Mar 15, 2011

[Books] The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The Girl With The Dragon TattooAt times, I admit that I'm a bit of a book snob. There are those authors that I really get into that make me feel good about reading them and even having people know that I like reading them. You know how it is - for a bibliophile, you are what you read and your "book street cred" depends on the kinds of authors you like. Thus at times I proudly tout around the fact that I love writers like Frank Herbert, Haruki Murakami and Neil Gaiman.

Thus there are those authors that I've avoided like the plague since I find their writing overly trite, designed to pander to the masses and are clearly meant more as screenplays-in-waiting as opposed to serious novel efforts. Hence I've done everything that I can to avoid the likes of Dan Brown, Paolo Coelho and John Grisham, to name a few off the top of my head. These are the kinds of books that most people pick up and read and frequently list as part of their favorite books on social network profiles. And I'm not even saying that these are bad authors - they're just the ones that appear to have resonated with a very large audience and this makes them feel less appealing to me. I guess it's the pocket hipster in me or something.

So it's odd that I decided to take the time to read this book (and even buy the other two books in the series) since it does fall into the kind of genre fiction that has become so popular as of late. But then a lot of my friends seemed to like it and I'd like to think that the opinions of said friends should matter since I feel they're pretty intelligent as well. After reading this book, I've chosen to avoid passing judgement on my friends for liking this book - to each their own and all that, right? It's my fault for changing my book-selection strategy at this point in the game when I've rarely been wrong in the past.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, originally Män som hatar kvinnor in Swedish (translated as Men Who Hate Women) is a 2005 crime novel published posthumously after the death of author Stieg Larsson in 2004.

The more or less protagonist of the book is Mikael Blomkvist, the publisher of the financial magazine Millennium in Stockholm, Sweden. The story begins with him being convicted of libel for an article he ran against billionaire industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström and is eventually sentenced to three months in prison. Thus he steps down from the magazine's board of directors and is eventually approached by representatives from another major industry player - Henrik Vanger, former CEO of Vanger Enterprises.

Henrik comes to Blomkvist with a proposal - for him to write a book based on the Vanger family history for him. But the real purpose is more than this family biography of sorts - what he really wants Blomkvist to do is to spend a year investigating the more than 40 year old case of the disappearance of his niece Harriet. The circumstances under which she disappeared presented the proverbial "locked room mystery" concept given it took place on an island that was closed off for the day due to a vehicular accident. Blomkvist eventually agrees, and thus the story really begins.

To be fair, the books were unpublished manuscripts up until his death and initially Larsson had no plans of publishing them. That changed shortly before his death and the publisher moved forward despite Larsson not being alive to witness his eventual success. The book won many awards after its release and has developed worldwide acclaim. This did make the book a bit more appealing to me and add in the fact that some friends raved about it, it seemed like a good idea to get into it.

Coffee and CrimeImage by Let Ideas Compete via FlickrBest of all, Larsson was dead. For me, this meant there would be no more books after the third and thus the integrity of his writing would remain without him going down the dark path many authors end up on as they get committed to multi-book deals, movie adaptations and the like. However, the book fell short of my expectations on a number of fronts and the whole thing certainly felt like the first efforts of a first-time fiction writer. From that perspective, I don't suppose we can really fault him since he never really got a chance to receive feedback on his writing and such.

My biggest problem with the book was the pacing. Perhaps it's a cultural thing and maybe he was trying to capture the feel of life in snow-trapped Sweden in the beginning of the book. However the result we got was a long and drawn-out exposition of the daily lives of the characters including everything they ate, what items they'd purchase for a trip and the exact technical specifications of every computer in the story. I like computers but I don't need a book to tell me the character's laptop was good by listing off how much RAM it had, the processor speed, the hard disk capacity and all that. It wasn't until I got past the first 300 pages that the story began to get interesting (somewhat), and that's because the "investigation" of the disappearance finally gained headway.

Next problem is Larsson's tendency to tell more than show. Longer term readers of this blog are familiar with me using this term when I discuss movies and TV shows. It may not seem like a concept that translates well to books, but it does make sense when you think about it. Instead of immersing us in the character's feelings or perhaps his or her point of view, we get summaries of actions without insight. The listing of daily activities, computer specifications and the like are all manifestations of this tendency to tell rather than show the reader what's happening. The worst was illustrated by how he started the turning point chapter when Blomkvist starts to make headway with the case. He started the chapter by telling us Blomkvist suddenly realized 2-3 new things about the case. I'd quote the line but I don't feel like jumping back into that book right now. Instead of just walking us through his thought process and how he reached the conclusion, Larsson ended up throwing out what you could call a spoiler of sorts (for lack of a better term) for the chapter and then we spend the rest of the time waiting to read about his discovery of clues #2 and #3.

Then we get to Lisbeth Sanders, the secondary lead character who reeks of your stereotypical image of what an older person might perceive to be the "cool" character or the "rebellious computer hacker". She's no a celebration of what a strong female can be - in fact she's a highly masculanized girl who behaves like how a man thinks a butch girl should act. There's a difference here between creating a truly strong female character.

And don't get me started on why hackers need to be subversives with names like Plague and dress in leather.

Blomkvist is no better. He represents an odd highly liberal view of sexual relations where he sleeps with just about anyone regardless of age as if he wasn't supposed to be busy either writing the family history or investigating Harriet's case. If all investigative financial journalists get this much sex, I'm surprised that more people don't jump over to the side of the fence and join the wild party.

Given the original title of the book, perhaps all the sex and the protracted description of Salander's repeated sexual abuse by her legal guardian would have made more sense. But with the English-adaptation and it's sanitized title, we get a book that plays out slowly with odd quotes on statistics of violence against women accompanying every major break / chapter in the book that doesn't make sense until much further down. And after the mystery is solved, we're dragged for another 100+ unnecessary pages of Blomkvist finally "winning" in the end, Salanders coming to terms with feelings that don't make sense and a bit more sex for good measure.

The book takes place over the course of a year and it certainly felt that way to me as a reader. To be fair, it plays along rather quickly given the language remains accessible and your brains easily processes the provided information. It's just all the mundane stuff can really drag things down, leaving the mystery parts rather trite, cliche and highly predictable. I mean come on, we all knew the real fate of Harriet once we connected the mystery to the first chapter in the book. Seriously!

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a good example of why I avoid what I tag to be "mainstream" books and will become a good reminder to myself to avoid genre fiction of this nature. While I'm still going to struggle through the other two books since I feel I'm already socially obliged to finish what I started, I can't promise that I'm going to like it. The book gets 2.5 slightly disturbing instances of Larsson needing to describe the characters having sex between major scenes out of a possible 5.




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