The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Part 2)

The second review I wrote on Stig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was for The L Magazine. The full text is below, or you can read it on their website, here.

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Although Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s posthumous debut, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, has much to recommend it to English-reading audiences — including a dizzying array of plotlines involving a global corporate conspiracy, an Agatha Christie-esque ‘locked-room’ disappearance scenario, Swedish Nazism, and a series of Biblically influenced murders — the novel’s most compelling element will surely be Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous hacker genius who embodies a distinctly un-Scandinavian respect for karmic revenge and vigilantism.

The novel’s sexy English title certainly pulls focus to Salander, but its original Swedish rendering — Men Who Hate Women — is a far better indicator of where its real concerns lie. Throughout the narrative, the reader’s attentions are repeatedly drawn back to moments of graphic, sadistic and systematic violence against women. Even when the plot seems most divergent from these moments of victimization, Larsson refocuses attention: each of the novel’s four sections are preceded with increasingly dire statistics about violence against women in Sweden; the narrative’s most horrific scene of sexual violence is punctuated by a tender moment between the story’s male lead and his lover.

Larsson’s ability to visit almost excessively appalling traumas on his female characters can only be excused by his evident horror that all of these atrocities go almost completely unnoticed, not only by the book’s male characters, but also that most allegorical of male stand-ins: a well-intentioned but ultimately inadequate Swedish society. One woman is abused by family members for decades right under the watchful gaze of her guardian. Another — a former psychiatric patient and ward of the state — is repeatedly abused by her governmentally appointed trustee.

Enter Lisbeth Salander, a resourceful anti-heroine who might comfortably kick ass in a Vin Diesel flick. Arguably the novel’s most victimized character, Salander responds to abuse with retaliation, rejecting help from the police (“visor-clad brutes”) and women’s crisis centers, because they “existed for victims, and she had never regarded herself as a victim.” Instead, Salander blackmails, mutilates, drains bank accounts and stalks those who have abused her and other women. She’s clearly a figure of promise and redemption for Larsson, a woman who, even after suffering the worst ordeals, will not allow herself to be subjugated.

Given the novel’s despairing revelation that society is unable to effectively locate and punish rapists and chronic abusers of women, the presence of a proud, capable and vengeful female character is, in some ways, quite refreshing. But while Salander’s ability to come back swinging may appeal to a reader’s own sense of fair retribution, she is ultimately a deeply flawed creation. Her stoicism reads as a lack of emotional depth, and Larsson does his heroine an injustice by not allowing her to experience genuine suffering at any point.

If, instead of highlighting the fact that “apart from the tears of pure physical pain she shed not a single tear,” Larsson let Salander experience shock and trauma after being assaulted — if Salander overcame, rather than stifled, the myriad emotional consequences that result from sexual abuse — her triumphs would be far greater. As it stands, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo resigns itself to a world in which covert, unpunished sexual crimes are the norm, and vigilantism is a woman’s only possible source of justice.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Part 1)

Stieg Larsson’s debut novel in his Millennium trilogy was the subject of the first review I wrote for the phenomenal website Three Percent, which is dedicated to reviews, news, and general points of interest about literature in translation. I also wrote about the book for The L (see ‘Part 2’)-both as a review and also part of a piece discussing the novel within the greater context of Scandinavian crime fiction.

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Something Rotten in the Welfare State:
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Originally published on Three Percent, Sept. 16, 2008

In his 2001 article, “Scandinavian Crime Novels: Too Much Angst and Not Enough Entertainment?” author Bo Tao Michaëlis relates an American publisher friend’s understanding of Scandinavian crime novels:

You [Scandinavians] contrive to express this simultaneously social and existential anxiety in your crime novels in such a way that it . . . is self-critical, self-tormenting even . . . In your world, the typical crime novel detective is . . . not happy, and all the time his job makes him aware of the fact that something is rotten in your Scandinavian welfare societies.

The publisher (while perhaps simplifying matters a bit) may as well have been referring specifically to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. For although it does not fit the traditional detective novel format—dizzily combining the incisive social commentary of a political thriller and the ‘whodunit’ hermetic charms of And Then There Were None—it is a novel that is deeply and earnestly concerned with identifying social injustice and—if only vicariously—enacting cold and calculated retribution on those found to be at fault.

Before suffering a fatal heart-attack at the age of 50, Larsson made a name for himself as the journalistic force behind Expo, a magazine dedicated to ferreting out racist, anti-democratic, and extreme right-wing tendencies in Swedish society. Some of these concerns work themselves into Dragon Tattoo—one of the subplots focuses on a family’s deep involvement in the Swedish Nazi movement—but the narrative sets its sights on two primary evils: white collar corruption and malignant, unredressed sexual abuses suffered by women.

Each of these issues could easily be the subject of its own book, but Larsson goes to great lengths to illustrate how both are a product of the same well-meaning, but inadequate society. Larsson paints Swedish society as a place where “financial reporters treated mediocre financial whelps like rock stars” and violent crimes against women frequently go almost completely unnoticed and unpunished. One woman is victimized by family members for decades right under the watchful gaze of her guardian. Another—a former psychiatric patient and ward of the state—is repeatedly abused by her government-appointed trustee. (It bears noting that the novel’s original title—Men Who Hate Women—was far more pointed about these concerns.)

Something is, it seems, certainly rotten in the welfare state. And Larsson responds to his dismal view by producing two anti-heroes uniquely equipped to handle and redress the wrongs they witness occurring around them. There’s Mikael Blomkvist, the dashing and dogged financial reporter who finds himself on the losing end of a libel trial against a powerful and corrupt financier. And then there’s Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous tattooed hacker genius whose ability to recover from repeated trauma and resourcefulness make her the novel’s unabashed figure of promise and redemption.

But while both Blomkvist and Salander play to a reader’s (and perhaps especially an American reader’s) sense of karmic justice—stalking, beating, exposing, and draining the bank accounts of the novel’s multitudinous villains—they, and Salander especially, often reveal themselves to be more caricatures than fully realized characters. Blomkvist remains so fully focused on his original intent to take down his great corporate nemesis, that he seems almost unaffected by the 40-year spree of serial murders that he uncovers and the horrendous ordeal that he goes through at the hands of the killer himself. Salander, one of the novel’s most victimized characters, meets her attackers with one-liners and rejects assistance from the police (“visor-clad brutes”) and women’s crisis centers because they “existed for victims, and she had never regarded herself as a victim.” She’s certainly a powerful character, but her stoicism reads as a lack of emotional depth, and Larsson does her an injustice by not allowing her to experience genuine suffering at any point in the novel.

A compelling, complicated, and even epic read, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a remarkable novel, but one which ultimately resigns itself to a society which will always be blind to the evils beneath its surface, and where vigilantism is one’s only hope for justice.