Friday, December 23, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the book) - a mini-review

So. I just plowed through Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And at the risk of being ostracized by friends from all walks of life, I have to say that I was not all that impressed.

It's hard to say anything about this book without giving something away, so let me start off by saying this:


(Did I mention that spoilers follow? They do. I've tried to hide them as invisible text - select it to see it. If you're seeing this on something like Google Reader - well, I tried.)

Some notes on the translation

Any translation is difficult. You're not just changing the language, but also trying to convey concepts that may be ingrained in one culture and alien to another. Take, for example, the main character, Mikael Blomkvist. He is derisively referred to as "Kalle Blomkvist" throughout the story. In the first instance we are informed that Kalle Blomkvist was an intrepid boy detective in children's stories. Like much of Swedish culture outside of IKEA and bikini teams, Kalle Blomkvist is mostly unknown in the U.S. The reality is even worse: those who know Kalle Blomkvist in the U.S. probably know him under his alternate name, Bill Bergson, thus virtually eliminating the likelihood that anyone will get the Kalle Blomkvist reference immediately - and certainly not on the gut level that someone born into the Swedish language and culture would understand it.

Later, as Blomkvist is going through some old books in the cabin where he takes up residence for much of the story, another fact about Kalle Blomkvist is revealed that would be known on an almost intuitive level to Swedish readers: he is the creation of Astrid Lindgren, the same author who created Pippi Longstocking, a character somewhat better known to U.S. audiences. Lisbeth Salander, the asocial heroine of the story, muses later that she would hate to be compared to Pippi Longstocking the way Mikael Blomkvist is compared to Kalle Blomkvist. But several characters think of her as just that, or at least a punked-out version of the character. From the Wikipedia entry:

Nine-year-old Pippi is unconventional, assertive, and has superhuman strength, being able to lift her horse one-handed without difficulty. She frequently mocks and dupes adults she encounters, an attitude likely to appeal to young readers; however, Pippi usually reserves her worst behavior for the most pompous and condescending of adults. She turns white around the nose whenever she gets angry, though this rarely happens. Pippi's anger is reserved for the most extreme cases, such as when a man ill-treats his horse. Like Peter Pan, Pippi does not want to grow up.

Lisbeth, it should be noted, is twenty-four but looks more like fifteen, and is believed by many who meet her, even on an official level, to be retarded and incapable of functioning as an adult.  So Swedish readers might read this story with an overlay of a middle-aged version of a boy detective and a teen punk version of Pippi Longstocking running around and investigating a horrific and baffling series of crimes - something that is totally lost on non-Swedish readers.

Another concept that may be bewildering to U.S. readers and perfectly obvious to native Swedish readers is the idea of guardianship - that social misfits may be declared incapable of functioning as adults in society and may be appointed guardians to oversee their personal and financial affairs. The notion is so appallingly alien that it's hard to believe it's not something that author Stieg Larsson simply made up, but a lengthy passage - was this essentially a translator's note that was woven into the story? - explains the concept and its application.

Lesser concepts that are likely ingrained in the Swedish psyche are also presented in an expository way, such as the relationship between the Swedes and the German Nazis before and during World War II. (The two countries are separated by a narrow strip of the Baltic Sea, as far from each other as Michigan and Wisconsin. For comparison, Sweden is roughly the size of California, while Germany is a little smaller than Montana.)

Yet the translator still manages to be a bit ham-handed at times. A character owns a set of Swedish encyclopedias; stockbrokers trade on the Swedish stock market. Yes, we get it. We're in Sweden.

ANOTHER NOTE: The action takes place throughout the course of a year, mostly in the northerly reaches of Sweden. One fact that is mentioned but may be overlooked by readers outside of Sweden (or other far-northern latitudes) is the tremendous variation of the length of the day - from nearly twenty-four hours of darkness in mid-Winter (when the story begins) to nearly twenty-four hours of daylight in mid-Summer. As Larsson is very explicit about the days covered by each chapter, the length of day is itself part of the setting, and disregarding it may diminish the experience of the story.

(Lisbeth's birthday, it is revealed late in the book, is on Walpurgisnacht - April 30, half a year before the Eve of All Hallows. This also carries a cultural significance probably lost on most U.S. readers.)

The action and the characters

I get the impression that Stieg Larsson set out to write a 600+ page book, and knowing that, decided he could take his time getting around to things. I'm used to reading science fiction short stories, not six hundred page mystery novels. I'm used to difficult concepts being presented quickly and much being left as an exercise for the reader - not with a profligate use of paper and ink to meander around to a story.

I tried to come up with a metaphor for the action (or lack thereof) in the first half of this book, and the best I could come up with was an image of an icicle on a cold but sunny day, an icicle with a drop of water at its tip. Are we watching the water freeze onto the icicle, or the icicle melt into water? There is so much exposition, so much background, such a plethora of characters...and on top of that, there is a fetishistic fascination with the details of technology. Do we really need to know the make and model of every piece of equipment Mikael uses, or the website of the shareware program he is using for - I forget, word processing or maintaining a database or something.

The action really doesn't pick up until (SPOILER ALERT) the first sexual assault on Lisbeth detailed in the story.  This is quickly followed by a second, and very nearly a third (or so we are led to believe), but Lisbeth turns the tables and shows that she has been planning her response from the first incident. Lisbeth's revenge is brutal and deeply satisfying and thorough, and makes you want to stand up and cheer. (I did.) These incidents establish essential facts about Lisbeth: while she has the potential to become a victim, she is also deeply resourceful and thorough and is capable of avenging any acts against her. But she is also physically weak, depending on wits, weapons, and technology to deal with problems. (I cheered for her again later when she demonstrated knowledge that I have always kept in reserve by attacking a bad guy with a golf club to the collarbone, the most frequently-broken bone in the body. Unfortunately, this and a barrage of other blows are inadequate to keep him from making his getaway in a car while she was otherwise occupied. How did he drive with a broken collarbone? The answer is, apparently, "Badly.")

The action, as I have noted, begins to pick up at this point, and now it seemed that the metaphor might be an avalanche gradually building up from a few falling pebbles to a complete collapse of a mountainside; but alas, the pebbles are all that falls, and the story once again lapses into a state of anxious inaction.

At some point Larsson seems to become aware of this. After handing his main characters an insoluble puzzle, he has a deus ex machina character - Blomkvist's daughter - make a walk-on, provide a critical clue, and then walk off again. I was hoping that her appearance would turn out to be a figment of Blomkvist's imagination, but it was not to be.

Lisbeth is initially presented as a fairly remarkable young woman: asocial, insightful, clever, thorough, tenacious, resourceful. In other words, she is very much like many people I know in real life. (I am wondering if this is a peculiarity of my circle of friends. Doesn't everyone know a dozen or so people like this?) But by the end of the story she has been revealed to be something more: a hacker, and not just a hacker, but a Level Infinity hacker with access to a network of other Level Infinity hackers, with godlike powers and magical technology. Their kung fu is stronger than anyone else's kung fu, and their hacking cannot be detected or stopped (unless they make very serious mistakes, like Lisbeth does early on); against them there is no defense. It becomes clear that this is their world, and all the journalists and industrialists and serial killers are just being allowed to live in it. This leaves the ending of the story with a strong sense of imbalance.

Blomkvist is more of a cipher, despite being nominally the main character. (The story is told from a third person omniscient point of view, with the point of view shifting into the consciousness of different characters as the story goes on.) He is based on Larsson himself, and as such may be there to achieve in fiction victories that Larsson was unable to achieve in real life.  Despite his misgivings about behaving in accordance with standards of journalistic ethics, he has surprisingly little trouble allowing the murders of dozens of women to go unsolved by keeping his mouth shut about what he knows. (More surprising and baffling at this point is the fact that Lisbeth not only allows these crimes to remain unsolved, but that she actively destroys evidence that could have been used by someone else to solve the crimes. Why she does this is never explained, at least not in this book.)

Also not explained is the solution to a secondary mystery that opens the story: Who is sending Henrik Vanger framed flowers every year on his birthday, carrying on a custom started by his great-niece Harriet, who disappeared nearly forty years before?  In the passing years Henrik has become obsessed with Harriet's disappearance, and is certain she was murdered. Henrik brings disgraced journalist Blomkvist on board to ostensibly write his family story, but in reality to research the case of Harriet's disappearance - and, while he's at it, to find out who keeps sending the damned flowers. Somewhere in the middle of the story the question of the flowers is raised again and then dropped, never to be mentioned again.  In the end there is no obvious answer to the question of who was sending these flowers, and why. (Reviews of the Swedish version of the movie state that the solution to this is very obvious.)

A certain naive charm exists in the story. A secondary character is killed, burned, and dismembered as a warning to Mikael and Lisbeth - or was it as a sacrifice? - but no one thinks to tamper with Lisbeth's motorcycle. Had these folks been up against an American version of the villain, I doubt they would have gotten off so easily.

But of course we know Blomkvist and Salander are in no real peril of their lives, even at the most frightening and dangerous stages, because we know that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is just the first book in the Millennium trilogy, all starring Blomkvist and Salander.  Unless they are told largely as flashbacks, we can expect the characters to be around in The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

The themes

The original Swedish title of this book was "Men Who Hate Women," and this is a thread running through the story, often brutally. At times the book threatens to dip into the world of mainstream snuff porn in the manner of The Silence of the Lambs, even treading on the territory of such fun entertainments as the Saw and Hostel series.  In researching the basic issue of men who hate women - specifically, sexual sadists - Lisbeth is led to research from America which is known to the general public in the U.S. but is surprisingly unknown in Sweden, that many serial killers graduate from youthful practices of arson and cruelty to animals.*  And there is plenty of both in the story.

Blomkvist, standing in for Larsson, expresses deep admiration for the courage and integrity of American reporters who are willing to go to jail rather than reveal their sources. Yet Blomkvist is willing to bend all sorts of ethical standards, burying a major story here (and aiding in the cover-up of a crime), using illegally-obtained information there.  The activities of The News of the World pale in comparison to what Blomkvist is willing to accept - believing himself protected by the fact that he was getting the illegally obtained information from an outside source rather than stealing it directly. And Lisbeth Salander proves to be a one-woman Wikileaks, at least with the aid of her network of fellow-hackers.


As I read through this story I tried to formulate my own theories of "whodunit" and "why." In the end I think my solution was more satisfying than the one presented by Larsson. But that, or course, would have been a different book. Blomkvist and Salander solve this case using incredible resourcefulness coupled with extraordinary luck. They make leaps of logic and access sources of information that I think are not available to the book's readers.

I found Larsson's writing style extemely profligate. As I stated earlier, it seems that he started off with a plan to fill every one of the 600+ pages available to him, and felt no need for economy of words.

Numerous stories run through the book: Blomkvist vs. Wennerstrom, Lisbeth vs. her newly-appointed legal guardian, the mystery of the flowers, the mystery of Harriet, the mystery in Harriet's datebook. In the end some are wrapped up by luck, some through hard work, some not at all. If he had wanted, Larsson could have produced a much tauter story, but that was aparently not what he had in mind. It feels as if the first six hundred or so pages are just a preface to the actual story, which is told in the final fifty.

Is this story well-written? Yes, I suppose. Is it worth reading? Yes again. Could it have been better? I believe so. Unfortunately, Stieg Larsson - who died shortly after submitting the manuscripts for his Millenium trilogy - isn't around to defend or explain his work.

*The third indicator of a serial killer is a history of bed-wetting. If two of these three characteristics are present, there is a high likelihood the individual will be a serial killer; all three suggest a near-certainty.


hedera said...

Very interesting review, and thank you for reading it so I don't have to. Maybe in 10 years if it's still considered important; so few best-sellers pass that test.

Your comments about Larson's loquacity lead me to warn you: if you didn't like this book, don't bother picking up Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which believe it or not is a detective story by one Marisha Pessl. Ms. Pessl feels obliged to document almost every statement any character makes with a bibliographic citation (not a footnote; inline in the text!). It took her 300+ pages to get to the damn murder. I am hanging in there out of sheer refusal to be defeated by this absurd book.

Naya Saal said...

He might have given unnaturally overhyped Se7en and "Social Network"...But this one s truly amazing....
Definitely,a collector's item