Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2004)

I am trying my hardest to understand why Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2004) is such a runaway bestseller, because I really did not like this book at all. And I love books!

I borrowed this one from my mother, who got it from my sister, who got it in a gift exchange at Christmas. Neither of them had read it yet, but I had heard so much about this and the other two books in Larsson's posthumously published Millennium series that I was interested to check them out. I think it is pretty fair to say that I will not be finishing the trilogy...

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo focuses on Mikael Blomkvist, a financial journalist in Stockholm, and co-publisher of an investigative magazine along with his best friend and (married) casual sex partner, Erika Berger. Blomkvist gets a tip on financial fraud being committed by the Swedish industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström from a friend who wants to remain an anonymous source. The first hundred or so pages of this 600 page book trudge us through the financial misdealings, Blomkvist's publication of an article on Wennerström, and his eventual trial and conviction for libel when his story falls apart.

The conviction does not bode well for Blomkvist's journalistic career or for the future of his magazine, so when he is contacted by another Swedish businessman, Henrik Vanger, about a mysterious opportunity, he decides to make a trip to an island up north to see what Vanger has to say.

Vanger is the patriarch of a corporation that has been a major business in Sweden for generations. The company is currently run by Vanger's nephew, since Vanger is getting older, but ownership of the company is divided between a couple dozen relatives who all have skeletons in their closets and who just can't get along. Vanger doesn't like many of the other Vangers, and part of his dislike stems from a day 34 years ago when his favorite niece Harriet, who was 16 at the time, disappeared from the island without a trace. Although no body was found, Vanger is convinced she was murdered by one of his relatives and he wants to pay Blomkvist a huge amount of money to research the case for a year and see what he can find. At the end of the year, Vanger also promises to give Blomkvist some dirt on Wennerström, who started his career with the Vanger corporation. Not having any other choice, Blomkvist agrees.

Oh, and that girl? With the tattoo? She is the anti-social and uncommunicative Lisbeth Salander -- an accomplished hacker and investigator with some serious emotional problems. She was hired to investigate Blomkvist by Vanger's lawyer in preparation for Vanger's offer of employment. Blomkvist eventually gets his hands on her report on him and is so impressed by her researching skills that he asks her to be his assistant in the disappearance of Harriet.

So, doesn't sound too bad, right? Why don't I like it? Here are some of my thoughts in bulleted list format:
  • The structure and narrative is a mess. Larsson wrote this book and the two sequels in his spare time (he was professionally a journalist). He submitted them to a publisher in 2004 and then unexpectedly died at the age of 50. This book reads like the editor was so moved by Larsson's death that he decided not to change a thing from the first draft.
  • The characters are flat and unappealing. You would think that in 600 pages we could start to feel something about Lisbeth or Mikael but I didn't understand (or care about) either of them any more at the end than I did at the beginning.
  • Larsson is weirdly specific about some things. This is nitpicky, but it bugged me: nothing was ever a laptop, it was a Mac PowerBook. And then he would give the model number. And the amount of RAM. And the hard drive size. He would mention a database program. Then mention who wrote it. That it was shareware. And then give the URL for the program! Again, the book seems unedited.
  • The writing, especially the dialogue, is not good. Possibly a translation problem? Still, it didn't work for me at all.
  • A scene in a corporate archives where our irritating tattooed pixie does some all night research and then leaves things in a mess for the archivist (who she calls a slut) did not make me happy.
  • The solution to the mystery is both dumb and unearned. And is then followed with another 100 pages about financial malfeasance and bank fraud.
And here is the big thing: Larsson's heavy-handed message about violence against women. The original Swedish title of this book is translated as Men who Hate Women and that is pretty appropriate since, as Alex Berenson points out in his review (which I largely agree with), "Except for Blomkvist, nearly every man in the book under age 70 is a violent misogynist." Add to that the fact that every woman under 70 in the book instantly wants to sleep with Blomkvist (and most of them follow up on that urge). Larsson is obviously anti-violence. This is made abundantly clear with the statistics about violence against women in Sweden that start off each section of the book. However the book itself is so black and white about its misogyny and so explicit in its scenes of violence (particularly sexual violence) against women, that it feels like Larsson is trying to have his cake and eat it too.

Have you read this book? Did you like it? I won't hold it against you if you did, because I am honestly baffled by my response to this book.


St. Murse said...

I too was interested in this book given it's popularity. And I'm not a bit surprised that it turns out to be terrible - of course I trust your review - just like so, so many other such books. I actually got into a mild argument with a woman defending the Twilight novels awful prose with, "but it's supposed to be the thoughts of a teenage girl so of course it's poorly written." Uh huh. Thanks for taking the bullet for all us mildly curious folks.

nikki said...

I looked this book up at the local public library and there were 100+ folks waitlisted to check it out. After this review, I definitely won't be adding my name to the list.

Sounds like the story would translate into a horrible film, even if it's Danish. I can't imagine how horrible the inevitable American film adaptation will be.

Corie said...

Ha! I actually just got this book today, so I'm not going to read your review, but I'll let you know if I also hated it when I'm done.

Corie said...

Okay, I finally finished the book, so I'm here to comment! I know, you've been waiting with baited breath to see what I think.

I thought it I agree with most of your issues, especially the one about the violence against women. It becomes cartoonish and sucks away any impact the previous revelations might have had when most of your male characters seem like just another serial rapist. I did like Mikael, though, and thought the first part of the book was pretty interesting. The problem I have with most mystery books (with the exception of Agatha Christie's and the Harry Potter books, as far as they contain mysteries that need to be solved) is that the solution to the mystery often turns out to be ridiculous and a let down, and this book was no exception. I do enjoy reading mysteries, though, so I wish I could find some better ones. Admittedly, I don't try that hard. Still, I'm kind of curious about the movie in spite of myself.

Kathryn Mackenzie said...

You've actually made me want to re-read this book now as I really enjoyed it. I thought it was translated very well though I do admit to a bit of skim reading of the detail about financial fraud and misdealings. I totally missed the bit about her leaving the archive in a mess in the book but picked up on it in the film where she leaves the tables in a terrible mess! (Some more positive film depictions of archivists is definitely called for!). The Swedish film is very well done and in fact the violence which is so horrific in the book is somehow less sensationalist in the film than you might expect, and less visually descriptive thankfully. I didn't notice the over-emphasis on technical details becuase I got so into the book, hmmn, I'll definitely go back for another look now!