Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Otherwise known as "Men Who Hate Women" by Swede Steig Larsson.  My review, one of millions out there: 3 of 5 stars or a solid C.  Readable but there were not-insignificant problems. A Boston friend, also a reader, gave me the set with the ok to pass them on when I'm done and a hint to read it for Salander which bore out. If you'd like to try them, sing out and I'll send them to you once I figure out if I'm reading the next 2 installments.

Oftentimes my 3 star reviews mean "readable but doesn't really stand out in any way".  In this case, it's an average of 1 and 4 stars, rounded up because it ended better than it started, made some points (if clumsily) that I can get behind, and I'm allowing slack for it being a translation from the Swedish.

The short version is that it's a mystery in a mystery with some story at the end and infodump up the wazoo on the front end making it easy to put down for two thirds of the book.  There are characters you want to like doing dumb enough things that it would be easy to give up on them, but they do better things too.  There's really nasty violence that I felt was more than the story required, in order to make the point that ignoring and excusing violence is bad and violence poisons lives. The message of how journalists need to investigate, not just fluff those they're reporting on couldn't be more important.  We're introduced to Mikael, a writer/publisher who tries to walk that walk, and Salander, an odd young woman with a penchant for unearthing secrets.  When they work together, the story works, but until then it's a chore emeshed with wallbanging obstacles.  I have the feeling that my desire to start the next book has more to do with the gruesome allure of rubbernecking at a trainwreck than wanting to read it for enjoyment or worthier feeling.

The long version is after the jump.  If you're concerned about spoilers, skip the paragraph starting and ending with the word "spoiler".  BTW, I generally don't consider anything in the first 20% of a book as a spoiler, especially if it's easy to predict.

The good stuff:
Having once stayed with my friend's neighbors in Trondheim, Norway, and seen people eat open faced sandwiches slathered with fish, fish eggs, and brown cheese, *for breakfast*, I was charmed somewhat by the setting, the food and housing descriptions.  I also know that there are some things about daily life that are the same between the US and various european/scandinavian countries, and things that are not.  It was pleasing to have the opportunity to read a book that was both familiar yet strangely not in the assumptions about what normal life is. 

One of those things was the blase sexual relationships.  In the healthy, consenting adults, they were pretty relaxed about things, and went with the flow and the author did not ignore these relationships.  There was some drama around that, but not nearly as much as there would be in an American novel, and it was pretty much the least of the dramas in the work. (The Smart Bitches review says they treated sex as if it were a reflex like sneezing and that's pretty on point.  It was not danced around, nor was it overblown, and if it caused some need to clean up afterward, there was no shame.)

The blandness of the protagonist Mikael brought a calmness to a book that didn't need him to be overdramatic even if it did make him a bit forgettable.  The "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" also had several other tattoos, many secrets, skills, and an oddball way of navigating the world.   She is the real "hero" of the book, for without her, this book would read like a newspaper account of the documenting of the finding of a serial killer.  She was the reason I kept reading, even though she was also the biggest reason I nearly stopped reading.

Because the novel was a story nested in a story nested in a story, there were several climactic zones making a long payout for the upfront drudgery.  Situations were resolved with more good happening than bad, which is a win for me.

The neutral and issues with translation.
If someone set a novel in California and had the protagonist move from Beverly Hills to Compton, we'd all know they were going from ritzy to a challenging neighborhood.  I did not have that background to draw similar judgments about the Swedish counterparts.  It would have helped me to have a footnote on the page stating some of the assumed information that would add understanding or atmosphere.  Assuming that there was intent for that to happen.  It wouldn't be necessary for random street names, but when the author says, "Norsjo was a small town with one main street, appropriately enough called Storgatan." I need to know more.  I'm guessing it means "street of stores".  This, though, is the Mouse vs. Molehill issue.   If in one culture "don't make something out of nothing" is said "don't make a mountain out of a molehill", do you translate it to Russian using their equivalent, "Don't make an elephant out of a mouse"?  Do you translate the idiom-meaning or the literal equivalent? You will lose or at least shift something either way.  There were several spots where I felt something like that happened, for which I will not knock the book.

I'm pretty sure the prose is declarative and descriptive because the author intended it and because he was a crime reporter or some such and was used to writing that way; the the style is not a comfortable or usual one for me to read.  Just often enough to make me expect it more often than it was used, he'd throw in something more personal than an external description.   In other words, the Point of View was severely detached from the characters, except when it wasn't.   90% of the book was written as if the author were watching a drama in a diorama, but every so often we'd dive into someone's head like "Salander thought that no research she had ever done before had contained even a fraction of the scope of this assignment."  Mikael was described almost totally from the outside, but there were snatches of Salander's thoughts that I think made her more sympathetic and understandable, if not actually relatable.  I think that's due to the fact that he created Salander to have extremely limited verbal communications, and few people to speak for her, so background information about her appeared to be from her thoughts and memories and feelings.

Someone must have told Larsson at some point that it was better to have dialogue than just infodump sections of story.  The problem is that monologues and narrations are not dialogue, they're just infodump in quotations, and he didn't seem to get that. And since even most of the action is described in an expository way more than and active way, most of the book, and certainly the first 400 pages, read as backstory more than story.  When Mikael and Salander started interacting, it finally felt like story.  And some of that was quite well done.

Personally, I didn't need 400 pages of backstory.  It was extremely easy to walk away from the book the instant someone said, "well, I'll tell you, but first you need to know..." for the 18th time.  It was infodump nested within infodump nested within infodump until I wanted to rip full chapters out of the book.  We could have skipped maybe 6 chapters if he'd put the family chart in the middle of the book and made it a little more detailed.  I kept coming back to see if Salander would do something interesting.

Ironically, Salander's path getting interesting was where I nearly gave it up altogether.  Salander is, essentially, a ward of the state and has a guardian.  She gets a new guardian and does the equivalent of tiptoeing into the forest to see why none of the other girls have come back to the haunted house after they screamed. [yes this is halfway through the book, but it's only a fifth of the way into her fraction of it, so it's not a spoiler by my definition.] Serious, serious "too stupid to live (TSTL) behavior and choices and thought patterns.  These thought patterns do not serve her well in the middle of the book.  At all.  She's a complete idiot and the reasons are a day late and a dollar short.  She takes revenge, but it's not nearly good enough.  A start, but there may be nothing that's good enough.   Skip the next paragraph if you don't want spoilers.

Spoilers here in my grievance:
The scenes in the middle occur before Salander is sufficiently fleshed out.  We need to know more about her beyond the fact that her childhood was traumatic enough that she rarely speaks to anyone, particularly authority figures.  Because she walks into a bad, bad attack that she was smart enough not to walk into.  Part of the horror of it was that it was escalated so far beyond her and our expectations.  But therein lies a problem.  The attacker felt he had her at his mercy and I really think there would have been a longer period of escalation.  Sure, it could happen that he goes from 0 to 100 in 3 seconds, but not believably.  Plus, the only way it is believable is if he's done this a LOT. He's quite confident and decisive and practiced in this matter. He does things that are potentially fatal without killing or permanently disfiguring her.  Either with or without the extreme escalation, it's clearly not his first time attacking someone under his influence.  When Salander, who is better at finding secrets than anyone, cannot find even whispers of shadows of hints of past crimes, it's utterly unbelievable.  She's probably the only person in a million that wouldn't go to a hospital to heal from injuries inflicted, even if only to get an STD test.  Someone he had contact with in the past 20 years wound up in the hospital or they disappeared.  Plus, this whole scene was character violation from start to finish in addition to being overly gruesome.  The author claimed Salander was operating by her own script, but she's a bright gal.  She's had 11 years of a well meaning guardian to give her room and encouragement to think of other ways of solving her problems than the one in that tiny, tiny box she uses.  Speaking of which, why didn't her other guardian start proceedings to get her official status backed down from full custody as she gained her majority and performed all the necessary tasks to keep a job and a roof over her head?  This whole section is full of holes and her excuses for not confiding in any living soul simply do not fly with me.  They're excuses for doing dumbass things, not something she shows tolerance for in others with similar provocations.  Later on, these same reactions actually work well for the situation that she and Mikael find themselves in, in an odd sort of way, which makes the earlier faults more understandable, but still not excusable. The attack or after-attack action could have been handled more reasonably which would have improved the continuity of character. /rant /spoilers

The bad.  Mostly described in the previous paragraphs it can be summed up as unnecessary, clunky, nested infodump added to characters who are insufficiently explained to the reader to justify some really dumbass decisions (let's go run in the spooky woods of the town I'm being warned to stay away from!nothing could go wrong there!), lots of "0 to 60" sex (good and bad) that really needs more runup than "Hi, My name is X, I like your breasts," too many extraneous characters with too-similar/same names. (Yes, Gunnar is a popular name.  You don't need 4 of them.)  I was able to get through the book after I wrote invectives after the parts that pissed me off particularly. (Force fed foreshadowing! Having a publishing backer isn't corruption until your backer changes your story.) I tried to do it because so many people like the book and it wasn't unreadable, it was just clunky.

As affable as Mikael was, he was kind of a shit too.  It might have helped if we'd been privy to more of his thoughts, but his daughter was completely off his radar unless she parked herself in his way.  He'd call his married girlfriend 4 times a day for a week, but wouldn't call his daughter for 6 months, even to tell her he was out of jail.  Which was clearly not an American hell-hole jail, BTW, but that's a topic for another time.  Every other fiction or non-fiction account I've read of someone going to jail talks about how the loss of autonomy in a jail, even if just there for an hour or two, has a profound effect on the psyche, but Mikael preferred it somewhat to his cabin "working exile", even though cabin "working vacation" was clearly an established pattern for him.  It didn't impact his psyche in any way, shape, or form.  It could, in future, maybe be related to Salanders legal situation to bind the story tighter, but I don't expect that as for Mikael it's a disposable experience.   As are most of his "relationships".   He is kind to people and animals but he doesn't really care about them in the specific. He cut his best friend of 20 years out of the story of his life (not Harriet), and holes up to write it without her input.  That doesn't show me him treating her as a partner. It's a damned odd way to operate.

Similarly, Salander is presented as someone with no contacts, no connections (but her boss and former guardian) and no power but we find out that she has powerful counterculture contacts, regular contact with amiable friends who accept what she presents to them, "dates" enough to practice conversation, but can't see past her nose when confronted with authority. She uses her connections to thwart authority all the time, but never for herself when she's most in need - WTF? Then she has an as yet inexplicable insecurity about her breast size, when just about everything else about her physical self seems to be a tool that is/isn't useful.  "Of all things" is the phrase that comes to mind.  Yes, some people transfer stresses or insecurity about one area of their lives to another, but the late gate breast fixation's just odd.  We needed more about Salander to come out earlier in the book.  Maybe some will be in the next one, but that gets dicey too as there's serious implication that she was dreadfully abused in her past.

To end the bad, there's a lot of violence against women described in this book.  There're also people who treat women just fine or ignore them altogether, but the violence edges into gratuitous.  The point he tries to make is that it's appalling that crimes against women often go not only unpunished but unnoticed.  I can get behind the sentiment, but I can get behind the sentiment without seeing the details of the horrors.  Too many horrors come off like booze ads that say "don't DRINK DRINK DRINK too much"; the message coming through is more "here are more creative ways to hurt women" than "here are ways to be love to women, don't be one of those guys".  The sneak peak of the next book features more such horrors, making me wary.  I don't need the evil in my head.

Does the good outweigh the bad?
Do I read the next one?
I do wonder if, now that Salander and Mikael interact, there will be more story in the next book and less infodump backstory.  Because once Steig hit critical mass of information and encounters, his rhythm and pacing were pretty good, the story became compelling, and ended with some justice. I don't share the misgivings about the ending that seem to be more common in the negative reviews - the series of conclusions seemed to come from what we had been given But it took serious dedication and bitching on my part to get there, and I'm not sure if I'm the better or the worse for it.  I can only recommend it mildly, with qualifiers.

Similarly, you may be wondering if you should have read this far.  I was clearly up too late finishing the book, and being over-tired makes me over-verbose.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I know what you mean. Larsson’s writing reminds me a lot of Neil Stephenson’s more recent books. With some good editing, both authors could cut out hundreds of pages. In this case, I think he probably could have condensed all 3 books into one and still gotten the story across.

It’s funny that you commented on Blomkvist’s daughter, since I don’t think she’s mentioned ever again the later books. He continues to throw in lots of new characters with very similar names, many of them are just filler. You do eventually learn the details of Salander’s past and the reasons for her aversion to authority and it all makes some sense in the end, but it’s not until the end of the third book that everything gets explained. There are a few more violent scenes, but not as bad as the first book, mostly.

I guess I found Salander’s character interesting enough to keep reading, but the faults of the first book continue and new faults are added. None the less, I still found it to be enjoyable enough to finish.


My musings said...

I've been meaning to read this book, but never got around to it. Might pick it up one of these days just to see what the hype is all about.

CrankyOtter said...

Definitely both Larsson and Stephenson would do well with some heavier handed editing. An editor that would know when they were losing their audience. Stephenson just got more and more longwinded until I snapped and couldn't take it anymore.

I'll probably read the next two. Salander, at least, is interesting, and the fact that it's not written by an american are two big draws. I am drawn to characters who are really, really good at what they do, even if the author takes a while to get there.

Anonymous said...

I just came across this post in the New Yorker that pretty much sums it up.