Magic Flute Without the Music
[Note: The following is a review I did for a periodical — neither National Reviewnor The New Criterion — which they chose not to publish. The fault was mine. Normal drill in book reviewing is to read the book and figure out whether your review will be positive or negative. If negative, you had better call the editor and tell him. A lot of publications just won't print a negative review, unless by someone unassailably famous. You had better find out whether this is so in your particular case, with that particular book, for this particular editor, before you spend — possibly waste — time putting your thoughts on paper. As a book reviewer of 20+ years' standing, I know all this perfectly well, but Homer nods, and so do Homer's reviewers, and somehow I forgot these basic principles. I hate to waste copy, though, and don't have nearly enough fiction reviewing on my website, so here's the review.]
Freddy and Fredericka
by Mark Helprin
The Penguin Press; 556 pp. $27.95
King George VI of England reigned from 1936 to his death in 1952. He was succeeded by his daughter Elizabeth, the present Queen. Mark Helprin's new novel puts us in a alternative universe where George died in 1945, apparently without issue, the throne passing to a younger brother Harry. (Who seems not to have been Henry, Duke of Gloucester, George's actual younger brother, a dull clod without the imagination to be as eccentric as Helprin's Harry, and who — see next sentence — had no daughters.) Harry soon died, his daughter Philippa became Queen, and Philippa begat Frederick, who at the time of the story, which is more or less the present day, is a middle-aged Prince of Wales. There are some slight adjustments further back in time: In anglicizing their too-Germanic name during WW1, for example, the royals chose not "Windsor," but "Finney." The world of Freddy and Fredericka is thus a slightly-fantasized version of our everyday world, reality seen in a distorting mirror, and colored somewhat with magic and fantasy.
A middle-aged Prince of Wales must of course have a Princess. See if you can guess who the model is here.
Fredericka, though statuesque and golden, was narcissistic in the extreme, astoundingly superficial, and totally uncaring. That is to say that although she was known throughout the world for emoting about endangered pandas, the wives of African political prisoners, people with various diseases, and whales, she actually cared very little about anything. This they had discovered by her behavious and in conversation …All Fredericka cared about, really, was being adored.
The activities of these fictional Waleses naturally provide fodder for the lower kind of newspapers. Freddy in particular, though intelligent, courageous, and dutiful, is somewhat accident prone, forever getting into ludicrous scrapes that make him appear a buffoon, or a lunatic. One of Britain's press barons, a patriot of strong monarchical sympathies, decides to use these incidents to force the royal family into a sort of ultimate character-building exercise. Thus pressured, Queen Philippa and her gruff consort Paul, Duke of Belfast, summon up a mysterious figure named Mr. Neil (it's an anagram), who seems to know everything about the royals and their ancestors back through deep antiquity. On Mr. Neil's orders, Freddy and Fredericka embark on a grand quest to reconquer the lost American colonies for the Crown.
The quest becomes a picaresque journey through today's America, with many observations on our country's manners and morals. These are of a sort that will appeal to conservatives. Enlisted with other destitutes in a Salvation Army work program, for instance, Freddy challenges the team leader's pep talk about self-esteem and motivation:
"How misleading," said Freddy, addressing his peers. "All you need to do is refrain from smoking, drinking, and the use of drugs. Eat only wholesome, low-fat foods … Seek work. Work hard. Show up on time. Do more than is expected… Don't complain. Shave, bathe, and wear clean clothes. Be cheerful …You don't have to be a king to do these things," he told them, despairing at their passivity. "Most people live like that."
It is nice to learn that we have one novelist, at least, who knows what makes the world go round. The book in fact contains an argument about the nature of American society, citizenship, and politics, and gives a good account of how foreigners fall in love with this country. Helprin is a romantic, though, so that these themes are in constant danger of toppling over into sentimentalism. They do in fact so topple towards the end of the book, most resoundingly in a speech Freddy has written for a dimwitted Midwestern Senator named Dewey Knott, who is running for President, and has taken on the Prince as a speechwriter.
Freddy's newly acquired understanding of this country, and his awakened idealism, cuts through the cynicism and squalor of the modern campaigning mentality, as in this exchange with Dewey Knott's main strategist.
"The American people," Dacheekan said, "are interested only in little things, not big things. They want to be fat. They want to be happy. That's all they care about, all they know. That's the reality."
"I have been with the people of this country from the Hudson to the Pacific," Freddy said, "and I know that you're wrong. It's people like you … who crank the machinery that dulls their lives, who cater to the worst among them. They are a spiritual people. They want love and greatness."
Having thus come to an understanding of America's people, Freddy is able to speak to them in a way that they respond to. He has, in fact, conquered them, and so completed his quest, after passing through many trials and misfortunes. What we have here is a sort of Magic Flute without the music.
Therein lies the problem. Without the music, The Magic Flute is not worth anyone's time or attention. The story is too silly in its details, however serious its overall purpose. The story of Freddy and Fredericka is likewise silly, likewise to a serious purpose. Helprin wants to tell us things about America, about the broadening and deepening of the human spirit through adversity, about honor. Does he supply the music, though?
Well, if he does, it is in some register inaccessible to my ears. It is not that the writing in this novel is bad in any of the familiar ways. There is a coherent plot, and little self-conscious literariness. There are few purple passages, and those few are mercifully brief. At least one of them, a thumbnail description of Chicago in winter, actually works quite well. What is really wrong here is that the satire is too broad, the humor too lame, the underlying conceit too flimsy to bear the weight the author has put on it, and the whole thing much too long.
Consider the humor, to begin with. Fredericka has a dog. The dog is named Pha Kew, after the Princess's nutrition counselor, a Chinese person who died of, uh, malnutrition. The dog escapes from Freddy's country house. The Prince goes inquiring for it in a nearby village. "Excuse me … I wonder if you've seen my dog, Pha-kew." You get the idea. Well this is lame enough; but as if willfully reinforcing its lameness, the author prefaces it with a story about the Princess's previous dog, Taxi. Freddy had gone through the village calling "Taxi! Taxi!" to the confusion of the local taxi drivers. It is hard to forgive the author's telling the same joke twice, when it was hardly worth telling once. (And that country house, by the way, is named Moocock. We get two full pages of unfunny banter about that.)
It is the same with the sub-vaudevillean exchanges based on mis-heard names, a type of comedy routine the author is much too fond of. An associate of one of those British press barons boasts of having scandalous photographs of the Waleses, "taken by a former royal servant who shall remain nameless."
"And quite rich. She/he took them …"
"Wait a minute," interrupted Jerry Didgeridoo, "You said he'd remain nameless."
"Yes. She/he will."
"Well, if his name is Sheehy," Didgeridoo the younger said triumphantly, "he's not nameless, is he?"
"Her/his name is not Sheehy."
"Who's Herhiz, an Iranian?"
Dewey Knott offers the opportunity for more of this:
"Sorry," Freddy said. "If we are to treat the patient, presumptive nominee or not …"
"I am," said Dewey. "I'm Knott."
"Are you, or are you not?" Freddy asked.
"So you aren't."
Etc., etc. This is low-grade stuff, and the names of these characters were obviously thought up with opportunites for word play in mind. (I found myself unwittingly recalling those dire British Carry On … movie comedies of the 1960s. In one of them, set in the Roman Empire, a British slave girl has the name Gloria, solely in order that, while being shipped across the English Channel, she can be sick in transit.) Even names not obviously crafted to fit into these who's-on-first duels have a quality of straining for effects the author cannot quite reach. Freddy's premarital paramour, for instance, is one Phoebe Boylingehotte. The President of the United States is named August Self. Senator Knott has an uncle named Arwe Knott … And so on. The spirit of Lewis Carroll pops up here and there, too, though looking like an unwilling conscript: "You can end a sentence with a barst, a frid, a sylapse, a dipont, or a teetingle …"
The book's main problem is its length, though. I write with some feeling here, having myself recently finished the manuscript of a book (nonfiction, commissioned), and shipped it off to my editor. A month later he shipped it back, saying that he and his readers liked the book very much, but that at 125,000 words, it was too long. The market for books of this kind would not, he told me, accept more than 100,000 words. Would I be so good as to reduce my manuscript by twenty percent? I locked myself in my study for a week and did so — emerging at last round-shouldered and red-eyed, but with a book that is, I gladly admit, much improved for being shorter. Are these disciplines unknown in the world of fiction writing? Apparently so.
This matter of over-abundance had me reaching for my Myers. The July/August 2001 issue of The Atlantic Monthly carried an article by a New Mexico philologist named B.R. Myers. The article, "A Reader's Manifesto," was later expanded into a book of the same title, with subtitle: "An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose." When it first appeared in The Atlantic, Myers's article created a minor tempest in literary circles, American critics mostly denouncing it as philistine, foreigners being more inclined to remark that they had always known that there was something badly wrong with modern American fiction, and that Myers had nailed it. Well, the book version of Myers's manifesto contains an appendix offering spoof advice, in the format: "Ten Rules for 'Serious' Writers." Rule II begins as follows.
Sprawl. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but contemporary reviewers regard a short book as "a slender achievement." So when in doubt, leave it in …
Mark Helprin has certainly taken this precept to heart. Perhaps I should send him the phone number of my editor at Joseph Henry Press?
I am sorry that I did not much like Freddy and Fredericka. I have for some years been enjoying Mark Helprin's fine thought-provoking opinion journalism, in the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and of course the Claremont Review of Books. Nor was this the first of his novels that I have picked up, although it is the first I have read all the way through. I started A Soldier of the Great War some years ago, before I knew anything about the author, in the expectation that it was a WW1 memoir along the lines of Siegfried Sassoon or Cecil Lewis, this being a genre I am mildly addicted to. When, after fifty pages or so, I apprehended that it was some different kind of book, I set it aside and never resumed reading it.
Then, two or three years later, a friend of mine, a witty and eloquent speaker and writer, with a deep and romantic love of New York City, rhapsodized to me about Helprin's earlier novel Winter's Tale. This was, said my friend, one of the great novels of our age. I gave it a try; but when the magic realism kicked in, which it did (as I recall) very soon, I dropped the thing. Having spent most of my adolescence reading science fiction, I am a snob about magic realism, in the spirit of a combat veteran sneering at paintball games. When time travel shows up in a book by H.G. Wells or Robert Silverberg, you think it is something that might actually happen. When a "mainstream novelist" tries it out, it's just a metaphor for something, or a vehicle hijacked to carry some literary effect, or a lazy way to make some dreary metaphysical point. I don't like magic realism. What I seek in fiction is real realism — however fantastic!
I guess Helprin's fiction is not for me; but it is for several people I know well, and whose tastes I otherwise admire. If you have enjoyed Halprin's previous books, or would like to accompany him on a whimsical romp through the modern U.S.A., by all means give Freddy and Fredericka a try.