As Prince and Princess of Wales, Freddy and Fredericka are a constant embarrassment to his mother, the Queen, and to the nation. Obviously based on Charles and Diana, the two create tabloid fodder wherever they go. Unfaithful Freddy does not love his wife, who cares only about fashion, shopping and her appearance. His own appearance is ludicrous enough, but his misadventures and bumbling make it worse. His words are taken out of context by a mocking press, and he is made to appear ridiculous in the eyes of his nation and the world, while Fredericka is universally praised and beloved no matter what she does, even when she gives a flagrantly inaccurate speech concocted for her by Freddy. Eventually their misadventures become so egregious that they are sent on a secret mission to the U.S., parachuting into an industrial wasteland in New Jersey with no possessions and clad only in furry bikinis.
Yes, that's the level of silliness. I've long enjoyed Helprin's books, but this comic novel is quite a departure. In the mode of Tristram Shandy or Don Quixote, the book makes no pretense at realism. It employs the classic quest story structure, well-known to us from King Arthur and from fairy tales where the son who is considered a bit of a doofus goes into the woods or climbs a beanstalk and manages to rescue the princess or kill the giant. Coincidences abound and events converge to drive the story. The structure has also been described as the hero's journey, as Helprin points out in the interview at the end of the book on my Recorded Books copy. Famously put forward by Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey drives stories like The Odyssey and The Inferno. After all, as has been repeated so often that I've been unable to find who first pointed it out (though John Gardner's name is mentioned most often): there are only two kinds of stories: “Someone goes on a journey” and “A stranger comes to town.” As Scott Myers notes, both are contained in the hero's journey since usually it is a stranger coming to town who calls the hero into action (the journey).
I have long said that I have reservations about novels that include real people as characters or even characters created by other writers. Legal questions of copyright and libel aside, since copyrights expire and people in the public eye or deceased are considered fair game, the writer is presenting his or her version of that person. Obviously it is unethical, except in the case of satire, to deliberately show a version that the writer knows is untrue, e.g., that distorts the facts to whitewash or condemn the subject. But I question even well-meaning attempts. The image of the person or character becomes lodged in our minds and part of what we “know” about him or her. Having read Laurie R. King's and Michael Chabon's versions of Sherlock Holmes, I can no longer read the original stories the same way, yet both King and Chabon are excellent writers who I believe genuinely try to honor Arthur Conan Doyle's creation.
Several of the essays in The Offensive Internet mention the belief that some proponents of zero-privacy hold, that today's exposure prevents people from presenting themselves as someone other than who they are and this is a good thing because it keeps us honest. Without getting into the huge body of work on the identities people construct consciously or unconsciously to show to others, I will just say that I do not think it necessarily dishonest to show different facets of ourselves in different contexts, any more than it is dishonest to wear business attire to a meeting at work instead of a bathing suit, unless you’re a lifeguard of course.
What I do believe is that it is our responsibility as writers to consider what “truth” we are lodging our readers' minds. Helprin's obvious admiration for Freddy and disdain for Fredericka (“less intelligent than garden mulch”) must inevitably color readers' opinions of Charles and Diana. In the course of their quest, Freddy comes into his own as a brilliant and well-read man, equally adept at wilderness survival and swaying the multitudes with his speeches. Fredericka, on the other hand, finds her best self in cleaning toilets. Her only talent is a sort of idiot savant ability to spout versions of famous literary works which she has never read. This sort of bias turns the book into a polemic in favor of Charles and—for me at least—diminishes the comic charm.
Still, I enjoyed the book and got a lot of chuckles out of it. Luckily I listened to it in the car, where the simple-minded humor filled the niches of my attention perfectly. I don't think I would have gotten past the first chapter or two if I'd been reading it. While I appreciate the humor of crossed communication, the who's-on-first sequences go on too long for me. In fact, most of the comic sequences go on too long. I admit I'm not a fan of slapstick or farce, so those scenes were for me a dead loss. Even for those who enjoy such humor, some judicious cutting would have made the book a lot better. However, I applaud Helprin's departure from the realist focus of today's fiction and his attempts to resurrect the picaresque stories of the past.