May 27, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson

A couple of days ago, my new novel was rejected by a top New York agent.  Like every insecure writer, I prepared for the worst when he asked to see it.

The head knows the probability of success; the heart doesn’t listen.  When the rejection came, I sucked my thumb for a full 24 hours. 

As it happened, I was scheduled to meet a friend for coffee the day the “Sorry not for us” e-mail came.  When she heard what had happened, she tried cheering me up.  “At least you got your foot in the door.  How many writers manage that?” 

I didn’t know the answer. But nobody loves near winners so the thought didn’t make me feel better. Sensing her failure, she moved on to talk about a book she’d finished reading, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Hearing the title, I sank deeper into my chair. I’d read the novel earlier and thought it was at best mediocre and at worst much ado about nothing. When she went on to say she didn’t know what all the fuss was about, I perked up. Till then, I’d been in doubt, like that kid in the fairytale, “The King’s New Clothes.” How I could call myself a writer when I couldn’t see the art?

Now that two of us are wondering, I’m ready to talk back to all those agents who would salivate to represent Stieg’s book. They’ll probably get another chance, by the way. Success breeds repetition. 

Here are my thoughts: 

The book exploits women: Yes, the female characters are strong. That makes Larsson politically correct. But so are James Bond’s women in 007. The difference is that Ian’s Fleming’s series is a little tongue in cheek. Everyone knows or ought to know he’s tickling a masculine fantasy: the more remote the women the greater the conquest.

In Steig’s first book the women are so strong they don’t need to be pursued.   They barely shake hands with the central character before they crawl into his bed eager to make meaningless love with a man whose defining characteristic is that he drinks endless cups of coffee. One can pass off their behavior as part of the sexual revolution. But I think the message is more insidious. Steig’s disdain for woman, reducing them to little more than vessels of masculine pleasure, is one form for exploitation. The other, of course, is the story’s blatant sadism.

The book lacks dramatic tension:  Mikael Blomkvist, the central character, escapes to a rural part of Sweden after he loses a legal battle that damages his reputation as a journalist. 

He’s been lured to the backwaters by money.  An aging scion of industry wants to solve the mystery of his niece who disappeared 40 years earlier. Given the time frame, the reader knows the girl is either dead or living somewhere happily with ten grandchildren. There’s nothing pressing. The Girl with the Tattooed Dragon is no Dan Brown formulaic page turner.  Mikael dithers at his task and drinks those endless cups of coffee.  The friend who lent me the book described it as “one you can put down and don’t have to come back to right away.”  Absolutely.

The prose is deadly: Bearing in mind that Steig’s work comes to us in translation, I’ll go lightly here. But without knowing his background, it wouldn’t be hard to guess he earned his living as a journalist. The sentences are Hemingway spare, which had its merits for a time, but as imitation bores with the tedium of Chopsticks played over and over again on the piano. 

I shared my thoughts with to a male friend who asked my opinion, earlier.  His reaction was to run out and buy the book. 

Okay, I got that off my chest.  I feel better.