I don’t watch much TV. I don’t listen to top 40 radio. I’m not enticed by most of what ends up on the New York Times bestseller list. Almost invariably, my first hints that a new pop culture phenomenon is in town are articles, blog posts, or casual conversations full of mysterious references to things I’m clearly supposed to know all about. (“‘Lady Gaga?’ Are people just stringing random words together, now?”) I don’t want to drift off into an entirely different universe from the rest of America, so I sometimes try to watch or read the Hot New Thing that Everyone’s Talking About. This, plus the fact that the waiting list at the library was something like 50 hold requests long, is how I ended up buying a copy of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
I did not enjoy The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. If it wasn’t a runaway bestseller—if I hadn’t been curious about why it was a runaway bestseller—I would have quit reading after fifty pages. (When I was a kid I felt honor-bound to finish everything I read. Growing up, and understanding in my gut that my life and reading time were finite, cured that.) Instead I plowed through to the end, and now I feel even more estranged from contemporary Western culture than when I started because, people, I don’t get it.1 I don’t demand Joycean prose from every book, I’m capable of loving pulp, but reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is like being mumbled at by an oatmeal salesman. There’s no rhythm to the prose at all, so it doesn’t have the pace or the drive a suspense book needs. It moves like a cramped lumpen gray blob. Every other sentence is subtly suboptimal. Most take a bit too long to get where they’re going, but even a lot of the shorter sentences are screwed up. This one’s from page 67 of my paperback copy: “She had that effect on him. She always had had.”
It’s hard to tell how much of this might be down to the translation. Sometimes the prose reads like the work of someone whose first language isn’t English. (The same page perpetrating the “had had” line also includes the phrase “in less than a week they realised this conviction”. That’s not wrong, but also not the way most contemporary English-speakers use “realised.”) But a lot of the awkwardness seems baked into the core of the book. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo reads like a first draft, like a story that came out long not because that was its natural length but because the author didn’t have time (or didn’t know how) to make it shorter. Lisbeth Salander breaks her laptop and goes shopping for a new one; Stieg Larsson gives us the complete technical specifications for both. Mikael Blomkvist uses a particular piece of software; Larsson gives us the URL of its website, presumably in case we want to download it ourselves. Blomkvist pays a brief visit to a cabin where he picks up a clue; he doesn’t spend much time there, but Larsson inventories all the furniture, every book on the shelves, and even the contents of the tool shed. He often spells points out in detail as though he’s afraid the audience might be too obtuse to pick up on them. My favorite genres tend to depend on “incluing,” the technique of delivering exposition through implication, so reading TGWTDT felt like talking to a tech support guy who wouldn’t listen to a word I said until he’d spent half an hour establishing that, no, really, I hadn’t just forgotten to plug in the computer.
(There are spoilers coming, incidentally. Although many of the surprises in this book are unpleasant enough that you might prefer to be warned.)
Judging from the reactions I’ve seen, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo caught on because of the characters—or because of one character, because most of the people in this book are pretty bland. Larsson seems to have put most of his imagination into Lisbeth Salander. Salander, for those who have a rock like mine to live under, is a cross between Tank Girl and Rain Man, and she’s pretty much what people talk about when they talk about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. As the English-language publishers must have anticipated, since they came up with that title themselves.
But if people are reading this book for Salander, I have to wonder how they can stand to read about the things this book does to her. (I won’t go into specifics, because they’re the kind of specifics most people wouldn’t care to unexpectedly stumble across in the middle of a book review.) This book’s original title was Men Who Hate Women. It was intended to condemn violence against women. It doesn’t do this very well. Actually, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo feels pretty damn misogynistic itself. Here I should point out that a book is not its author, it may not share its author’s world view, and the space between the lines may carry messages the author never intended and would never agree with. I have no reason in the world to think that Stieg Larsson was not sincerely outraged about violence against women. But TGWTDT reads less like a condemnation of violence than a novel that perpetrates violence against its characters.
Why? Well, we come back to bad writing. The first third of the book puts Salander in a particularly nasty situation. It’s clear before very long that this situation has absolutely nothing to do with the plot: Salander resolves it and the book never mentions it again. The novel doesn’t need these scenes to develop the theme: as the plot unfolds, TGWTDT’s heroes uncover enough evil to fuel a dozen polemics. It feels like this novel puts its main character through hell for no reason at all beyond sheer malignity.
Remember how I mentioned that TGWTDT obsessive-compulsively describes everything in way the hell too much detail? It doesn’t let up when it’s talking about violence. As a result, TGWTDT seems very interested in violence. Too interested. And not nearly interested enough in its victims.
The old-school murder mysteries I’m used to reading put some work into their victims. This is where they get their moral centers. In good detective novels the victims are very present. The black holes they’ve left behind catch everything else in their orbits. Even the coziest murder mysteries have an undercurrent of tragedy; even the most comic never let the reader forget they’re laughing past the graveyard. Most of TGWTDT’s victims don’t even have names. Once Salander and Blomkvist uncover their serial killer, once he’s conveniently suicided himself out of the narrative, Salander insists, mostly because she doesn’t feel like dealing with the police—and, to be fair, over Blomkvist’s feeble objections—on a cover-up. Their wealthy patron will identify as many victims as he can—barring police resources, probably not many—and slip their families some cash. Of course, they’d probably rather know what happened to their loved ones… but, hey, they’re nobody we know or care about, so I guess their grief must be less important than our heroes’ convenience.
(Could this be part of the basis for the last couple decades’ interest in serial killer stories? That, with so many victims, the audience doesn’t have to care about any of them? If so, the serial killer fad is sicker than I thought!)
What we have here is a novel pleading for empathy towards victims of violence… which appears to have absolutely no empathy for the victims of its own fictional violence. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo reminds me of something Kit Whitfield blogged about a while back, what she calls the “Well Said Fallacy”:
The automatic assumption that something is well executed because you agree with its morals or message. The cry of ‘well said!’ is fine to praise someone for saying something that needed saying, but should never be confused with ‘well put’.
The “Well Said Fallacy” has a corollary: It’s not enough that a book has something to say. If it doesn’t say it well, it’s probably not getting its message across. And sometimes it might just appear to say the opposite of what its author intended.