'The Red Queen': Babs Channels Lady Hyegyong

It's possible, though only partly, to put this rather forced linkage aside and consider the stories separately. The princess tells of a life frozen less by the capricious tyranny of her father-in-law, King Yongjo -- the most rounded figure in a two-dimensional world -- than by the destructive rigidity of a terrifying court ritual. Taken from her family at the age of 10 to be a candidate for marriage to Sado, the royal heir (himself only a child), she goes through an endlessly estranging process of elaborate selection and grooming. Once she is chosen, the grooming goes on to include defloration at the hand (actually the brutal finger) of a court lady. In the life that follows, there is little but ordeal. And ordeal turns to horror as the princess' husband goes violently mad, provoked by the humiliations inflicted on him by his father -- who finally has him locked into a rice chest, where he dies after eight days of agony.

The vortex of destruction that consumes Sado provides real suspense and horror to the flat lines of the princess' story. The court is a court of roles, not characters; she herself is little more than an emblem of stoic plight. This might not matter, except that Drabble has chosen to break up this friezelike chronicle with the jittery comments of today's ghost. What we lose, then, is the shock of the past, the journey back to encounter its difference, its strangeness, its gaps. Instead of time travel, we get a time travelogue.

After the rigid chill of the princess' story, Babs Halliwell's voice emerges in a pleasurable rush. And here the rueful irony and humor, edging toward slapstick, that Drabble uses both at the expense and in defense of her contemporary female clerisy is as bracing as ever. When Babs struggles out of bed on the morning of her journey, she's swimming up a Niagara Falls of compulsions. She has three or four fail-safe wake-up systems. Her taxi has been ordered long before it's needed. At Heathrow, she sits quivering for two hours before she can board the plane: "No, she has not forgotten her passport, or her ticket or her medication. . . . They are inanimate and inert, and they will stay where she put them. She is a rational woman and she knows that they will stay in their places."

Aboard the plane, the princess' ghost, having chosen Babs to publicize her story, grumbles from the hand luggage where her memoir has been tucked. Through the long flight to Seoul, the princess nags at Babs to get it read, even though, being unused to airplanes, the princess feels a bit woozy. (Having an airsick ghost fits nicely into Babs's mix of scattiness and purpose.)

In a dither at home, the professor is dither cubed among the confusions and scheming of an academic conference, and even more so trying to explore a foreign city. She does manage to visit some of the sites where the princess lived and tells her story to a Dutch sociologist, the one international celebrity at the meeting. Aloof, godlike, not only does he unbend and attend -- reverently -- but he takes Babs to bed for most of three perfect nights of loving, intellectual communion and expert sex. Then, having threatened to turn into a gauzy middle-aged fantasy, the story droops, rallies and ends.

The subtitle of "The Red Queen" is "a transcultural tragicomedy." It implies an intention the author has announced but hasn't carried out, despite working hard to argue that the human condition is universal and writing about it goes beyond time-bound constraints. What we are left with are two narratives entirely separate in style and content, and two voices that never really connect. As for tragicomedy, there's no breath of humor in the princess' stiffly told story and hardly a splinter of irony. And while Babs Halliwell has certainly experienced her share of pain, hers is the voice not of tragedy but of comedy and errands.

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