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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Well Begun and All Done: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The book: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland).

Opening line: It happened every year, was almost a ritual.

Closing line: She tossed Elvis into a dumpster.

Unless you live under a rock in the middle of the Kalahari Desert in a wi-fi dead zone, you have heard of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson's immensely popular murder mystery/corporate thriller. Then again, if you live under such a rock, you probably aren't reading this blog. So the hell with you.

If you haven't already read the novel, TGWTDT tells the story of Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist who, as the novel begins, is convicted of libel for writing an "unsubstantiated" story about billionaire businessman Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. Although Blomkvist has been set-up to take this fall, he cannot defend himself without betraying a source, so he allows himself to become a journalistic pariah. While contemplating his next move, he is approached by a lawyer for another major industrialist, Henrik Vanger, who wants to hire Blomkvist to investigate the forty-year-old missing person's case of Vanger's niece, Harriet. The police have long since given up on the Vanger case, and Vanger wants Blomkvist to take one last crack at solving the mystery.

Assisting Blomkvist (eventually) is the eponymous heroine, Lisbeth Salander.

(DIGRESSION: You've gotta love words like 'eponymous.' So handy. So specific. So high-falutin'. EOD)

Salander is a twenty-something free-lance researcher (i.e., hacker) with photographic memory and a lot of anger. Her righteous fury is particularly aimed at sexually abusive men. Not that there's anything wrong with that. She's certainly the most interesting character in the novel and, we suspect, the reason for the book's fanatical following. She comes on board to [SPOILER ALERT] help Blomkvist solve the Vanger case and, ultimately, redeem his reputation by getting the goods on the nefarious Wennerstrom.

So what do the two cases have to do with each other? Well, nothing, actually, and therein lies one of the major problems with the book. It seems Larsson wanted to write a murder mystery AND a story about a crusading financial reporter bringing down corrupt business titans AND the story of an avenging fury striking back at her sexual tormentors (another story-line). The "main" story--the mystery--ends on page 497; the book, however, continues on to page 590.

And then there's the writing. As one of our commenters previously noted, when discussing books in translation, one cannot fairly discuss the author's--as opposed to the translator's--style. Style aside, though, this is not a well-written book. Larsson, a crusading journalist in his own right, was very thorough, but he seemed to prefer to throw in details for details' sake, without any particular regard for whether the details matter. To cite perhaps the most egregious example, here are two paragraphs about Salander's purchase of a new computer:

"Unsurprisingly, she set her sights on the best available alternative [to her PC laptop]: 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 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 1440 x 900 pixels, which shook the PC advocates and outranked everything else on the market."
This comes some 200 pages into what is supposed to be a tense thriller.

In our writing classes, we always enjoin students to give detail. Most have difficulty coming up with sufficient supporting details to illustrate their points. Once in a while, though, we have students with the opposite problem: encyclopedic detail about irrelevant material. Sadly, Larsson suffers from the same quirk.

The book itself is relatively satisfying in an undemanding, brain-candy sort of way. But it would have benefitted from a much stronger editorial hand.


1 comment:

  1. I have to admit 2 things: I did have to look up the word "eponymous" (and after 30-some years in your wonderful country, it's rare that I have to look up words, and I enjoy your blog for just that reason), and I did enjoy TGWTDT. Perhaps not the best writing, or editing, but a "damn good story", and perhaps more significantly, about a strong woman character as well as about corruption in big business, which is a moral issue of our time...