Last month, I jumped on the pop culture bandwagon that is Stieg Larsson’s Swedish crime trilogy. In record time, I’ve devoured all three books (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), joining the millions of Americans that have made these books such an incredible success. Like every bestseller, the Larsson trilogy begs the question: Why Larsson? Why now? Why are these books so popular, what is it about them that appeals so strongly to American (and worldwide) audiences? I think the answer is simple: Lisbeth Salander. Salander is the main character in Larsson’s trilogy, and she is captivating. Before you read any further, I’ll admit that I am no expert when it comes to crime thrillers. I rarely read this sort of book, but as I cannot resist a pop sensation, I gave Larsson a shot.
Like other bestsellers (The DaVinci Code, Twilight, etc), Larsson’s books are not particularly well-written. Many have noted the excessive use of extraneous detail that colors his prose, and surely, this is a fair critique. While I too, was bored by Larsson’s descriptions, the biggest problem with the writing is that it paints all peripheral characters (and there are perhaps hundreds of peripheral characters) as entirely one-dimensional.
In Larsson’s world, some people (usually men) are simply bad eggs, and these people are beyond redemption or transformation. Case and point, detective Faste, a sexist pig working on the Salander investigation:
“Faste knew better than to argue with a doctor, since they were the closest things to God’s representatives here on earth. Policemen possibly excepted” (Hornet’s Nest 276).
For some reason, this line really stuck with me as an example of what’s wrong with these books. When I first read it, I assumed it must be sarcasm, mocking the way most people (particularly Grandmother’s) exhibit reverence for doctors, medical students, and undergrads who declare themselves pre- med. However, upon closer consideration, I realized that it cannot in fact be read as sarcasm, since Faste seriously does think that policemen might be God’s representatives on earth; and also, since he listens to the doctor he is speaking to, and does not put up a fight. This is just a sentence, but it is indicative of the weaknesses that infiltrate both the writing, and the meaning, of this book. Every move Faste makes is consistent with his characterization as sexist. He hates all women (especially those in authority) and instinctively respects the opinions of men (especially those that occupy respectable positions). We never see him do anything to contradict this behavioral pattern. On the other hand, characters that are painted as good always behave according to their goodness. Great fiction is about great characterization, building fictional figures that have all the contours of real people. Perhaps there are individuals as one-dimensionally sexist as Officer Faste, but I prefer to imagine a world where things are always more complicated than that. I should note that somehow, my critique of Larsson does not hold up in the Swedish film adaptation of the books. The films maintain all of the most compelling elements of the novels, and mercifully have lost all the excess baggage.
The books are successful (in that you KEEP reading) because of two wonderfully drawn characters: Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. Salander is everything that Faste is not allowed to be; she is complex, contradictory, and fascinatingly human. Salander is a brilliant hacker with a photographic memory. She resists all organized structures and lives her life according to her own rules. On occasion, she is extraordinary violent, but only when she feels someone deserves it. Salander is the sort of feminist protagonist you rarely see on television, in theaters, or in fiction. While she refuses to see herself as a victim, Salander has been the recipient of some terribly violent acts by a couple of incredibly sexist men. While many might have reported such incidents (rape, sexual assault, etc.), Salander takes matters into her own hands and destroys the lives (usually not literally, but figuratively) of all the men who attempt to hurt her. There is something viscerally gratifying about such scenes. It is not insignificant that Salander is depicted as a petite woman who refuses to accept that her size and gender might make her inferior in any way.
Blomkist, a womanizing investigative journalist, seeks to destroy the reputations of those institutions, organizations, and governmental bodies that abuse people like Salander (young, seemingly helpless, women). When I spoke about these books with friends, they were quick to inform me that this ‘take down the establishment’ theme is omnipresent among crime thrillers. What I imagine separates this book from others like it is Salander. In certain ways, this book brings Tarantino to the literary world, and in the transition to text, democratizes the appeal. Many people– I will go so far as to say many women– find violence on-screen disconcerting and uncomfortable. But somehow, reading about it is different. I’m sure people are drawn to these books for all sorts of reasons (Laura Miller notes some possible reasons in Salon). I think it’s all about Lisbeth Salander, the girl who does not follow anyone else’s rules and refuses to be fucked with. How often do you get to live vicariously through a protagonist like that?