Late Sunday night, I found myself at the San Jose airport with time to kill before a flight and a desperate need to while away those minutes. I broke down and bought a mass market paperback edition of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — a book which, along with its sequels, has captured much of the public’s attention these last few years. It’s still on all the best seller shelves in stores, It’ll soon boast two film adaptations. Pardon me while I commit literary sacrilege and ask…why?
By the time I boarded the plane, I was probably around the 40-50 page mark. I was bored. The next day, somewhere around page 186, I tweeted the bewildered query, “Is there a point when it quits being boring and starts being awesome?” I just couldn’t fathom how this…slog was one of the most talked-about books in ages. By the time I’d hit the mid-300s, that opinion hadn’t changed. I’m not discounting that this could be in part the translator’s fault, but The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is incredibly tedious prose. At the halfway mark, most of said prose is a flat history of the Vanger family that’s about as thrilling as the “begats” section of the Bible. And the titular gal with the tats…? Is, of course, not the main character. The original Swedish title translates to Men Who Hate Women, which makes much more sense. It’s also as dry and boring as the actual text. The flashier U.S. title makes this story sound much more exciting and female-centric than it really is.
Which leads me to Lisbeth Salander, a new feminist icon for the ages. Or something. I’m guessing that when the book “got awesome” for most readers is when she exacts a shocking revenge against a man who assaults her. It, along with the preceding instances of rape, are the most active moments in an otherwise passive narrative, and I’m guessing that it was a jolt to a lot of readers’ systems. Something finally happens — and it’s all very horrible and graphic and…no doubt titillating on some level. Did I feel for Lisbeth? Did I root for her to win, and to eventually solve the mystery and save Mikael? Of course. But I don’t think her assault served any purpose in the story other than to be awful and misogynistic. And I still found the book a drag afterwards, despite the up-swing when Lisbeth and Mikael finally converge and start solving the Harriet mystery.
People kept telling me “it gets better” and “the last chapters are great.” Since when is something earmarked as great writing just because 100 out of 600 pages are riveting? Well, most often when it’s written by an Old Dead White Guy! Is it possible that The Millennium trilogy is this generation’s version of the stuff I was forced to read in high school and college? Where earnest teachers and professors tried to insist books had value just because somebody dead, white and male wrote it and the prose was inaccessible? From Chaucer to Faulkner to Melville to Poe…the morbid part of me has to wonder: Would this particular book by Larsson have been as globally successful had he not died in 2004? Most lauded novelists get their best accolades after they go toes up. And it’s all a matter of word-of-mouth and reputation after that. Even if you secretly think Faulkner sucks, he’s Faulkner; everybody knows his books are classic! Similarly everyone knows The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is great! (If “everybody” didn’t skim at least a few pages, you can slap me upside the head and call me Talullah.)
Not that I think it’s just Old Dead White Guy-ism at work. First, there’s America’s remake/import fever. Mired in the delusion that there are no original ideas anymore, if they can nick something from another country, it’s like striking gold. So, the English translation of the trilogy, plus its film potential, are New Shiny Toys! “Hey, we like meatballs and IKEA and that Ingmar Bergman guy was really deep, so let’s snag this book!” And then there’s the total glossing over of Mikael Blomkvist and the emergence of Lisbeth as the de facto lead of the book (obviously she gains more prominence in the sequels). It speaks a lot to how much people get off on female exploitation and the I Spit On Your Grave-esque revenge fantasy…even if it comes in a small doses in an otherwise non-sadistic work. And that’s ironic, given how the recurring theme The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is about the treatment of women: be it what happens to Harriet Vanger, the rape of Lisbeth, or how Mikael keeps up relations with Erika while seeing other women. Even he, for all his well-intentioned benevolence, is one of the “Men Who Hate Women.” As much as Larsson exposes all those elements, his book also brings the salacious element in — because by virtue of the sex and violence being the only real “movement” in the work, it’s what people remember. No one is reading this for the lengthy discourses on financial skullduggery, or the involved Vanger family tree or Mikael’s quest. They’re reading it because punk-goth Lisbeth is “awesome” after she’s been systematically abused. And it didn’t work for this reader.
I mean, the “good parts” of the story, where Mikael and Lisbeth do all their investigating, just results in more shock value. It’s rapity mcrape rape rape at rape o’clock. And then it goes back to being painfully dull. It’s the same pattern from the first half of the book, just in a shorter amount of pages. (Everything that happened in that first half could have easily been compressed from 350 pages to 150. I kind of shudder to think what the unedited manuscript looked like.) I, ultimately, found The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo interminable, pseudo-intellectual drudgery…so I guess this long, rambling screed was a fitting post on the topic!