(this is annie)

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo seemed promising on the surface. A journo and a punkish hacker girl teaming up to solve a decades-old murder: What's not to like? A lot, sadly. The book is fast-paced and the main plot is tight enough, but it's about 1/5 too long. I won't spoil the story for you yet, but there's a snoozy subplot that drags the denouement down past its natural endpoint. Just trust me. It's too boring to describe.

In fact, Larsson's prose is generally bogged down by tedious details; we read too little about important conversations, but get full paragraphs about minutiae like the many steps Blomkvist takes to make a sandwich. Then there's this type of enthralling stuff:
The rucksack contained her white Apple iBook 600 with a 25-gig hard drive and 420 megs of RAM, manufactured in January 2002 and equipped with a 14-inch screen.
And later on the same page:
Unsurprisingly she set her sights on the best available alternative: the new Apple PowerBook G4/1.0 GHZ in an aluminum case with a PowerPC 7451 processor with an AltiVec Velocity Engine, 960 MB RAM and a 60 GB hard drive. It had BlueTooth (sic) and built-in CD and DVD burners. Best of all, it had the first 17-inch screen in the laptop world with NVIDIA graphics and a resolution of 1440x900 pixels, which shook the PC advocates and outranked everything on the market.

Gripping prose.

The book has been praised as a feminist novel. Funnily enough, I found the female characters generally one-dimensional. I appreciate Larsson's inclusion of female characters; there aren't many Nicola Griffiths out there, so too many whodunits are a sausage fest. But his attempt to focus on widespread abuse of women has all the subtlety of, well, tattooing pervert on a rapist's chest.

(OK, now I will get spoilery.)

The main character, Blomkvist, is a middle-aged reporter (and jailbird) who winds up schtupping three women. They meet him and, immediately transfixed by his so-so personality and average looks, need to get in bed with him right away! Oh, and they're totally cool with him sleeping with the other women — in fact, they're all for it! Please. Even if he were indeed a hot property (tm Chaz Walters), he doesn't treat his lovers well. He's a mostly absent, crappy father, too. In short, he is a putz.

Yet he's presented as a stand-up guy. Larsson is so busy creating cartoonishly misogynist pedophiles and sadistic rapists that he glosses over the milder but still sexist tendencies of his main character. No, Blomkvist isn't a lady hater, but he's presented as though he's a saint. He doesn't need to be one, and characters are stronger when they possess the mixed virtue that we all do, but I feel like we're encouraged to praise Blomkvist despite him being an assclown to the women in his life. (Way to not kill us, Blomkvist. Sigh... my hero!)

As for the violence that permeates the book, I think Larsson was trying to call out misogyny in our culture. I always love men who actively and loudly speak out against violence, rape, and abuse. I don't like it when they speak for women, though. I appreciate his intent, but the world he presents is one in which women are constantly violated and victimized — and it's done with so little nuance that the end effect leans toward torture porn rather than societal commentary.

The book's big mystery revolves around a series of grisly murders of women. But it isn't enough that the women are tortured and killed; no, they're tortured and killed in gory, bloody, vivid detail. The brutal violence feels gratuitous, and more interestingly, the writing in these passages differs from much of the rest of the book.

When it comes to talking about rape and murder, the writing perks up with intensity. Some of this shift is reasonable. After all, discovering a torture chamber provides more action than making toast. But the graphic detail with which the crimes are described is unsettling. When he writes of dismemberment, decapitation, setting breasts on fire, parakeets shoved into vaginas, and other sadistic crimes, you sense... excitement. Enthusiasm. Larsson creates elaborately stomach-turning scenes that feel more than a little voyeuristic. It's as though he's saying, "Look how horrible these crimes are. Sick, just sick! I'm so disgusted that I'm going to look some more."

Beyond the brutal violence, the book fails to treat rape as a serious crime. It says rape is serious, but it's largely treated as an event to move the plot forward. You'd think that sexual abuse as a major plot point would warrant introspection, as in Bastard Out of Carolina. Instead, we see that raped women decide to ensnare their rapists and then torture them.

After Lisbeth's rape, she doesn't go to the police. This I find realistic. Of all my friends who have been assaulted in one way, none have gone to the police. We suspect that we'll be asked, directly or indirectly, what we did to deserve it. And even if the rapist is arrested, who wants to publicly talk about being raped in a courtroom? Shame is one of the first responses.

But refusing to go because rape centers are for victims, and Lisbeth doesn't consider herself a victim, feels false. Confronting a rapist feels even more unlikely to me. Again, most women I know are too traumatized to do that — and since we see vague allusions to Lisbeth's earlier abuse, I find it hard to believe that she'd create an elaborate plot to blackmail, ensnare, and torture her rapist.

Yes, she's a fictional iconoclast, so she can do what she wants. I just didn't think Larsson adequately examined the long-lingering, crippling aftermath of being raped multiple times by the same man. I also find it impossible to believe that while being repeatedly raped, "she did not cry. Apart from the tears of pure physical pain she shed not a single tear." What's the point of that? To prove how allegedly tough she is?

In the long run, Larsson's attitudes toward sexualized violence suggest a fundamental misunderstanding of the female experience. In his rush to tell everyone about how rough women can have it, perhaps he (and his story) could have benefited from a little less talking about women and a little more listening to us.

Things I do like: how Lisbeth saves Blomkvist, how her intelligence defines her character, and how she's a weirdo. (Of course, in the next book, she gets breast implants because her small chest, as described in the first book, is "pathetic.") I just wish Lisbeth — and the other women in the book — were written more as complex people and less as suffering symbols of a sexist society. You know, as actual characters. It's worth mentioning that the book's original Swedish title Men Who Hate Women. Tells you most of what you need to know right there.

(Here's the movie trailer subtitled in French, if you want to see it. Hollywood is working on a version, too.)


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