The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

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.

17 thoughts on “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

  1. Please DO go on–I love reading what you have to say about books because you always go beneath the surface and explain things I may see but can’t quite articulate. I have also been reading more thrillers lately, but I hadn’t thought about why–and you’re right about the moral outcome being more certain–they aren’t always tidy stories, but there is usually a feeling of right prevailing over wrong. I’ve wanted to read this, but also was unsure when I heard about the violence, but I think I will try to get to it before the end of the summer. Have you already done your radio show (podcast?) on this book and the others you were reading for it?

  2. I had exactly the same feeling about the hype etc and took ages to get around to reading this. I absolutely loved it and am nearly through the second one now. Wonderful review as always — thanks.

  3. So glad to read your take on this novel, which I liked very much. And of course what you have to say is very perceptive. You are such a sharp and subtle reader. I’m especially intrigued that you home in on the passivity and ‘feminisation’ of Mikhail’s character. This was picked up and emphasised much more by the makers of the film, which I found even more radical and interesting than the book for that reason. It’s a very interesting, self-effacing, almost disturbing performance, by a very well known Swedish actor.

  4. This is the first review I’ve read of this book that makes me think I wouldn’t hate it. Like you I’ve heard a lot (a lot!) about the violence in this book, which put me off in a big way. Combine that with the fact that I’m not wild about mysteries–I don’t know. I’m still undecided.

  5. Oh, I love the way you go on! I would pick this book up immediately except that I suspect it would trigger the crap out of me. Something I try to avoid. But it sounds like a fascinating play of contradictions and complexity.

  6. So intrigued by your comment about Lisbeth as alien — and you’ve also got me thinking about the inquiry about whether a character is “feminist” or not, which seems beside the point when looking at fiction. Mostly, though, I’m going to read this now, and I certainly wasn’t going to before your review. You’re such a help! xo (And I hope your quiet recovery is going well. I do wish we lived closer; I’d love to lie around with you and do nothing except read.)

  7. This is the kind of book that I enjoy a lot while reading it, because I do enjoy my junk food, but afterward the junk food guilt takes over and I remember it as something generally negative. So I liked reading your post and remembering what was fun and interesting about it instead.

  8. You beat me to it. I’ve been planning on posting on this one for some time. I love your take on it. I’m afraid I was not quite so prepared for the violence when I read it and was very disturbed by it. However, I went into the movie version very prepared and found it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared.

  9. Very good review. I enjoyed reading your review – as it reminded me of the book, which I also enjoyed. I’ve not read the others in the trilogy though as I have only so much reading time!

  10. Socialpaws – of the two remaining volumes, I have one and my dad has the other – I am quite sure we will come to some arrangement! So yes, it DID make me want to read the whole trilogy, although reports suggest the last one in particular could have done with a bit more editing. Still, I’d like to know what happens next!

    Danielle – gah! the radio shows! I’ve done two, one on gastronomic memoirs, one on Swedish crime, and they were last heard of sitting in the submissions site of the people who want to put the whole radio thing together. Only it seems to be taking forever to get this radio station (devoted to books and writing) going, and I’m beginning to wonder whether it will indeed come off. Never mind – it was fun to do, and I did read this book, which I wouldn’t have done otherwise. I really didn’t find it too violent, all things considered, and I would love to know what you make of it.

    Jean – now I keep weighing up whether to watch the film. I had a friend of mine pre-screen it for me and he wrote out a brilliant summary of all the violent bits, letting me know how violent they were (I can read things no problem, but seeing them on film is much harder). I’m very tempted to watch it precisely because I’d love to see how the characters turn out!

    Kathleen – I’d love to know what you make of it!

    Jenny, you know what? There are a LOT of books out there, all looking tremendously appealing. I would go for the most appealing ones and when you’ve run out of those, consider the second rung. Sure it’s a good book, but then again, it’s not so drop dead brilliant that I’d run out and shove it into your hands.

    Lilian – always VERY wise to know one’s own reading responses! And no need to put yourself through an experience that might not turn out well. Swedish crime is big at the moment – might be worth considering a different author (if you are still reading crime!).

    Lily – how marvellously tempting that sounds! I can think of little nicer than companionable reading (with desultory chat – it absolutely has to be desultory, which is a great word). And thank you, I am resting a lot and gradually feeling more human and am very thankful it’s the summer holidays when I get to have this time off guilt-free. Would love to know what you make of this book – it’s an interesting one for a writer, I think. Not perfect by any means, but intriguing.

    nicole – I figure there’s always some interest to be got out of any reading experience and so you need never feel guilt. If you’re thinking while reading, what’s to be guilty about? For me, I find genre fiction completely fascinating as a topic for lit crit. It’s so culturally saturated. I’m glad you enjoyed it while you were reading it!

    Emily – I wondered how much I was insulated to the violence because I’d been so overprepared. There’s a lot of mileage in that topic – how anticipating a book alters the experience of it. I think also, it’s disturbing because it’s sexual violence, as opposed to just shoot ’em up stuff. That’s probably a bit more shocking in its way. I’d love to hear about your experience of reading this, though, so do write it!

    Tom – isn’t that the difficulty! Trying to get everything fitted in. I’m looking forward to the next books in the series, but, like you, there’s been a lot of other wonderful books jostling for position too. I’m very glad to hear you enjoyed this.
    Harriet – ooh, interested to know what you think of the second one!

  11. I love this review! You nailed everything I thought but could never have articulated! You must, indeed, read two and three. I was so intrigued after the first, I sent to England for the second, where it came out many months earlier than here. I was very popular amongst my reading buddies around last Christmas. I found the whole Swedish darkness fascinating, as well as the dirty politics underlying everything. Thanks for reviewing – it was fun to read your impressions!

  12. Thanks for the gender distinctions; I like the ambivalence. My wife is a fan of Stieg Larsson, so she was looking forward to the movie very much. As my background is Swedish several people have mentioned it to me, too, so I looked forward to seeing it with her — and was completely unprepared for how violent it was. I think the Svensk title clues you in a better better: Män som hatar kvinnor which means “Men Who Hate Women.”

    While well made, I’m not intrigued enough to read this or any of the other books. More than just a plot device, the violence just feels like a con to me.

    Interestingly, I read somewhere recently that a prominent Swede took the culture to task for its boring predictability. Cradle to grave socialism has both made life safer, but perhaps also taken out some of its excitement, too.

    I kept thinking about that as the body count piled up. I had a hard time buying in to a plot with so many horrific, grisly murders in a country known for safety and self-policing. But perhaps I need to shut off the analysis and ride along for the “thrills” a bit more. *shrug*

  13. Qugrainne – it is SUCH a pleasure when my reading experience coincides with that of my blogging friends. I agree – this book got me intrigued by the whole Swedish crime thing, not just the trilogy (although I will certainly read that).

    Ben – Oo-err, the film sounds more alarming still. I guess in the book that body count happens long before the narrative begins and is recounted very quickly and quite briefly. At least, if we’re thinking of the same thing (which given the freedom of adaptations, we may not be).

    On another issue, I will just apologise for being slow in that little project you sent me. Whenever I sit down to read at the moment, I fall asleep – it’s disrupting all my reading! But it’s a normal stage of cfs and will pass, and I will get back to you as soon as I can.

  14. Great review. I’ve also heard mixed reviews about this book and am not immediately drawn to it. Although reading your review made me realise how much it ties up with my (academic) concern with violence, which I’m also getting a little tired of. And that’s such a good point about the feminisation of the male character and the alien-ness of the female one.

    Glad to hear the recovery is going well. Who knew that reading thrillers had restorative powers?

  15. “I find it more comforting to read about people killing one another than falling in love”

    Oh, you made me laugh with that line! I had hoped to get to this book over the summer but it doesn’t appear as though it is going to happen. Well, there’s always fall, right? And then winter or even next summer. Sigh.

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