BookBin2011: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

I do believe I suffer from an incurable case of hype-hurdle-itis. The more a particular something is glorified by critics and the general public, the more likely I’m going to hate it. Or at least have a severe “meh” reaction to it. Very little that has been squeed over unceasingly in recent years has done much to impress me at all, really. It is what it is, I suppose…and what it is, to me at least, is usually mediocrity wrapped in undeserved accolades.

Okay, that’s a bit harsh. But not completely.

So it was with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the first in the “Millennium” series written by Swedish author Stieg Larsson and published posthumously. I didn’t even want to give any of these books a first thought let alone a second one, I was so put off by all the hyper chatter surrounding them. BEST BOOKS EVAR!!!!1!!!! kind of chatter, which to me screams, “You’re going to want to claw out the eyes of anyone nearby, just so they don’t have to witness this abomination, too.”

The problem was, I really wanted to see the Swedish movie based on the book. After falling back in love with Swedish cinema through Låt den rätte komma in (my love affair actually began when I was a wee one and used to love Mitt liv som hund), I was greatly intrigued by the trailers that I was seeing for this first novel. Plus, it was the Swedish making a movie of a Swedish book. If anyone could give it a proper cinematic send-up, it would be this combination, right?

But movies almost always leave out so much from the novels. I hate that. So I decided that I was going to read the book first. I had a Borders gift card burning a hole in my pocket at the time, so I wandered over one day during my lunch break and picked up a copy of the first “Girl” novel. It then proceeded to collect a healthy dust coat for more than half a year. Lucky for that tattooed girl that I’m still in my “I read too much sci-fi” mindset, because she finally made her way to the top of my book pile.

The Swedish title for this is Män som hatar kvinnor—”Men Who Hate Women.” Not giving anything away, but the original title was obviously pulled from a line spoken by the eponymous-in-America girl, Lisbeth Salander, in which she states at one point of another character, “Another man who hates women.”

Oh, do these men hate women. In disturbing, violent, unsettling-to-the-soul ways.

Larsson’s original intent with the Millennium series was to pen approximately 10 novels that would bring attention to the sexual violence perpetrated on a global scale against women. However, he only completed three books and had apparently started a fourth when he died of a heart attack in 2004. Based on what was presented in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I have mixed feelings about his inability to complete the series.

I think it’s an honorable and admirable cause—something good coming from something horrible. Larsson’s inspiration for these novels and for the character of Lisbeth Salander apparently came from guilt he carried within for not intervening to stop a gang rape he witnessed when he was 15. (Warning: This article includes spoilers for The Girl Who Played With Fire). It was his hope that writing these novels would not only help inform more of the atrocities being committed against women on a daily basis all around the world, but that it would also help him purge his soul of his own inferred culpability in this incident from his past.

That being said, I can’t help but question the fine line that writers like Larsson walk between shedding light on causes that shouldn’t be allowed to fester in the dark and writing something that sicker minds will find titillating in the most exploitative ways. The best way I can think of to describe this sentiment is to reference the 1988 film The Accused. A powerful (if somewhat Hollywood-clichéd) invective on a rape survivor’s struggle for justice, where The Accused crosses the line into the realm of exploitation is with a surprisingly graphic-especially-for-a-big-budget-movie rape scene. I feel that there were a few moments in which Larsson crossed similar lines of demarcation.

These things happen, yes. Should they be dragged from the shadows and subsequently dispelled through awareness and education? Yes. Should they be used as a means of selling movie tickets or books?

No.

Perhaps I would feel more placated if I had read some indicator that Larsson had planned on giving proceeds from the Millennium series to women’s advocacy groups. Maybe this was part of the plan. No one will ever know, as it seems that his financial legacy is now tied up in petty bickering. Still, I cringe at the thought of 10 books being published, all filled with the sort of brutal scenes as pop up throughout The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It’s also what’s giving me pause in my decision to continue on with the existing trilogy.

Beyond all this, the story itself is a rather prosaic crime mystery. Perhaps my brain works at a baud rate that’s too fast for novels like this (or maybe secretly I’m just a twisted mo-fo with a manky mind), but I felt that I was constantly one step ahead of the action, predicting with almost perfect certainty the next twist that would arise. There were only a couple of actions that caught me by surprise. Otherwise, it felt like a boilerplate mystery novel, not all that different from others I have read, which caused me to question whether the success of these novels is based more in the frenzy caused by Larsson’s unexpected but perfectly-timed-for-increased-sales death.

Dear prophets, mine is a jaded soul.

Also, you know how people say that both trash and house guests start to stink past their welcome? So did this book. There’s a point nearly 100 pages before the actual ending that I felt would be a natural place to conclude the story and start to wrap things up. Yet Larsson continued to stick around, dragging his characters and us along for a somewhat superfluous sub-story that had what I felt was a bit of a weak conclusion. This definitely left me feeling even less enamored of my time in Larsson’s sinister, unsettling world.

Final Verdict: I don’t know yet, denizens. For all the weaknesses that I feel exist in Larsson’s first “Girl” novel, I must confess that I did like Lisbeth Salander. I think she’s an enigmatic and intriguing enough character that I would like to see how she develops further, even if just for one more book. Do I want to commit to finishing the trilogy? That’s up in the air as well. Of course, if I can find the set for cheap at the Borders liquidation sale going on around the corner from my office, then, yes, I will be finishing the trilogy. Stay tuned for the fate of this book and its place in my library…

Oh, and for the record, no, I still haven’t watched the film. After reading the novel, I’m admittedly a little squeamish about how certain scenes will be presented on the screen. My imagination already took me places I didn’t really want it to take me with just the written version. Even soulless ones like me don’t want certain things burned into their mind’s eye.