Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Steig Larsson's Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo)

I was going to start this review with a synopsis of each installment before moving on to the discussion I ACTUALLY wanted to have, but I am deathly afraid of giving away any details that would spoil the book or deprive you of the wonderful experience of discovering Larsson's great characters and story, so I'm going to link you to each book's Amazon page for synopses.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest

These books are wonderful for their skillful plotting and fully realized characters. Even minor characters are so well drawn that they are perfectly clear, even from their places on the sidelines. The background goes deep enough to be interesting and the action is swift and full of intrigue. The latter two books - Fire and Hornets Nest - almost read like one larger book, because the stories are clearly linked; the third is all consequence of the second. This makes Tattoo an ideal starting point, as it establishes the main characters in the context of a stand-mostly-alone mystery. These are great books, particularly for summer, and I can't recommend them enough. I particularly enjoyed Fire, which is the first book since I read Democracy in America (I know, shut up) that kept me up to a completely unreasonable hour, unable to stop reading. (How's that for a topical swing? Things that enrapture Josie: political theory and Swedes.)

So here's what I'd actually like to discuss: Steig Larsson's feminist bona fides. Lisbeth Salander, the titular Girl, is a thrilling character type to see in a contemporary book - she is fiercely independent and supremely competent, and she protects herself from danger when no one else will or can. She also inhabits a very specific kind of "crazy," which is always a tricky designation for a woman. Rather than getting the more misogynist implications that usually come with "feminine crazy," Salander is clearly placed in the ranks of what tends to be the masculine concept of crazy - eccentricity, mad genius, etc. That's a fairly big deal. I can tell you, as someone who has been on the receiving end of Crazy Bitch, that the difference between most people calling a woman crazy and calling a man crazy is a very specific gap, and the former tends to carry a silent "doesn't know her place." Larsson has several other strong female characters - Erika Berger, Harriet Vanger, and a host of minor characters - but Salander is the focus and the most distinctive woman. Most critics and casual readers have declared Salander a feminist character and Larsson a feminist author on the strength of Salander alone, only bolstered by the others (including male characters who clearly respect the women who surround them).

The problem arises with the brutal scenes of abuse - sexual and otherwise - in the stories. Sexual themes run throughout, and there are several disturbing scenes of rape and other sexual abuses. These scenes are such drivers that they form an integral part of the narrative. The problem is the almost pornographic quality of these scenes. I don't think you can feel anything but sympathy and anger for the victims of the attacks, but in the best case they tread dangerously close to being voyeuristic and in the worst case, pure exploitation. This raises a real question of whether or not the female characters in Larsson's books are as strong as they seem. No matter how powerful they may be, these scenes are constant reminders that they CAN be dominated, and can be defeated.

In the end, I do think that Larsson is a feminist, but in a specific way. Whenever you talk about feminism, you have to weed out what you're actually talking about - what wave, what section, what swath - and this is no less true in consideration of Larsson's excellent trilogy. Feminism, fundamentally, is about equal opportunity. Not preferential treatment, though it can be about that. Not punitive damages, though it can be about that. At its core, it's about women having the chances to direct their lives and make their own choices...regardless of the outcome. It's having the chance to try something and succeed OR fail. It's not a guarantee. I think that Larsson's feminism strikes at this core - his women can control the world around them, but they can also be dragged through the mud.

1 comment:

  1. Larsson had actually intended for the books to have consecutive chapter numbers as if the three volumes were one continuous story, but the publisher decided against it.

    I've only read the first two--mostly because I'm too cheap to buy the third in hardcover--but they were the best two books I've read in a very long while.

    Larsson is an incredible story teller who unfortunately left us far too early.