Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Many Murderers of Women Go Free."

"Women disappear all the time. Nobody misses them. Immigrants. Whores from Russia. Thousands of people pass through Sweden every year."

If you're not one of the 14 million+ who bought it at least one of its volumes, then you have most certainly seen these books in stores and being read by fellow passengers on the plane and subway. In a rare feat for translated fiction in the American market, Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy (translated from Sweden by Reg Keeland) has achieved blockbuster status and there's really not much I can say about it that hasn't already been said.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of those books whose immense popularity occurs despite its actual writing. Unlike The Da Vinci Code and a certain SPARKLY!vampire series, Larsson's prose isn't really bad but it's nothing special either. With his detailed, extremely complex depictions of hardcore computer hacking, high-stakes financial maneuvering, and the inner workings of journalism, Larsson comes across more as one of those geeks who decided to put his in-demand expertise to creative use. Another inspiration was clearly his passion for feminism and leftist politics. The original Swedish title was Män Som Hatar Kvinnor, or Men Who Hate Women, which should give you an idea of Larsson's deft subtlety.

So did I like it?

Well to begin with, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is easily the fastest long book I've ever read, despite being swelled to nearly 600 pages by way too much extraneous information. (In the beginning, for example, there's a whole chapter detailing a business scam that has little to do with the rest of the plot.) The story blends family saga, crime fiction, psychological thriller, and the protest novel, and the plot twists are a huge improvement over the prose. In other words, as The New Yorker recently observed, Larsson is a surprisingly good storyteller.

For me, as an aficionado of translated literature, the most fascinating aspect of Dragon Tattoo was Sweden itself, seen by many Americans as this socialist Happyland. Stieg Larsson portrays it as a total Crapsaccharine World where abuse and corruption lurk beneath the veneer of a progressive society and journalists are too spineless to raise the alarm. While reading Palace Walk last month it was easy for me to say, "Oh, that was long ago in an alien culture." Here, there is no such detachment. Sweden was named the World's Best Country for Women by the World Economic Forum in 2005, the same year Män Som Hatar Kvinnor was first published. *epic wallbang splat*

The primary subject matter (sexual violence against women) is quite intense and I think I'll take a break before picking up The Girl Who Played with Fire. But judging from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the rest of the Millennium trilogy promises some real hard-hitting drama and I look forward to see where Larsson takes us next in the dark side of paradise.

Trigger warning for graphic depictions of rape, torture, and incest.


Isabella said...

Who knew Sweden could be so gritty and sleazy and corrupt! I loved this series -- especially the computer hacking bits (is there a genre of computer hacking novels I don't know about? shouldn't there be?). I think I like the middle book best, but that shouldn't stop anyone from reading the whole series.

Amy said...

I tore through these books too, in spite of having to pause and wrinkle my nose at some of the writing. Have you read the next one yet? After you've read it, search for Nora Ephron's New Yorker parody. It's hilarious, but it does have spoilers.

E. L. Fay said...

Isabella: You might want to check out cyberpunk. Masamune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell and Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash are my two favorites. As for computer-hacking fiction that takes place today, I don't know any but I'm sure there is an ocean of it out there.

Amy: Thanks for the tip! Always up for good, intelligent literary parody.

Anonymous said...

I read the first two books, but never managed to finish the third. The extraneous details get worse as you progress through the trilogy.

mel u said...

As Sweden is on most indexes as among the least corrupt countries in the world over all, I have had the first book in this trilogy for about a year-I hope to get through at least that soon and will then decide on parts 2 and 3-I enjoyed your post a lot

E. L. Fay said...

Softdrink: That's what I've been hearing. I think the books were published in a rush because of Larsson's impending death so there wasn't much time for editing. Doesn't seem to have hurt sales, though.

Mel U: Yes, Sweden certainly has a great international reputation. I think this trilogy has opened a lot of people's eyes to the fact that abuse exists everywhere.

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