Monday, September 20, 2010


First, let's get the amazing statistics out of the way. As of a month ago, over 40 million copies of the late Stieg Larsson's trilogy had sold worldwide in over 40 languages. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the first book ever to sell over a million copies in the Kindle edition. Subtitled Swedish-language films of the first two books have been playing in the United States this year, and the third installment is scheduled for release in about six weeks. At the end of 2011 Columbia Pictures plans to release a U.S. version of Dragon, with the others to follow.

I finally succumbed to massive cultural pressure and the urging of my friends: I put The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on hold at the library (I was number 68 in line). While I was checking it out last week, the woman who scanned my card advised me, "Read 100 pages before forming any judgment about the book. It has a slow start."

Yesterday afternoon I finished all 590 pages, and I can now say that she was right. What she didn't tell me was that it has a slow ending too. For the last 100 pages or so I kept thinking of the time I flew into Boston at night under heavy fog. The plane had descended for several minutes when suddenly  it leaped upward. We flew for a while longer, descended again, leaped upward again. The pilot took the microphone and said, "I could have sworn there was a runway down there."

In the middle of the book, though, there was plenty of suspense, violence, sex, international money laundering, gadgets, psychopaths, computer hacking, organized crime, sadism, and Swedish scenery.

If you are one of the three people in the world who has not yet read any books by Larsson, and if you think that maybe you don't want to bother, Janet Potter's kick-ass September 10 review, Stieg Larsson: Swedish Narcissus, will give you plenty of reasons to avoid them. Her comments on Larsson's writing style are perceptive, though I'm willing to allow a writer of thrillers a lot of editorial leeway. At the end of her review, however, she raises an objection that troubled me more and more the further I got into the book: Michael is not as nice to female characters as he thinks he is.

On the one hand, Mikael is a kind man who sees women as equal human beings and treats them with dignity. At least that's what Stieg Larsson tells us, and the description seems important to him. After all, the name of the book's Swedish edition is Men Who Hate Women, and every section of the book features a statistical epigraph on the topic ("Eighteen percent of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man"). I don't think it's a spoiler to say that revenge against women-haters is the book's major theme.

On the other hand Mikael, though he apparently is never physically violent with women, is known as a womanizer. His wife divorced him because of a long-standing affair he was carrying on while married to her, so he rarely sees his daughter, now a teenager (he admits he's a lousy father). The marriage-breaking affair is with a married woman whose husband does not seem to object, though the woman can get a bit huffy when she walks in on Mikael in bed with yet another woman. While engaged in investigative journalism / detection, Mikael beds a lonely woman who is part of the group he's investigating, and their short affair seems to leave her shaken and bereft. He also beds the young woman who works for him, while admitting he's old enough to be her father. She gives him her heart, and he apparently breaks it.

Is this how a defender of the female gender behaves?

Unless I am suddenly faced with a very long airplane trip, I don't think I'll read the other two books. I'd like to know what happens to the spunky revenge princess Liz Salander, but I've had about enough of Mikael.


Ashleigh said...

I'm totally with you on this one! Finished it, enjoyed it, no desire to read the remaining books in the trilogy. See also: Weird sexualization of women's pain while condemning it?

Minnie said...

I know I really should read the darn thing for myself, but ...
There's been so much hype, so many reviews, so much filmic mileage, that I now know pretty much the entire plot and themes of this book. And, yes, I am also disturbed by the 'having-his-cake-and-eating-it' element at work here.

Kevin Harris said...


I put off reading this until I saw that you read it. I think it was due to the violent, sadistic subject matter that I avoided it for so long. But last week curiosity got the better of me and, on a whim, I bought it.

Having just finished it, I'm left with mixed feelings -- the violence being essential to the plot. A dark but exciting story.

Having said that, I'll most likely read the remaining two in the trilogy as my curiosity is insatiably piqued regarding the fate of the troubled heroine and her evil social worker. I'm anticipating a most satisfying ending.

I'll just have to balance my reading with something more uplifting, as Larsson is so incredibly dark.

(I've been watching THE CHOIR on BBC America. That's completely unrelated, but very inspirational, and celebrates the human spirit.)

I'm reminded of William P. Young's, The Shack. I avoided that book for the same reason I avoided The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo--the gratuitous and shocking violence.

The Shack ultimately left me with feelings of hope and a desire to know more of God's character. In contrast, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo left me sad for the condition of mankind with no sense of optimism. Sure, it was an exciting thriller, but there is no true morality driving the story. It is solely revenge. Maybe some would argue that the protaganist was a hero in spite of his flaws. But, as you pointed out, he certainly did not have a deep respect for women.

The History Boy said...

Thank you, LaVonne, for publishing everything I've been thinking about this book since I first read it a year ago. I remain baffled by its success (why has the public latched on to such a profoundly boring series?) and every time someone brings it to the checkout counter I want to kindly take their hand and say, in a soothing tone of voice, "Are you sure, dear?" It's comforting to know I'm not alone.

One of my great frustrations with the first book (the only one I've read) was the nagging suspicion that there really was a readable, tightly-plotted novel buried somewhere beneath the layers of fat. The triumph of hope over experience compelled me to keep turning the pages expecting something interesting to happen even after Larsson had just spent a page detailing the exact technical specifications of Lisbeth's MacBook, which produced an effect on my brain similar to novocaine. I strongly suspect that, had the author lived long enough to have just one conversation with a competent editor, we might be reviewing an entertaining thriller clocking in at 400 pages. Sadly, whoever received the manuscript suffered from an excess of deference to the dead, which he should have shelved to do his job, i.e. to attack the novel with a hedge trimmer.

I've spent a good chunk of this weekend watching the Swedish filmed versions of the first two books and I can report that they're much tighter than their source material, although what possessed the director to think that a climactic montage of shots of Mikael adjusting the contrast in Photoshop on his laptop screen was a recipe for cinematic tension will forever remain a mystery to me. I recommend the movies if only for the experience of watching Noomi Rapace brilliantly embody a character who, on the page, was for me so outlandish as to defy plausibility. That said, actually seeing Lisbeth in the flesh (and I mean that very literally) finally allowed me to put into words what made me most uncomfortable about the books.

To say that Larsson is hard on his heroine would be putting it mildly. The first two installments of the trilogy afford audiences the distinct displeasure of watching her be raped, kidnapped, beaten, electrocuted, shot multiple times and *spoiler alert* buried alive. I honestly haven't seen a character put so through the wringer since Władysław Szpilman in The Pianist, and he lived through the Holocaust! By the end, a close-up of the beautiful Rapace, triumphant but half-dead and drenched in her own blood, left me feeling like I had not just sat through a pair of theatrical releases but a couple of snuff films, and I was forced to wonder out loud, "Did Larsson actually get off on torturing this poor woman?" Mikael, of course, is the obvious surrogate for the author, but I can't help but ponder how much of him also finds expression in the novels' many monsters. Is it possible that the transparent wish fulfillment of Mikael's improbably many sexual conquests is only one side of the coin?For in the final analysis, the only real agent of Lisbeth's suffering is the omnipotent author, Larsson himself. It is ultimately he who devises her Grand Guignol persecutions and not the "bad men" who populate his Manichean universe, an act of profound authorial sadism if I ever read one. So, though I hesitate to cast aspersions at someone who is no longer around to defend himself, I leave it to you to answer this: Who is the man who really hates women?