A few months ago some of the women I work with decided to form a book club (I admit that I wasn't entirely innocent in this). I work in a bookish sort of place and we're all big readers but with very different tastes. Thus when we sit around and discuss books it is very rare that we've all read something; our conversations too frequently turn into mass recommendation rallies and never move beyond the initial statement that we like or dislike a book or an author. It was inevitable that sooner or later we would stick all of our names in a hat (my red beret, if you were wondering) and pick our first joint read. We decided to have just one rule: that all books chosen must be new to all the readers, including the chooser. That eliminated the potential for us to spend the entire time proselytising our favourite books to one another, which would have been fun for the picker but perhaps not for everyone else. Other than that it can be fiction of any genre, non-fiction on any subject, a graphic novel, poetry, whatever.
December's book was Stieg Larsson's phenomenally successful The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and we had our first meeting to discuss it last Monday evening. It wouldn't have been my first choice, but then that was the point of the enterprise - to read beyond our comfort zones, in other people's territories. And in truth I'm glad I had the impetus to read it, because these bestsellers often pass me by and I'm left wondering what all the fuss was about. Now I know, or rather, I'm left to more informed wondering.
Having gobbled it down in a little under a week, the popularity of Larsson's book (both popular and critical) surprises me for several reasons. First, because for the first 100 pages it is a glacially paced financial thriller; second, because it is a deeply politicised book throughout; third, because it is a terribly awkward sort of novel. Both plot and prose are ungainly, and occasionally weak. (I would add 'because it is horrifically and graphically violent' but perhaps that is in its favour rather than against it?) These points were all made by the group, in one way or another. Early on in our discussion it was also noted that it is a fragmented book, comprised of two narrative strands which would ordinarily be anathema to one another. There is the slow-burning frame story, in which a financial journalist called Mikael Blomkvist is found guilty of libelling an international financial agency called Wennerstrom in an article published by his own magazine, 'Millenium'. So far so John Grisham. Then there is the central conceit of the book, in which Blomkvist turns private investigator and solves a brutal forty-year old murder mystery. Much more in the mode of Val McDermid. The two narratives function almost entirely independently of one another, tied together only by a bit of clumsy plotting and a short length of thematic string. We generally agreed that this led to odd overall pacing: plot two starts late and climaxes early, while plot one shudders along unevenly from beginning to end. More particularly the overarching financial story is always something of a foregone conclusion. Larsson (who died in 2004) was a radical left-winger and a financial reporter who specialised in revealing corrupt practises; he was obviously going to write the triumph of truth through journalism. Wennerstrom is heading for a fall from page 1. There was no real twist to mitigate the obviousness of this, although the Alias-esque denouement was a bit of a (fun but silly) surprise.
Plot two, the juicy bit, was (we all agreed) much more compelling and unforeseen. After the Wennderstrom judgement Blomkvist is hired by a retired businessman, Henry Vanger, to investigate the disappearance and probable murder of his seventeen year old niece, Harriet, forty years earlier. Vanger has been obsessed for decades by this mystery, and has hoarded evidence in an attempt to solve it. Now, close to death, he is desperate to close the case. He ostensibly chooses Blomkvist because of an age-old rivalry with Wennerstrom and a belief in Mikael's investigative skills, but to be honest his reasoning is paper-thin and arbitrary. Blomkvist the PI is difficult to conceive of. Hence the reason he must team up with an edgier side-kick, the 'girl with the dragon tattoo' of the title, Lisbeth Salander. Salander is employed by a multi-national security agency; a professional hacker, she specialises in opposition research on potential clients. Because this is a crime novel, and because it is impossible to have a main female character who is simply clever and charismatic (ala Blomkvist), she is also a borderline sociopath officially under the guardianship of the state. Emotionally damaged as a teenager (a period Larsson portentously dubs the 'Evil Times'), she now lives a sort of half-life: to her social workers she is awkward, potentially violent and a little slow, to her employer she is a preternaturally gifted, professionally detached analyst.
I think it is fair to say that it is Salander, rather than the plot or the writing, that has won Larsson most of his acclaim. She is a very striking creation, with her tattoos, piercings and propensity to hit things. Before he died Larsson said that he created Salander as an antidote to all those dark, haunted male detectives that abound in Scandanavian crime fiction (think Wallinder). He wanted to make his male protagonist ordinary and well-adjusted, while the auxiliary female (usually the rock on which the man depends) was the unpredictable and unstable factor in the investigation. He certainly succeeds in this. Blomkvist was dubbed Blandvist by our group - he is a literary dupe, slow to make deductions except when delivered a flatpack eureka moment by another character. Rather than being the hero of his own crime novel he spends the better part of his time reading crime novels written by others (Val McDermid amongst them). Salander is his exact opposite. Whereas he is transparent, she is shrouded in mystery. What Blomkvist thinks about himself and what others think about him tallies pretty closely; but Salander is routinely misunderstood, misinterpreted and always underestimated. Larsson shows her from a multitude of points of view, including her own, and in this way builds a picture of a complex psyche existing in the world.
But, and its a big but, our group had difficulties with Salander too. We felt that there was an element of exoticism and fetishisation in Larsson's characterisation of her. In a book which deals with some very difficult issues of misogyny and violence against women, this was discomforting to say the least. Early on in the novel she is is raped by her guardian, in the most horrific of circumstances, and later takes her revenge on him. This caused some division of opinion in the group and we were unable to decide whether or not Larsson belittled sex crime by having Salander respond to it in what seemed (to some) a rather nonchalent way. The treatment of women in the novel is a difficult one to reconcile more generally. The original Swedish title translates as Men Who Hate Women; and it is an understatement to say that crimes against women are central to the plot. So is Larsson treating misogyny with the right level of moral outrage, or are there elements of the plot that complicate the motives for or, God forbid, condone violence against women? This issue consumed the latter half of our debate and became a more general discussion about the justification for violence in fiction and film. I can't really expand without spoiling the mystery, and I can't do that for a book like this with a good conscience. Generally though it seems to me that Larsson is both sensitive and insensitive in the way he writes about women, pointing up the essential conflict between our conscious opinions and unconscious prejudices. On the one hand he draws what I consider rather bizarre moral equivalences, and some of the outcomes of the book are difficult to stomach. For example, we all found it abominable that the main characters should accept the principle of financial compensation for victims as a substitute for the punishment or remorse of the perpetrator. Then again, there wasn't one of us who didn't cheer on Salander when she turned vigilante against her attacker. And I think there is something to be said for Larsson approaching the subject of sex-motivated crime at all. I haven't read a huge range of crime or mystery fiction, but this is certainly the first that had such single-minded non-specific hatred at the centre of it.
Perhaps that is what attracts readers to Larsson. It is not his labyrinthine plotting or cunning, but his startling simplicity. There is no mystery in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; there is just savage, terrifying, ordinary violence. It is a revelation no more or less obvious than its other proposition, that international corporations are exploitative and that financial markets are corrupt. It is an idea we are familiar with, but it is a slumbering sort of idea. It snoozes away in the back of our minds, and if prompted we repeat it without really confronting it. The point Larsson makes is that we must confront it. We are all like Blomkvist, in the midst of real crimes we spend our time reading crime novels. We're horrified by the fiction but ignorant of the realities (and thus implicated in its perpetuation). Shame on us, he says, we should be more honest with ourselves - this isn't fiction, its the real thing. To write a novel with such a 'message' is both the height of irony and of moral outrage.
The final consensus? That The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is unsatisfying as a plain old crime novel. Good for a brief rush and gulp (we all read it in less than a week) but on further reflection too roughly handed - Larsson lets all his horses out of the paddock too soon - and with unsatisfying outcomes. It has no grace. Yet there is no denying that he brings a psychological intensity and liberal energy to the novel which makes up for some of its faults. I suppose the final testimony is that of the six book-groupers, three have already read the second book in the sequence. I am not one of them, but that isn't to say I won't follow suit at some future point.
Next month we'll be tackling Crash by J.G. Ballard. Again, not my choice but much more in my sphere of interest. I suspect it will reopen our debate about portrait of sex and violence in literature.