The success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and its two sequels, is staggering. Worldwide these books have sold 73 million copies. Stieg Larsson died in 2004 before he saw even a fraction of this eventual success. As the New Yorker reports, the author wanted to leave his then modest wealth to a local branch of Sweden’s Communist Workers’ Party, but because there was no witness, the will was invalid, leaving his family members and girlfriend to squabble over his fortune.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was made into a popular Swedish film, as were the sequels, and then David Fincher of Se7en and The Social Network fame embarked on an American remake a mere two years later. I’ve seen two of the Swedish films—in fact, I committed the supposedly cardinal sin of doing so before I even touched the book. But as the New Yorker points out, these books most probably work better as films. For one, the films are beautiful to look at. (I now really, really want to go to Stockholm!) Also, they’re incredibly violent, and we all know that spectators of the modern era revel in scenes of brutality, torture and revenge. Furthermore, the highly talented cast of actors adds substantial depth to the characters.
Our two heroes are Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander: he is the veteran publisher of the muckraking magazine Millennium (an echo of Larsson’s own career with the real-life magazine, Expo); she is a traumatized bisexual goth-punk with an astonishing acumen for hacking into computers and digging up dirt on people.
Part of what accounts for the book’s popularity, I think, is that it’s incredibly easy for the reader to follow the investigative methods employed by these two purportedly brilliant researchers. At one point, Salander wants to find out more about the unsolved murder of a woman called Magda. So what’s the first thing she does? She types “Magda” and “murder” into the Google search engine. In the sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, Blomkvist imparts some journalistic wisdom to a young intern: how exactly do you find out the address of a potential criminal who is trying to evade detection? The answer is the old “lottery trick”: you call the person and say they’ve won a valuable smartphone and ask for their address for the purpose of delivering the prize. It’s the sort of thing a fourteen year-old would think up.
This is the wonderful thing about Larsson: he writes with the unrestrained joy for invention that, with education, is typically beaten out of most writers. There are plot holes, utter implausibilities and scads of extraneous information. In the hands of a professional editor, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would probably be 300 pages instead of its door-stopping 800+. But would 300 pages have kept me occupied during a flight to Edmonton and through the 9-hour delay on the flight back?
Size, in this case, really does matter.
There is an exemplary section of prose that represents well, I think, Larsson’s strange technique. These books were hurriedly translated from Swedish and so allowances must be made, but I’m guessing that since little to no editing occurred, this is a pretty fair picture of how Larsson actually wrote. This is from a scene in which Salander is beating up an arch-villain:
“Do you like pain, creep?” Salander said.
Her voice was as rough as sandpaper. As long as Blomkvist lived, he would never forget her face as she went on the attack. Her teeth were bared like a beast of prey. Her eyes were glittering, black as coal. She moved with the lightning speed of a tarantula and seemed totally focussed on her prey as she swung the club again, striking Martin in the ribs.
Glorious. Simply glorious! Here’s a writer who has no qualms about conjuring the image of a tarantula swinging a club. He’s in thrall to metaphor. What’s important here? That Salander is super-dangerous. What better way to convey it than by comparing her to a deadly spider?
There is a rare optimism in this book. Larsson pits his protagonists against the dark forces of Swedish capitalism, Nazism and corruption, and in the balance, his protagonists fare pretty well. Consider that Blomkvist is a journalist. In the era of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, perhaps we should not be so surprised to see a journalist as a hero, but let’s not forget, Chelsea Manning is behind bars and Snowden and Julian Assange are fugitives. Blomkvist, we are told, is a celebrity in Sweden.
Blomkvist is also inexplicably irresistible to women. Despite being somewhat overweight, a chain smoker, and a compulsive workaholic, women want to sleep with him at every opportunity. Even Salander, who, as is noted several times, is only half his age, can’t refrain from climbing into his bed. It’s as if Larsson is acting out his personal fantasies on the page.
And then there’s Larsson’s obsession with technology. It’s everywhere! Salander doesn’t just buy herself a new computer, she buys herself an “Apple PowerBook G4/1.0 GHz . . . with a PowerPC 7451 processor with an AltiVec Velocity Engine, 960 MB RAM and a 60 GB hard drive.” Larsson doesn’t stop to consider how dated this is going to seem five years later, let alone fifty.
To me, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t read so much as a compelling narrative as it does an intriguing insight into the mind of its creator. And in this respect, it’s awfully hard not to like. Larsson entitled the original Swedish version of the book Men Who Hate Women. To make sure we get the point, each part of the novel opens with a statistic about crimes against women. To make even more sure we get the point, all the villains in this book commit crimes against women. And they all pay the price for it. When he was a teenager, Larsson witnessed the gang rape of a girl and forever afterward felt guilty for doing nothing to stop it. These books seem to have served as some kind of lengthy atonement.
Larsson’s been compared to Alexandre Dumas of The Three Musketeers fame, and perhaps that’s apt. As well as being extraordinarily prolific (3+ massive novels in under four years?!) Larsson has returned us to a time when good truly did triumph over evil, or at least had a fighting chance. It’s thrilling to see Millennium, a tiny fictional magazine, its budget probably not much bigger than Montreal’s maisonneuve or New York’s Jacobin, strike genuine fear into the hearts of the rich and powerful, and moreover, actually cause the downfall of international gangsters and titans of industry. This kind of shit just doesn’t happen in real life. In Larsson’s world, every crooked capitalist should be watching his back for the marauding journalist or intrepid computer hacker who is poised to deliver justice, swiftly and mercilessly. This is not the world we live in, but perhaps it should be.