The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
I guess Scandinavia got its The Da Vinci Code. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is not necessarily literary pop culture garbage that every once in awhile steps in to force otherwise semi-literate people to read (code: Twilight), since it does have enough social subtext and an interesting mystery plotline to get one engaged in the plot, but the execution is so poor that one can only grieve at the potential lost in this Swedish novel, written by Stieg Larsson, who after submitting his first draft died of a heart attack, aged 50.
And one can see it is a first draft. The book is poorly written and structured – the dialogue is on-the-nose and lacking any subtlety, the narrator is overtly subjective and preachy, hitting us with a sledge hammer with morals relating to feminism, sexism and fascism. Too bad Larsson obviously didn't do his research with the latter point, offering some silly and horribly superficial political undertones into the story (the main character – a Swedish journalist named Blomkvist - writes that a Swedish magnate sold weapons to right-wing Ustashe in the Yugoslav wars in the 90s... which is incredibly ignorant and a sloppy plot point for anyone who had studied or lived through these wars).
It's interesting to notice that the original title of the book is Men Who Hate Women, which is another point as to how much Larsson didn't really cared for the subtle approach. Well, not being subtle wouldn't be such a problem if his central character, the girl with the dragon tattoo herself – Lisbeth Salander, the epitome of Larsson's frustration with sexism and harassment of women in Sweden – was indeed three-dimensional, memorable or likeable. She's none of these things. There was not a moment in the book where I sympathised with Lisbeth or understood her motives. I thoroughly disagreed with most of her principles and found her in some cases to be disturbingly annoying, for the lack of a better word. It was commendable that Larsson characterised her as a flawed individual... it's only too bad these flaws were exactly those attributes that cause such dangerous and malicious stereotyping of women in modern society – whiny, patronising, dangerously stubborn and commanding or uncarefully promiscuous. Her positive attributes are constantly being emphasised and becoming more and more over-the-top, to a point where Lisbeth becomes some sort of cartoon-like female James Bond character, hacking into tightest computer securities, speaking „Oxford English“ (barf), „impeccable German“, all while disguising herself into various characters like Simon Templar. Is this Tomb Raider or a „socially important novel“?
A supporting character of Erika Berger makes for a much better and more persuasive evidence of the social subtext and message that is Larsson trying to convey – a strong, independent woman taking no shit from anybody; flawed, but far more sympathetic than Lisbeth. This is why Larsson's writing could backfire and exactly create the opposite effect – which skeptics would undeniably twist and deem all critics as sexists and therefore „uncovered“. This creates an underline of demagogy all over Larsson's novel – you can take the womanizer Blomkvist, the main and mostly fair character, who gets laid all over – his intentions undeniably (intentionally or not) having sexist undertones.
There's an annoying preachiness all over the novel, both in terms of the narrator moralizing about feminism, fascism and corrupted journalism, as well as in the moral stature of its two main characters. In the climax of the novel – spoilers ahead – it is decided to cover up all the atrocities and crimes that were committed in the main mystery, not to harm or emotionally damage those whose lives had been deeply scarred by the tragedy. Both Blomkvist and Salander – agree or disagree with them – behave annoyingly holier-than-thou because of this, in terms that the truth must be told to make the harassment of women more public. 10 pages later they're illegally acquiring data by hacking to blacklist a certain Swedish magnate, not feeling they're doing something wrong and hiding behind the good old „a journalist's source cannot be discovered“ argument. So much for taking the moral high ground! Now, you might say that this is intentional and it was Larsson's goal to portray this hypocrisy (as well as sending a message that the end justifies the means), but it always seems in his repetitive writing that the narrator is backing his protagonist 99% of the time.
It was until the last 100 pages that the grade turned from „average“ to „painfully mediocre“, which are as anticlimactic as it gets. The main mystery is solved (through a scenario and a deus ex machina nicked from Hollywood's most cliched endings), and the final 5 chapters are dedicated to a faceless, one-dimensional villain not even mentioned for two thirds of the book. It was never as hard for me to finish a book as here.
I could say more about laughable plot holes and contrivances (well, try this one: the serial killer in the novel has been bringing prostitutes and immigrants to a small island with a handful of people for years and nobody seemed to noticed a thing), but you get the picture. If one is a fast reader and likes mystery novels, with an admittedly intriguing initial storyline and a couple of shocking, memorable scenes, it wouldn't be such a waste of time. I just hope David Fincher does a „Godfather“ and makes from an underwhelming literary basis something great in his upcoming American film version. But I remain skeptical.