Wednesday, April 21, 2010

today: the girl who sold gazillions of books

I'm usually immune to hyped books, as I am immune to hyped films, music, TV or anything really. But enough people whose opinions I respect seemed to like Stig Larrson's Millenium books that I bought and read the first one.

Then the second and the third.

I found them gripping reading. The reason I think that they work so well is that they operate successfully on many levels. As straightforward thrillers, they possess pace, action, mystery and all that stuff in bucketloads (despite the odd ponderous explicative sections). But they also have a number of critical agendas and political points to make, as well as educating the non-Swede about aspects of recent Swedish history.

Rightly, much of the critical focus has been on Larsson's main character - Lisbeth Salander. Invincible female characters are rare in non-romantic fiction. So rare, in fact, that many reviewers have lazily compared her to Lara Croft, as Lara is about the only other female heroine to speak of in recent years. But I see parallels between two other characters. Lisbeth has the tenacity and disarming looks of Veronica Mars (plus the computer skills of Veronica's sidekick Mack) and the skill-set of Modesty Blaise or Jason Bourne.

Whatever- it's clear that Salander is a pure fantasy figure. There is something somewhat unsettling about the fetishisation of her pubescent physique and childish aura matched with her rapacious sexual appetite. There is also something rather traditional about the way she has to rely on male father figures, even whilst denying that she needs them. The author spends a lot of time condemning mens' belittlement and mistreatment of women, but in the end Salander needs her heroes to survive. In book two especially, the lesbian sex scenes are just a smidgen too frequent and graphic than the plot requires and the descriptions of sexual assault are uncomfortably detailed and lingering. And as well as being a casual bisexual, Salander is in her early twenties, yet declares desire for both her father figures Blomquist the journalist and Dragansky, her boss at the security firm. Both are pretty much double her age.

And even without knowing too much about Larsson, it appears that Blomquist himself is a wish fulfilment fantasy too. In a book written by a middle aged campaigning journalist, a middle aged campaigning journalist ends up having sex with pretty much every woman he meets of any age, whilst exposing corporate and political corruption and escaping various assassination attempts with relative ease. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe that pornographic British stereotyping of the Swedish as the shag-bunnies of Europe is true. Maybe in Sweden the average campaigning journalist is not a beer-bellied, boozy, balding pencil wielder but James Bond.

One of the levels on which the novels succeed is in the absurdity of their plotting. They are on the very edge of believable, but somehow do not spin into the realm of the incredible. Convenient connected coincidences and conspiracies abound (Blomquist just happens to be walking past when Salander is attacked near her apartment, he just happens to be visiting his friends moments after they've been killed, Salander just happens to leave her fingerprints on both a gun and a coffee cup to make her prime suspect in a triple murder, whilst being Salander's guardian, Bjurmann, just happens to be also caught up in the sex-trafficking that Blomquist's colleagues are investigating and Salander's father and brother are also deep into, without trying Cortez uncovers dodgy business deals made by Berger's new boss, Berger just happens to start a new job with someone she went to school with but doesn't recognise, Blomquist happens to know someone who knows someone who works in the hospital in Gothenburg etc etc) and everyone is rather intimate in a way that is totally unrealistic. You come away from the books believing that Stockholm (a capital city of 750,000 people) is more like a tiny village with about 50 important inhabitants plus some other folk. But the complexity and gripping originality of the stories means that it's all pretty easy to forgive. Even the strange insertion of a heroic championship boxer in book three becomes acceptable. In fact the audacity to use things like coincidence to such a degree are signs of Larsson's burgeoning confidence as a writer the further the trilogy proceeds.

Despite mixing literary and film genres - police procedural, hi-tec thriller, international crime novel, chase movie, spy thriller, political thriller, Woodward and Bernstein conspiracy, existential Swedish art film, gangster saga, generation x nihilist slacker movie and soapy bonkbuster - just to name a few, the trilogy remains resolutely traditional. The goodies are pretty much all good, the baddies are badder than bad and everyone gets the comeuppance they deserve. Nothing wrong with that. It would be churlish to ask any reader to invest in 1700 pages without getting a deeply satisfying conclusion.

It's a trick that's extremely hard to pull off. Novels that pretty simple, but just beneath the surface are complex enough to exert fascination as well as pure entertainment. When I finished book three at 2.30 a.m., I immediately wanted to go onto book four to see where Larsson would take his characters. Then I remembered he was dead, and that book four was never finished.

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