and Fredericka" is magnificent. I'm putting that in capitals so you quote me:
And I don't believe I've said that about any other novel in my life. On a scale of one to ten I give it a 9.7, deducting 0.3 for my perception that it's about 30 pages too long, though even that can be dismissed because they're beautiful pages. Never before have I considered calling in sick in order to stay home and finish a book.
Here is a political farce of the genre of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Here is a love story as tender as Camelot served up by a wandering troupe of middle-aged thespians from Siliphant, Nebraska. Surely the book has been optioned to movie makers by now. (One imagines the young John Cleese and Carol Cleveland in the roles of the Prince and Princess of Wales. It would have to be, had the novel come out 20 years ago. Now a days, who -- Hugh Grant and, I dunno...)
All of the characters in "Freddy and Fredericka" are entirely fictional/farcical, however enough similarities have been sketched in that every one can be identified as a person in the 20th/21st century limelight. Clearly, Freddy is Prince Charles and Fredericka is Princess Diana, but just as clearly they're not. These are the distilled essences of those living humans, packaged in literary flesh and taken to their illogical absurdity.
The premise is that Prince Freddy has proven to be politically troublesome. He's erratic and bumbling and he provides plenty of material for the press on a weekly basis. He launches into presumptuous psychedelic speeches on camera. He trips into vats of tar. He wrestles vagrants for clothing. And yet for all his outward clumsiness he embodies a heart of pure gold which the world, so distracted by his constant flailing, never sees.
Likewise, Fredericka is his trophy wife. She's interested mainly in her wardrobe and maintaining a constant presence on the cover of "She" magazine. She gives dedication speeches at orphanages and hospitals. Her mental prowess is enigmatic. At the dedication of the new Samuel Pepys wing of the London Museum she proclaims in her speech,
"No one is more appreciative than am I of the efforts made by Sir Samuel Peppies, who sacrificed himself for his native Australia, for its women, for its men, and for the twin causes of Acute Reticular Self Esteem Syndrome -- ARSES -- education, Aboriginal art, and Gandhian self-violence and masturbation."
Several paragraphs prior, she had simply and correctly blurted the Cauchy Integral in an off-hand manner.
Given the possibility of the duo leveling the monarchy, the royal family, through a series of Arthurian sci-fi events causes the prince and princess, naked but for their hracneets -- tiny triangles of golden rabbit's fur worn to preserve modesty -- to be parachute-dropped from a Royal Air Force C-130 over Bayonne, New Jersey with the quest of reunifying the colonies with the mother country.
Yeah, as I wrote that I realized it sounds very strange. How can a book be any good that contains scenes of the Prince and Princess of Wales disguising themselves as Jamaicans and becoming art thieves? Driving at 160MPH on a stolen Harley the wrong way down the New Jersey Turnpike toward Philly. Hopping freight trains and serving tables in cheesy diners. Yes. This happens. And it is funny.
And it just never stops being funny. To me, anyway. Sure, there were longish, 50-page passages where Helprin dove back into the brilliant exposition that made me adore "Winter's Tale". And for all the slapstick and stupidity, he never deals his characters an unkind turn. Though, his satire is most biting when dealing with American politicians. He chooses the Republican presidential primary that brought Bob Dole (Dewey Knott) to challenge Bill Clinton (President Self) to bring contrast to the concept that the grail and the king are one.
Dewey Knott is trailing President Self in the polls by 40 points. In frustration, his handlers suggest he change his name to Alice, Betsy, or Frieda to gain the woman's vote. One enterprising young aide suggests he change his name to "George Washington".
Dewey: "You polled?"
Aide: " Yes, sir?"
"How much did it cost us?"
"A hundred and fifty thousand."
"It better be good."
"It is good. It's very good...when asked, 'For whom would you vote if your first consideration were integrity, trust, and honesty. . .the president or George Washington?' ninety-eight percent chose you."
"Chose me, or George Washington?"
"This is assuming you change your name to George Washington."
"Did you tell them I was going to do that?"
"The people you polled."
"No, we had to maintain absolute secrecy..."
And so on for 550 pages.
Helprin is perhaps a controversial figure in his politics. His missives appear regularly on the right-wing editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal even though he seems, in my opinion, to slather his contempt equally on the right and left. In general, he rails against politician’s self-interest and blatant exhibition of dearth of intelligence. And one can presume from "Freddy and Frederica" that the idea of a brilliantly-educated, physically fit monarch whose entire existence is truly dedicated to the service of country is a mightier and holier force than can be summoned by any American showman politician.
He stops just short of suggesting America could use a king to get out from under the likes of the Clintons and the Bushes, but the implication is there. If you could find the man or woman with a heart of gold who was ready to sacrifice himself for the idea that the land and the people are one -- the Gabriel would instantly descend from the heavens and bless the union between the people and their king.
This is a kind book. It is a sweet book.
For a couple days I read "Freddy and Fredericka" as slowly as I could. Laughing at the jokes ten pages at a time. Loving that by the last page I could cry for the idea that in some universe each of us is embed with the same heart, the same ability to know and deliver true love beneath the cacophony of civilization, and that given the right quest, every one of us has ability to use our strength and find the courage to become king.