Sunday, December 27, 2009

Freddy and Fredericka

Freddy & Fredericka is possibly the best book I read all year. Mark Helprin is an incredible writer, who can craft metaphors, turn phrases and paint word pictures in the most natural way, whose themes vary from the sublime and profound to the comic and ridiculous. I can’t wait to read more by him!

This is the story of the Prince and Princess of Wales (and yes, they seem loosely based on Prince Charles and Lady Diana). Freddy is the laughingstock of Britain, who continually makes a fool of himself but never notices when he’s doing it. For example, when Frederica’s dog gets loose, he chases after it, calling the dog’s unfortunate name, “Fa Khew! Fa Khew!” while the paparazzi’s cameras roll. Fredericka is the darling of the press, beloved for her extravagant wardrobe, plunging necklines and charity causes. In one scene, she delivers a speech which Freddy has written purposely to make her look like a fool, and it has the opposite effect. She delivers the nonsense speech so naturally and passionately that no one cares that it’s about a nonexistent cause: Acute Reticular Self Esteem Syndrome--ARSES, for short—“with not even one documented case!”

Freddy can’t become king until a certain mystical, mythical rite is fulfilled, and so a Merlinish figure appears and sends them off by parachute drop, clothed only in undergarments called hracneets, to conquer the rebellious colony, America. (You can see that we have now entered the world of magical realism, a typical Helprin device.) As the couple tours this vast county, working all sorts of odd jobs (including a hilarious stint at what Chicago-area readers will recognize as Medieval Times Dinner Theater and Tournament), they encounter the real Freddy and the real Fredericka—and fall in love, forming a real marriage. They also develop a love for the real America, a bold country, as unlike the refined England as Freddy and Fredericka are unlike each other, and which holds a similar attraction for them.

Throughout the novel, Helprin makes no apology for puns and cheap jokes. Freddy’s mistress is Lady Boylinghotte; the indecisive presidential candidate that he befriends is Dewey Knott. (The sitting president? President August Self.) There is a Viscount Snatt-Ball and an Archbishop Spatoola. One of Freddy’s advisors is surnamed Psnake, and the Prince and Princess are saddled with the unlikely last name of Moofoomooach for their travels across America. They have arguments over such topics as how many bosoms Fredericka has:

A bosom?”

“Yes, a bosom.”

“But Freddy, why do you say that? You know I’ve got two.”

This shut Freddy up like a stun grenade. “Two what?” he finally said.

“Two bosoms.”

“No, you don’t. You’ve got one bosom. One, only one.”

“No, I don’t. I’ve got two,” she said proudly…”One here, and one here.”

…”Sorry, Fredericka, but the fact is, and I know it for sure, and would stake my life on it, that you have only one.”

“The h*ll I do!”

“Yes, you’ve got one bosom, two teats (spelled t-e-a-t-s and pronounced tits), and two breasts. And that’s a fact.”

“Oh! So now I’ve got five!”

“Five what?”

“Five bosoms.”

“No, you’ve got only one.”

As I say, he doesn’t shy away from the low-hanging fruits of humor, and it is dialogue like this--the literary equivalent of slapstick—that makes this novel outrageously funny. Yet, with a turn of the page, you can revel in such beautiful images as these:

“All my life I have taken care of falcons, and I will tell you this. The closer to heaven they rise, the happier they get. They understand that when they go very high something changes in the world and in them….”

Having a great deal of jewellery, perhaps more than anyone in the world, Philippa [the Queen Mother] was aware that lucidity and transcendence must be set in a foil that is opaque.

Were there a choir of everyone who has ever lived, its voice would hardly be as complex as that of the surf, which in its trillion-trillion-fold mass encompasses all frequencies, variations and choreographies of water and foam. …When the first wave broke upon the first startled strand, it began the never-ending song of the world.

Although I just finished this book, and many others await me, I have every intention of reading it again, soon. It’s so rich in gems of humor and brilliance—I feel I only began to mine it on a first reading!


Booksnyc said...

This book has been on my shelf FOREVER! I read a great review of it when it first came out but somehow it has languished on the shelves.

Thanks for the review - I am definitely going to move it up in rotation now!

The Pariah of Portland said...

I am so glad you have read this! It took me forever to get into---but really. No one understands LOVE quite like Mark Helprin.