I’ll return to the topic of reading on the weekend, but before that I’ll have to put my money where my mouth is, as it were, and try to catch up on some of the reviews that have piled up in my blogging break. When I first stopped blogging, I suddenly had no idea what to pick up to read next. My reading life has been so organized by the prospect of discussing certain books online that, cut adrift from the community, I simply couldn’t decide what I wanted to read just for myself. But looking back over the past couple of months I can see I’ve read a surprising number of thrillers, partly because they were recommended to me, partly because I find it more comforting to read about people killing one another than falling in love. The moral outcome is always more certain in the narrative world. But the books themselves turned out to be more intriguing than I had bargained for, too: genre fiction is often as packed full of interest as the most complex literary novel.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a most curious reading experience as I’d heard so much about the novel in advance and had convinced myself it wouldn’t be for me. I knew it was extremely popular, but the reviews I’d read had, for the most part, condemned the novel roundly for excessive violence against women. My expectations of gore and horror were so high that when I actually read it, it seemed perfectly tame. There is indeed violence recounted and on a couple of occasions, violence depicted, but this is essentially a cerebral novel, a puzzle-solving novel, and it keeps sufficient distance from events to leave this reader unaffected. The violence is bound up with the central story that concerns the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, granddaughter of a Swedish business mogul in a large and sprawling family as dysfunctional as any you could hope to find in any American soap opera. Only this is Scandinavia, where it’s cold and dark and the surface gloss of technology and efficiency hides a virulent underbelly of unnatural and unspeakable acts. Many years have passed since Harriet’s disappearance but her grandfather is obsessed with her loss still, and hires disgraced journalist, Mikhail Blomkvist to crack the old mystery, under cover of writing a family memoir. Mikhail links forces with a distinctly strange young researcher, Lisbeth Salander, who turns out to be a computer hacker of the highest order, and then the sparks begin.
Salander is undeniably the most compelling character in the narrative, and the most paradoxical. She’s a bit of an enigma herself, autistic in the expression of her emotions, completely immoral, but violent and feisty and graced with bionic brain power. She struck me as a grown-up version of the kind of character who features a lot in teenage adventure fiction: the damaged victim who, thanks to technological implants, has become part bionic. She’s so engaged with her computer hacking that she’s half cyberwoman, an amalgam of the Matrix and Lara Croft, but in a good way. I read a lot of comment on the web angsting over whether this was a feminist-friendly portrayal or not, and I can understand the confusion. She’s clearly damaged, ie, readily identified as feminine, but sidesteps this by focusing on her mental powers, ie, readily identified as masculine. She falls in love with Blomqvist, so yes, feminine, but when one of the bad guys makes the mistake of hurting her (in what must be the most famous scene of the book) she enacts her revenge with visceral power in a way that had me cheering her on, I admit. My problem with the whole feminist-argument thing was that the feel of the character was, for me, beyond gender, something more alien altogether.
In comparison, Mikhail Blomkvist is the girly one. I was more intrigued by the feminisation of his character than the roboticised overlay on Salander’s. Blomkvist is the ostensible hero of the book, a man of strict ethics whose journalistic career has been forged in the crusade against corruption in the financial world. The whole Harriet Vanger story is encased by a huge frame narrative concerning Blomkvist’s disastrous attempt to nail a dodgy financier, a quest that has landed him in all sorts of trouble (well, in a jail sentence for libel, in fact). And once the Vanger mystery has been solved, Larsson has to wrench the narrative back towards Blomqvist in order to clear his name. Mikhail might be one of the good guys in the fight against organized crime, but his love life is bizarre. Across the course of the narrative he manages to have three unadvisable liaisons, all of which he seems to inhabit with notable passivity and a lack of genuine emotional attachment. I wondered whether this was to hold him clear of the value system at work, in which violence against women is perpetrated out of an excessive need for mastery and possession. Certainly no one could level that charge against him. But it’s a shame that his deeper message, about corruption in high places and the ugly complicity of the media, gets a bit muffled in the overall sweep of the novel. This is a book with deep moral convictions, but I suspect them of having more to do with the movement of money and resources than with gender politics.
Perhaps what does make this thriller satisfying is that the pairing of Lisbeth and Mikhail seems greater than the sum of their parts. And the plot is deftly woven, steadily revealing enough information to readers to keep them hooked on the unfolding mystery. Around that story, though, the contradictions are what caught my attention: the odd mix of biblical violence with twenty-first century technology, the Ibsen-ish gloom that descends on family life with its horrible secrets and lies, and the rather delicately burgeoning romance between the main protagonists. The excess of information that is strewn around the book, pages and pages of information given to us and created by Lisbeth, against the cold hard kernel of enigma at the novel’s center. I liked the colour and the taste these contradictions brought to the narrative, and I could see why Swedish crime has taken off in such a big way. There’s a certain ruthless efficiency at work in the investigation that provides a delightful counterpoint to the primitively dark and disturbing nature of the crimes. But it all adds up to the impression that Sweden is not perhaps quite as nice as you may think. And that’s paradoxically fascinating as a thought, too.
Oh dear, why DO I go on so much? I’d hoped to discuss three books today and look, I’m out of space and time already on just the one. I’ll try to fit another post in on the weekend.