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Mark Helprin's Freddy and Fredericka: A quest for America Add to ...

Freddy and Fredericka

By Mark Helprin

Penguin Press , 553 pages, $39

The best satirists teach us that to hate well, we must also love well. Otherwise, what results is, at best, occasionally amusing, at worst, as shallow and as superfluous as its intended targets. The most vociferous misanthrope -- Swift, for instance -- rages out of a deep, bitter disappointment not at what human beings are, but at what they could be if only they weren't quite so ignorant, lazy and selfish. To paraphrase another great Anglo-Irish cynic, Johnny Rotten: They mean it, man.

U.S. writer Mark Helprin's latest novel, Freddy and Fredericka, is as searing in its denunciation of contemporary life as anything in recent fiction, possessing a greater satirical breadth than anything written by Evelyn Waugh, and as relentlessly probing as Don DeLillo at his most acutely paranoiac. It's also a richly sympathetic work -- remarkable, considering its two central protagonists, the Freddy and Fredericka of the title, are modelled on Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana -- and, concurrent with its fierce satirical bite, deeply and truly heartening. It's a long book made longer by Helprin's always abundantly rewarding prose, but every one of its nearly 600 pages is necessary.

Freddy and Fredericka's busy plot is commensurate with its considerable thematic scope and endlessly energetic style. Freddy is the Prince of Wales and Fredericka his wife. He is an overeducated, underutilized, accident-prone prisoner of his royal fate; she's an equally pathetic, remarkably superficial narcissist (even for a narcissist) and simple-minded über-consumer who only succeeds in charming the media where Freddy fails because she and her impressive cleavage make for wonderful photo ops and she is seemingly as spiritually vacuous as they are.

As a result of a succession of hilariously embarrassing public-relations disasters, the pair is sent, via a secret royal tradition, on a sort of regal vision quest in order to prove themselves worthy of eventual ascension to the throne. There is also, they learn, to be a more practical result of their reluctant exile: the recolonization of the United States of America.

Because successful satire thrives upon exposing the frequently absurd underside of seemingly rational everyday life, it is itself frequently absurd: How else can one reflect the ridiculous except ridiculously? (Which is why, incidentally, so much overly solemn, supposedly serious fiction is so often so flat and boring; life, even at its mundane worst, is anything but quiet and sober.) Appropriately, then, as Freddy and Fredericka embark upon their ordained journey as instructed -- "Except for leather flight caps, aviator goggles, and hracneets [which seem to be a kind of unisex underwear] they would be naked when tossed from the airplane into New Jersey" -- Helprin's capacity to make his readers laugh is equal to his skill at making them see what a mess human beings have made of contemporary existence.

In the finest picaresque form, Freddy and Fredericka's full-speed collision with the United States allows Helprin the moralist plenty of opportunities to poke fun at whatever he feels compelled to poke. There's modern art ("No, he's an artist," one of their first employers, an enterprising thief looking to recruit the pair, explains. "He puts dirt in rooms, screams a word for ten hours, chops off his foot, and eats government documents"). There's celebrity culture (" 'What do we want?' the chief [of a New Jersey motorcycle gang]asked. 'Hey, we want to party. We want to ride our hogs. We want to kill some Pagans or Angels. We want to kill someone famous. Stuff like that. That's how you get on television' "). There's moral relativism ("Repeatedly criticized for [mocking New Guinea headhunters, Freddy]would say, 'I'm sorry, but I have always and will always believe that hunting and killing people for food and displaying their shrunken heads as trophies is inferior to, let us say, garden parties or book discussions' "). There's American political vapidity ("They were so desperate to get the votes of women that a faction arose that wanted Dewey Knott to change his name to Alice. 'Why would I do that,' [Knott]asked, rather disturbed. 'To get the women's vote, sir. You know how much we're behind. Our polling shows that if you changed your name to Alice, Frieda, or Betty, you'd get back between four and five per cent of the women's vote. That could put us over the top.' 'What about Cleopatra?' another aide asked. 'Cleopatra?' 'Cleopatra Knott.' 'Cleopatra Knott. Gee, I don't know. I'll have to think it over. What would be the effect on the men's vote if I had a girl's name?' 'We haven't studied that aspect of the question' "). And, delightfully, so on.

To merely mock, however -- no matter how necessary and prescient the mocking -- indicates a partially developed sensibility. In the course of following Freddy and Fredericka's U.S. nation quest and their simultaneous, hard-won evolution as individuals, Helprin reminds us of all the undeniable goodness and beauty that this polluted, morally bankrupt, intellectually fraudulent world can offer, if only we allow it to show us. It might be physical (forced to take a job as a washroom janitor, the initially appalled Fredericka discovers that "a certain music arose, a beat, a rhythm. She heard it in her breathing and in the blood as it pounded through her, and this she channelled into how she moved. . . . When she would burst from a stall and slam the door, headed for the next, she was like a gladiator coming into the arena"). Or it could be mental ("There were many ways of living lively, and one of them, [Freddy]discovered, was to live with a perpetual sense of combat -- combat against his own limitations and heredity, combat against the prevailing wisdom when it was wrong, combat against the drift and degradation of civilization. He wanted to win, of course, but this was not his object. The object was to fight on. In fighting, and in risk, was purification"). Either way, however, Helprin possesses the ability that all good writers have: to compel his or her readers to feel more alive.

Freddy and Fredericka is a work of great seriousness, hilarity and simple aesthetic enjoyment. Unselfconsciously utilizing long-standing, frequently reviled literary and intellectual modes and models (Swift, Twain and Fielding come most easily to mind), Mark Helprin's central achievements in creating Freddy and Fredericka's singular world are as perennial as they are contemporary, showing us how we live and instructing us how to live better. He's accomplished both feats admirably.

Contributing reviewer Ray Robertson's most recent novel is Gently Down the Stream.

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