How odd it was, standing in a bookstore 7,500 miles from home and pondering the choices in a small but reasonably good English section of an airport bookshop. The most appealing books I’d already read: On Chesil Beach, The Golden Compass, The Name of the Rose (oddly enough, given that I’d read it on the first leg of the plane ride). The choices left dwindle to John le Carré’s* latest or Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. I take the latter, figuring that once I’ve read four or five of le Carré’s novels I’ve read them all. Earlier I described them as “trust no one and everyone, including you, is guilty of something, or would be in the right situation,” novels, and I eventually tire of their torrid, in-the-know sentences.
And so I chose The Other Boleyn Girl and came to a novel I dread writing about because it is awfully, unabashedly bad, filled with adverbs as egregious as the two I just used, and I was stuck with it for too many hours on a plane. Normally I would’ve stopped after a few chapters. Trapped as though in the Tower of London, I had nowhere to go but on with the story, reading endlessly of the narrator, Mary Boleyn, reminding herself of how she is a Howard, and having other characters constantly tell her that as well. Most of the characters speak in platitudes, as though aware of history’s spotlight on them, and yet the characters are simultaneously self-absorbed to a degree tiresome in anyone, including monarchs and their playthings.
Then there is the writing: on page six a “moment of pure envy swept through me,” and on 90 a horse is coiled like a spring. Adverbs proliferate like the plague and, worse for me, I just finished The Name of the Rose, a novel with a powerful, inflammatory inquisition scene that lights up like an inferno, while Gregory offers a brief, sputtering description on page 716 of my mass-market paperback. The theological discussions are similarly opposite, with The Name of the Rose like a gorgeous Ph.D. thesis and The Other Boleyn Girl like the musings of a pupil. There is much discussion of wit and little evidence of it, just as there is much discussion of what it means to be part of the family and little evidence of it meaning anything more than being part of a band of nitwit navel gazers.
There are bizarre anachronisms in the novel, as when characters use the term slut, which, as Geoffrey Pullum’s quote from the Oxford English Dictionary in this post on contemporary usage shows, slut has meant that “bad housekeeping, loose sexuality, general uppitiness and terms of endearment have been all mixed together since the middle of the 17th century.” The Other Boleyn Girl is set towards the beginning of the sixteenth century. Likewise, despite repeated references to skill in French and Latin, no characters display any knowledge of either language or its literatures; Anne’s linguistic ability extends to saying “Bien sur!” once. Indeed, the characters seem caught purely in their own times, as if history was absent and the future as well. No culture exists outside of mentions about Thomas More and jousting. If not for the device of the king and the mention of horses, this novel could be set in a frat house, or any number of contemporary settings.
All this is frustrating because The Other Boleyn Girl shows rare moments of genuine feeling, as when Mary acknowledges to her brother that she cannot wed the man she wants. These few evoking moments come amid the tedious descriptions of royal maneuverings that read like the post-season situation in basketball. By the end of the flight I wanted to take back all those snide thoughts about le Carré, who is by comparison a writer of tremendous greatness.
The other novel I bought during a layover back in the United States: Starship Troopers, which I think a family member has lying around somewhere but I also knew would make for good and quick reading. As a teenager I missed its political context, which startled me now because that is the entire novel. Sure, the politics are simplistic and lack even the depth of Stranger in a Strange Land, but I can see why arguments for independence and power appeals to boys. There are even flashes of Wilde-like aphorisms, as when a comment from the protagonist’s History and Moral Philosophy instructor is repeated: “He says that you are not stupid, merely ignorant and prejudiced by your environment.” Glimmers of tolerance in an otherwise militaristic novel appear, when the narrator says “But don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Bugs are just stupid insects because they look the way they do and don’t know how to surrender.” Grudging, yes, but you get it.As I come back to Heinlein I see his many flaws and the reasons literati snub him, and were I to read him for the first time now I don’t think I would have much use for him. But for all his weaknesses he serves a need, much like the often-hated Ayn Rand. On a plane, when you’re inclined to skip over the more foolish discussions, Heinlein is pretty good—just as he is when you’re 12.
The title of this post may startle you, but there is a slim connection between a novel about sex and power in the sixteenth century and one about militarism and politics in the distant future.
I haven’t yet commented on The Name of the Rose, mentioned here, but that’s only because it’s so good that I both want to save the best for last and struggle to formulate something to say, as the novel is so vast that it’s hard merely to decide which aspects of it to discuss.
* For a fascinating essay on le Carré, see—as usual—B.R. Myers’ essay in The Atlantic.