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Vol. LXIII, No. 37
 
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
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Book Review

Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander — The Girl Read ’Round the World

Stuart Mitchner

The Online Etymology Dictionary defines the phrase “page-turner” as “a book that one can’t put down” and dates it “from 1974.” Apparently no one knows who coined the term, but it would most likely have been a book reviewer or a writer of jacket copy. Minus the hyphen, the phrase turned up in the Metropolitan section of Sunday’s New York Times as the title of a photo spread showing people reading on the subway. According to the unhyphenated usage, every time you read a book you’re a page turner — unless, I suppose, you read it online or on a Kindle.

In any case, I’ve just finished turning the 1093 pages comprising two books that I couldn’t put down: Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Vintage Crime/ Black Lizard $14.95) and its sequel The Girl Who Played with Fire (Knopf $25.95), both translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland. The third volume in “The Millennium Trilogy,” The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, is due to be published next month in England. Stieg Larsson (1954-2004) was the crusading editor-in-chief of the anti-racist magazine Expo. He died of a heart attack shortly after completing the series, which is named for Millennium, the crusading journal that figures prominently in the plot.

Most page-turners are fueled by the reader’s need to know what happens next. The Larsson books are fueled, charged, and ignited by a single electrifying character. While all the engines of the thriller genre are employed in both novels (missing persons, unsolved murders, Grand Guignol denouements), the force that ultimately drives the narrative is Lisbeth Salander. When she’s around, the pages don’t just turn, they fly, which isn’t always a good thing. Moments you might savor whip past in a blur like scenery seen from the window of a fast-moving train.

Not to worry. The trip’s worth it. With Lisbeth Salander, you’re in for a very special ride, and you know it almost as soon as she enters the narrative. The “star researcher” for Milton Security, a Stockholm firm that maintains an image of “conservative stability,” is 24 years old but often looks 14, being only 4’11. She’s pale, thin, with small hands, hair “as short as a fuse, and a pierced nose and eyebrows,” a “wasp tattoo about an inch long on her neck, a tattooed loop around the biceps of her left arm and another around her left ankle.” The dragon tattoo is on her left shoulder blade. A natural redhead who has dyed her hair “raven black” and sometimes wears black lipstick, she has “a wide mouth, a small nose, and high cheekbones” that give her “an almost Asian look.” Besides being a mathematical genius with a photographic memory, she’s never met a hard drive she couldn’t hack; she’s also supremely courageous, as fearless as she is fearful, and when you first see her, she looks as though she’s “just emerged from a week-long orgy with a gang of hard rockers.” While she’s not beautiful, quite the opposite sometimes, “with the right makeup her face could have put her on any billboard in the world.”

In fact, her face is already on billboards in Europe and Scandinavia, thanks to the release of the Swedish film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which is titled Män som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women). Lisbeth is played by a 30-year-old Swedish actress named Noomi Rapace, who has the right attitude for the part, having been quoted to the effect that she’s “interested in the darker sides of humanity, that which is not so easy and well-balanced.”

Witchcraft

If “hair short as a fuse” is Larsson’s way of alerting readers to his creation’s explosiveness, her last name tells you something as well, “Salander” suggesting “salamander,” with its witchy, protean innuendoes. Besides having a flair for disguises, she’s adept at identity theft. Salander’s that rare fictional being, a believably human superhero, and although she confronts horrifically evil adversaries, particularly in The Girl Who Played with Fire, she has no super villain, no Dr. Moriarty, to match wits with. Even a family of psychopaths and the evils of the sex trade appear like stock cliches of the thriller genre once each mystery is solved and each plot untangled. The only other character with any appreciable depth is Mikael Blomkvist, who publishes and writes for Millennium (which is clearly based on Larsson’s Expo) and even he functions mostly as an intermediary between Salander and the reader. He does some admirable detective work in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo as he navigates the house of horrors that is the Vanger family; he’s principled and tenacious, and good in bed, but he never really transcends his role as the stock protagonist.

With so much action to deal with, you may be slow to see that not only are Blomkvist and Salander teaming up, like it or not, against the same evil, they have roots in the Swedish children’s classic, Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking. Larsson has admitted that Salander is based on the idea of a grown-up Pippi, while the boy detective in the series just happens to be named Kalle Blomquist, a connection Salander enjoys mocking her sometime lover Blomkvist with; the connection comes most movingly into play at a crucial moment in The Girl Who Played with Fire, which is when you realize, if you didn’t already suspect as much, that, along with everything else, Larsson’s been writing a love story.

In Dragon Salander and Blomkvist work together, live together, and sleep together. In Fire, even though she does some traveling and has both male and female lovers, she’s essentially on her own. The fact that she’s a murder suspect gives Larsson an excuse to develop and elaborate on her character to the point where she becomes the book’s overriding subject, a one-woman show even when she’s missing in action.

Larsson and Bolaño

The last time I felt this level of drunken infatuation with a novel was reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (reviewed in Town Topics, December 31, 2008). While it may seem pointless to compare the two, it’s worth mentioning that both Larsson and Bolaño died untimely deaths, both at 50, both having produced posthumous works where violence against women is a major theme. As I mentioned, the Swedish title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo translates as Men Who Hate Women, a title that could be applied to the harrowing Santa Teresa portion of 2666, with its gruesome inventory of female murder victims. No one character in Bolaño is as fascinating as Lisbeth Salander. But while Salander is a singular isolated magnetic force, the fascination in Bolaño is everywhere. Larsson’s Sweden is a journalistic compendium of place names, locales, the requisite scenery. Bolaño’s Mexico is a thoroughly imagined work of art. You can vicariously walk the streets of the fictional Stockholm without always looking back over your shoulder. Not so in Bolaño’s Santa Teresa, a terrifying creation where every street ends in an abyss.

What it finally comes down to in the context of page-turners and the people who turn them is that while all too few readers will have the energy and patience to commit to Bolaño’s masterpiece, Stieg Larsson’s novels are brilliantly accessible and, as the saying goes, need no recommendation. In 2008, according to abe.com’s list, Larsson was the second best-selling author in the world after Khaled Hosseini.

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