The novel with a key
As I write this post, my wife is about fifty pages away from finishing The Royal We, a novel that she devoured over the course of the last few days like a bottomless bag of popcorn. I’ve only glanced at the book, but I’ve been impressed by what little of it I’ve seen, starting with the title, which is the kind of clever play on words—while also telling you exactly what the story is about—that could sell a hundred thousand copies in itself. It’s about a college student who meets, falls in love with, and finally marries the Prince of Wales, and if the plot sounds a touch familiar, that’s precisely the point. The Royal We isn’t exactly about Kate Middleton: its protagonist is American, for one thing, and the story diverges from the facts of the most famous public courtship in recent memory in small but meaningful ways. But like Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, another book my wife loved, it’s a novel that all but begs us to fill in the blanks. And although it’s clearly written with taste and skill, it’s also a marketer’s dream. At a time when publishers are struggling to create new brands, the equivalent of high-class celebrity fanfic is as good a way as any to catch a reader’s eye. (Sometimes it doesn’t even need to be especially high class: an erotic fan novel about Harry Stiles of One Direction is being made into a movie as we speak.)
But what sets such recent books apart from prior efforts in the same line is how cheerfully they disclose their sources of inspiration. The roman à clef is as old, in one form or another, as the novel itself, but it really came into its own with the works of writers like Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann—”The giants,” as Spock calls them in The Voyage Home—whose novels were explicitly designed to encourage readers to put famous faces to lightly fictionalized names. As Dean Koontz said years ago in Writing Popular Fiction:
[A roman à clef is] a story in which all the characters seem to be allusions to real people—preferably quite famous people—and to real events the reader may have read of in newspapers and magazines; this establishes a celebrity guessing game among readers and reviewers that strengthens the illusion that you are telling of genuine events and, not incidentally, increases the book’s sales…In actuality, the [novel] bears only passing resemblance to the real lives of the personalities mentioned, but the reader likes to feel that he is getting the whole, ugly story firsthand.
And it’s worth noting how hard the novel, like a con artist “accidentally” displaying a briefcase full of cash to a mark, has to work to give the reader a winking nudge about how it should be read, while superficially acting as if it’s trying to keep a secret. The book needs to insist that names have been changed to protect the innocent, even as it makes its reference points obvious, and it demands a tricky balance. Too obscure, and we won’t make the connection at all; too transparent, and we’ll reject it as fantasy. (I’ll leave aside the example of Irving Wallace, one of Robbins and Susann’s contemporaries, who wasn’t above explicitly stating his sources in the text. In The Plot, a scandal involving a character clearly based on Christine Keeler is described as “ten times more exciting than the old Profumo affair,” while in The Fan Club, a pulpy novel about the kidnapping of a famous movie star, a character comes right out and says: “Picture Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe or Brigitte Bardot lying in the next room naked.”) The Royal We and American Wife, although less coy, pull off much the same feat by selectively altering a few recognizable elements, as if industriously disguising their source material while implicitly keeping the spirit unchanged.
The result, if done correctly, offers an easy form of subtext, making the novel somewhat more interesting in ways that have little to do with craft. It’s a temptation to which I haven’t been entirely immune: City of Exiles includes a character so manifestly based on Garry Kasparov that I seriously considered just putting him in the story outright, as Frederick Forsyth did with everyone from Margaret Thatcher to Simon Wiesenthal. (If I chickened out in the end, it was mostly because I felt queasy about making the real Kasparov the target of an assassination attempt.) And it’s such a powerful trick that it gives pause to some novelists. In the afterword to Harlot’s Ghost, Norman Mailer writes:
In the course of putting together this attempt, there was many a choice to make on one’s approach to formal reality. The earliest and most serious decision was not to provide imaginary names for all the prominent people who entered the work. After all, that rejected approach would have left one with such barbarisms as James Fitzpatrick Fennerly, youngest man ever elected President of the United States.
Mailer goes on to note that if he’d given us, say, Howard Hunt under an assumed name, the reader would think: “This is obviously Howard Hunt. Now I’ll get to see what made him tick.” By giving us Hunt without a mask, the reader is free to say: “That isn’t my idea of Howard Hunt at all.” And that might even be the most honorable approach, even if it isn’t likely to thrill publishers, or their lawyers.