Friday, April 30, 2010

Uncollected Thoughts: On Stieg Larsson's Milliennium Trilogy

Like boatloads of others, the Ape has torn through the first two novels in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy and has already pre-ordered the final chapter. And while you couldn’t reasonably call them edifying, they do read awfully damn well.

Still, the Ape is the Ape and we can’t let the particular weirdness of this phenomenon pass without some eye-brow raising. So here are a few observations on the series so far:
  1. A word on the writing style—there isn’t one. And I don’t mean that in the Hemingway/Salter minimalist sense but in the it-reads-like-a-shooting-script sense. Leafing back through The Girl Who Played with Fire, the Ape couldn’t find one sentence that might described as pleasurable or well-crafted. This is narrative functionalism at its very bleakest. We’re going to assume for the moment that the translation is faithful to say the following; this might be the plainest prose of any literary blockbuster I can remember.
  2. The directness of the narration, though, consistently dissolves when either of the two protagonists, Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, is shopping, especially for food, technology, and Billy bookcases at Ikea. Larsson is oddly specific about Salander’s computers; we get screen size, model number, exact price, hard drive size, and amount of RAM (all Apple, of course). We even get the specs of the staff machines at Millienium, the excruciatingly boring investigative rag run by Blomkvist. I suppose if you know that an Apple G3 is an old computer, this might tell you something, but even the Ape’s freakish fascination with technology wasn’t enough to remain interested in this minutia. The random detailing extends to home furnishings as well: you can tell Larsson had an IKEA catalog out and open whenever it was time to describe an apartment. Do we really need to know the names of the IKEA armchairs and sofas?
  3. I know Larsson was primarily a journalist, but I don’t think we needed parenthetical citations for the books mentioned. I’m not kidding; titles of a book were immediately followed by publication information, like (Harvard University Press, 2001, $19.99). I’ve never seen anything like it.
  4. Lisbeth Salander is as close to a super-hero as you can get in a supposedly reality-based novel. She’s the greatest computer hacker in the world; she has a photographic memory; she is a chess savant; she is independently wealthy; she is a professional quality boxer; and she has a mathematical mind capable of grappling, untrained, with the most rarefied equations, including Fermat’s theorem and spherical astronomy.  Salander is one of the series’ great attractions, but the Ape is reminded of Aristotle’s observation that ,in art, a probable impossibility is preferable to an improbable possibility. That is, I would almost rather she was a mutant or had been bitten by a radioactive caterpillar than possess a litany of nominally possible abilities.
  5. As mentioned in an earlier post, the books are startlingly and disturbingly violent, slotting somewhere above The Silence of the Lambs and somewhere below the Saw movies on the Gruesome Scale. There’s more to say about this, but the Ape is saving it for a long post to be published on the release of the final novel. Sufficed to say, we have our concerns about the popularity of the book, and perhaps even our own enjoyment of it, considering the degree and nature of the violence against women.
  6. Deus ex machina—the fledgling crime writer’s best friend. Not to spoil the plot, but let’s just say there are some laughably staged rescues.

This list is a bit grumpy, but it’s born of a head-scratching affinity for the books that the Ape even spends this much time thinking about them. If you are traveling by plane or spending some quality relaxation time somewhere this summer, you could do a hell of a lot worse than these. Just don’t think too much about why you like them.

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  1. I hopped over on the book blog hop-great writing! I love the way you write!

    I have yet to read the second one of these books, but in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I put most of the clunkiness down to it being a translation. I had the same issue with Seven Years in Tibet when I read it. I guess too many years of reporting "just the facts" might lead a person to forget small things like literary symbolism or metaphor.

  2. Hi Heather, thanks for dropping by. ANd I guess I should be clear that I don't think every book need be "literary"; I was trying to make an observation sans judgment, but maybe I failed.

  3. Terrific post... These books are un-put-downable, but they're also odd. The level on detail about the characters shopping and food in take is completely unnecessary. Note how he mentions where they stop for fast food, down to the specific street. And he then tells each and every item the characters order... The mystery may be how so many unnecessary details could be given, and yet, I still absolutely cannot wait to read the third book.

  4. Oh, and one other thing: Notice how many details he gives about coffee? We learn just how each character likes their coffee. Seems like we even learn about what sort of coffee/espresso machines are used. Weird.

  5. Janna: I absolutely should have mentioned the nearly fetishistic (if that's a word) account of caffeinated beverages. Are these little strangenesses endearing? I'm not really sure.

  6. I chalk a lot of the oddness about the details and the clunkiness up to the fact that the author was never given the opportunity to work with an editor. You mention that he was a journalist, which explains the high attention to detail, but the fact that Larrson died before any of these three books went to print makes me think that some of these things would have been more likely to be removed with a thorough editing session between author and editor. As is, I can see why the editor(s) wouldn't want to make any presumptions about taking in or leaving out material.

    I will say the level of violence is extreme, but it was nothing that made me stop in the midst of reading to remark on it (whether to someone else or myself). And it's not like she doesn't inflict her own brand of violence in retribution. Having read the first two months ago, I couldn't wait for the third book and ordered it online from Amazon UK. So with the ending in mind, I will say that, yes, they do have their literary faults, but at the conclusion of this trilogy, I really could have cared less.

  7. Speaking of the level of detail--it stuck out to me that we got the square footage of just about every single building in the book.

  8. I totally forgot about the square footage reporting. It's probably doubly strange for those of who are used to Imperial measurements. 75 square meters? No idea.

  9. I've heard some people suggesting the third part of the Larsson trilogy is not as good as the earlier ones. There are doubts, but which book can give me insurance it won't disappoint me. The reputation of the author (his death has increased my curiosity) is huge, so may be the book would be worth the money. By the way, has anybody bought the book from I have heard they are offering the highest discount among the bookstores. Let me know if it is correct.

  10. Your description of Lisbeth is perfect.
    Have you read the third one by now? I would love to hear what you think. Visit me and just let me know on my posting for the book if you don't mind.
    You have the best review I've read so far.I am just sad there is no more and then I just heard that there maybe a 4th that is unfinished.

  11. which of the 3 to start reading first,please reply

  12. Here's the order:
    Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
    Girl Who Played with Fire
    Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Next

    Hope you enjoy them.


  13. I came away with the same impression of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I honestly thought I was the only one who felt this way.  From the the weak, prose-less writing to the impossibility of Lisabeth plus the disappointment in her romantic interests, to sighing resignedly at yet another foray into the titillation factor of sexual violence. I was annoyed enough with it all that I didn't even bother with the other books.
    Odd, I felt exactly the same way about The Hunger Games.

  14. Hello, I agree with most of the review above. I am the girl with the dragon tattoo, the girl who played with fire. I am still kicking the hornets nest. Most of my seemingly amazing abilities are exaggerated ideas by people whose IQ is about as low as Forest Gump! I am afraid Stieg Larsson is a fictional writer and so is  his translator Reg Keeland. The Millenium Trilogy has come out of the James Patterson stable of cowritten crime club books, based on the ideas and themes of unpublished writers. (So sue me!!) Important statistics of the F&B in the novels are  how many times someone has a cup of coffee of makes a cheese sandwich especially in the last book? Important loose ends never match up. Harriet? Oh, please. I'm the one from the Australian sheep station...Their popularity is due to their promotion and their fascination due their being based on my persona. The writing is mechanical, done by paid freelancers who are in syndicates like Harry Potter and Stephen King. This is not literature but Pulp Fiction.

  15. Actually, I should say GULP FICTION because of all the incredulity we have to swallow eg. Lisbeth's wacko psycopathic brother...all the gratuitous S&M violence, her Russian defector father, and Lisbeth surviving being shot and buried alive, then typing her story on a PALM computer with a toothpick on an Bluetooth internet connection from a mobile phone stuck in the wall of her hospital room. Oh, please. AND Michael Blomkist is such a slut.

  16. Yakkity, yak, jack. These are the worst books I have ever read, but since they were based on me, I felt I had to read them. The trilogy is a loosely veiled reference to the scandal surrounding the assassination of Sweden's Prime Minster Olof Palme. His wife's name was Lisbeth. The prosecuting judges name was Agneta (Lisbeth's mothers name). There are leads to the Bofors scam that implicated former Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi that give clues to his assassination for refusing to continue to buy arms due  to  Israel's involvement in the war in Sri Lanka. Swedish politician and former foreign minister Anna Lind, who studied at Uppsala University,  was also assassinated and died on September 11,  2003. Wake up and smell the coffee!!