Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Opposite of a Lobotomy

Freddy and Fredericka, by Mark Halprin, Read by Robert Ian Mackenzie, Recorded Books, LLC, 2005

The audio edition of Mark Helprin’s latest novel, the comic bonanza, Freddy and Fredericka, includes an interview with the author conducted by the reader of the novel, Robert Ian Mackenzie, a remarkable voice I haven’t heard before. Helprin was funny, interesting, and surprisingly willing to admit to his speech writing involvement in one of the more spectacular flare out presidential campaigns of my lifetime, the doomed candidacy of crazy grampa Bob Dole.

To read the novel, you will pick up on this element, as Helprin’s protagonist, Freddy, Prince of Wales becomes a speech writer for doomed presidential candidate, Dewey Knott, a daft, near-idiot Senator who, like Dole, resigns his seat in order to focus on his campaign. The implied similarities between Knott, who Helprin alternatingly displays as buffoon and The Only Decent Man in Washington, and Dole leads the knowledgable reader to ask what similarities Helprin sees between himself and his fictional Prince of Wales.

Of course, following this train of thought is ultimately useless (save to the more grating and annoying type of author-celebrity hound school of literary criticism), but it does tickle the mental fancies of the monkey brain that wishes to peek under famous people’s skirts. Including the author interview only seeks rather to bring that more to the fore.

What can be said definitively about the book is that it is funny. Absurdly, hysterically, consistently, movingly funny. My interest had been piqued by various reviews I’d read that suggested that Helprin isn’t really all that funny, or that at least this novel went on far too long to actually be funny, which is a bizarre criticism no matter how you slice it. Episodic picaresques tend to be rather lengthy works, but are funny in each episode nevertheless. What idiot would say Don Quixote isn’t funny just because it’s long?

At any rate, humor novels are often difficult to review in an interesting way, simply because the critic wishes to convey how funny something is, but merely me repeating “it’s funny, it’s really, really funny” isn’t likely to get that across well. The other alternative is lengthy excerpts, the lazy writer’s method, in which I let the funny man Helprin do all the heavy lifting.

The set up of the plot is that Britain is beset by a Prince of Wales who repeatedly proves himself clueless, caddish, and prone to the kind of complicated accidents no manner of explanation can ever hope to capture. He is married to a busty bimbo of a beauty who’s, surprisingly at times, more savant than idiot. As the Prince is a bookish fellow, for all his flaws, he married Fredericka in a burst of passion and has since grown bored with her, and growing bored, he has since grown to loathe her.

When Fredericka instead of Freddy is asked to deliver a speech on British icon Samuel Pepys he has his revenge on her by helping pen the contents of her speech. It is delivered as so:

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. One might have expected Sir Samuel as a person to have been deeply concerned with ARSES, but it is all the more remarkable that he, a disciple of Gandhi, rejected the path of self-violence and chose selflessly to inflict violence upon others in his famous armed raid upon the Australian Parliament. And it is only the more remarkable to us, the priviledged and safe, that he was concerned to spread the message among his own people, the Aborigines of Northern Australia, where ARSES do not even exist.
Not even one documented case! And yet, Sir Samuel carried his message undaunted to each woman and man across the face of Australia. Plagued by birth by an aversion to land travel, Sir Samuel devised an ingenious method of bringing to each Aboriginal woman and man the essential message. In the blimp Compassion he floated over the Outback and—like some great princess dazzling the people—would frequently surprise Aboriginal women and men by appearing over their campfires.
What tragedy that Compassion was directly in the path of the piece of flaming Jovian moon that hit the Earth last summer and destroyed the town of Alice Springs. Never again will Sir Samuel be able to work compassionately, as I have, for ARSES education. Never again will he work compassionately, as I have, for Aboriginal art. Never again, to paraphrase the words of Joseph Biden (who?) have so many owed so little to so few.

After a number of public scenes such as the one attending the above speech, and the unfortunate incident while playing tennis, involving Freddy getting locked out of the Castle, falling into fresh road tarring, removing all his clothes, trying to buy clothing off a bum, then approaching the guarded gate wearing only a cardboard box over his head, the tabloids begin questioning royal sanity and the line of succession.

The deal is sealed when Freddy is caught on video chasing Fredericka's dog, Fah Kew who only will return for a piece of cheese that he eats off the Prince’s face. The film of the heir to the throne screaming “Fah Kew, cheese.” in front of wedding party, lying down in front of them, and putting a mound of gorgonzola on his face, only cements his reputation for being totally and completely bonkers.

Summoned to Balmoral, the Queen’s summer palace in Scotland, Freddy and Fredericka are dispatched by the anagramatic Mr Neil on a highly unlikely mission, nominally to reconquer America, the Prince and Princess are in fact sent off to discover the kingly and queenly natures buried deep down inside them.

What follows is one adventure after another, including a bayonet battle with a pseudo-neo-Nazi motorcycle biker/attorney, being outfitted by Rastafarians in the gaudiest of pimp wear to hide from the police, riding from Jersey to Delaware in a hotdog vending car, later riding the rails through the midwest. Upon falling in love with America and its people, Freddy and Fredericka decide to study dentistry which is how they become entangled with Dewey Knott’s campaign. The whole political angle, while amusing, is perhaps the book’s weakest point.

Helprin might have been ideally placed to observe and then later comment on the high camp absurdity of a political campaign, but instead he spins his wheels in a lot of cross talk scenes punning on “Dewey Knott” and “Do we not?” and other such light jests. He later confesses in the interview epilogue to the audiobook that he is a devoted fan of cross talk comedies, only he seems to have missed a salient point about them. They work ever so much better on stage or screen than in the printed word. Even when read, and thus in a sense performed, this audiobook fails to make the various puns and misunderstandings as devilishly funny as they’d have played out in a Pat & Mike show of the kind constantly being referenced in Wodehouse books.

Through the course of their travels, though, not to give too much away, Freddy falls back in love with Fredericka and ultimately so too do we as readers. She is daffy in a charming way, a kind of big-titted British Gracie Allen. Scenes where she delivers up the soul of England in vernacular musings such as this one:

Is it better in your opinion to suffer outrageously, or to stand up to all one’s troubles and just end it? I mean, what if dying were like sleep, and just by going to sleep you could end all the thousands of pains and heartaches you would otherwise feel? It seems attractive. Maybe dying is like sleep, and maybe you dream.

And so on, are charming in their gentle comedy and when Freddy muses that because “he was weak on Cymbeline and had never read The Rape of Lucrece or Love’s Labour’s Won, he feared that he might be missing a great deal when she spoke,” the two of them come into perfect harmony for themselves and for us.

Anglophiles and non-philes will find something here for their enjoyment, as Helprin weaves a tale at once both magical and sometimes quite childishly amusing. The book is meaty, over 500 pages, but it makes a fine winter’s read, the pleasant sun of enjoyment shining on England (and America’s) green and pleasant lands.

Mackenzie acquits himself beautifully, being asked to deliver High British, Scottish, American Midwest, American East Coast, and Black American Vernacular, yet managing all with an effortless seeming aplomb. It almost makes you sick it’s so amazingly articulated. As an interviewer at the end, he is deferential to the author and allows him to spin yarns, the most fascinating being Helprin’s childhood with his father, a producer of one of my favorite movies, The Third Man, the filming of which turned out to be both art and a spy mission as well. It’s the kind of revelatory tidbit that is forever popping up in Helprin’s novel too.


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