Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson: A Kakutani Review-a-long

So, the final chapter in Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy arrived last week and the Ape has made it through to the end. As is our habit, we took a look at some mainstream reviews after finishing the novel and found a surprising, to us at least, amount of praise for this frustrated and frustrating coda. 

Perhaps least expected was the warmth with which Michiko Kakutani received The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (especially considering that she hates more than half of the fiction she reviews). So rather than offer another review, we thought we'd read along with Kakutani's. She begins: 
Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larsson’s fierce pixie of a heroine, is one of the most original characters in a thriller to come along in a while — a gamin, Audrey Hepburn look-alike but with tattoos and piercings, the take-no-prisoners attitude of Lara Croft and the cool, unsentimental intellect of Mr. Spock.
No problem here--Salander is clearly the spinning, molten core of the trilogy. Like all great characters, we miss her when she's off-stage. This is problem one with Hornet's Nest; Salander spends nearly all of it in the hospital, writing a brief autobiography for her eventual trial and dispatching her hacker comrades to infiltrate the hard-drives of her enemies. As boring as Salander's computer hacking was in the first two novels, at least there she did it herself. Here, she just tells other people to do it. 

It is a problem, though, Larsson created for himself. As we noted in an earlier post, by the end of The Girl Who Played with Fire, Salander is so, as Kakutani writes, "incandescently proficient," that she must be sequestered for there to be any doubt about her fate. (This is something you see in other stories with characters who are simply too powerful to be interesting. Professor X exemplifies the narrative conundrum; it seemed like baldy was in a coma, drugged, captured, or in an alternate spectral plane in every major X-Men series. Dude was just too powerful for the stories to work with him around.)

So rather than follow the character we've signed on for, we have to follow around a series of cops, journalists, and bureaucrats for the preponderance of the story, which makes the following evaluation from Kakutani all the more head-scratching: "It’s also a thoroughly gripping read that shows off the maturation of the author’s storytelling talents."

To our mind, Hornet's Nest is the most confused and inert of the three. It seems that Kakutani has a soft-spot for the novel despite the absence of Salander, whom she acknowledges is the trilogy's engine: "The novels’ central appeal, however, remains Salander herself: a heroine who takes on a legal system and evil, cartoony villains with equal ferocity and resourcefulness."

Somehow, she also manages to ignore the book's heavy-handed social critique ("these novels actually don’t have any didactic thesis to convey"), even though each section of the novel is preceded by an historical vignette about warrior-women and that the moral of the story is neatly and clearly articulated by a main character: "When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it's about violence against women, and the men who enable it." 

And while it's certainly possible to enjoy the novel despite the moralizing, suggesting that there isn't a larger issue at stake seems a misreading. In fact, the disjointed ending that Kakutani herself notes is a direct result of Larsson's twin narratives: Salander's personal story of liberation, which culminates with a grizzly, caricatured battle with her half-brother, and the journalistic critique of Swedish law enforcement and constitutional oversight, which is really the main "drama" of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Kakutani seems to collpase these narratives--"the real showdown in this harrowing novel is between Salander and a ruthless government cabal"--when in fact there really is no such showdown. Salander's interaction with the "cabal" is carried out almost entirely by intermediaries. Indeed, her persistent refusal to talk with anyone but her lawyer is itself a major plot element. 

In our final analysis, we find the second and third installments an order of magnitude weaker than the tight, propulsive The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, where Kakutani finds that Larsson has brought things to a close "with dexterity, ardor and a stoked imagination." 

We wish we could agree.


  1. Eesh, I guess I see where your criticisms are coming from, but I have to say that I disagree with you. Disagreeing with Kakutani's review is one thing -- and I don't necessarily agree with her on some of those points either -- but I still very much enjoyed the novel as a conclusion to the trilogy. I don't necessarily think that Lisbeth is the entire axle of the trilogy and that Blomkvist drives a lot of the action, not only in this book, but in the two previous novels. I think that there's been a lot of expection, because of the name of the first book, that Lisbeth is IT. But I enjoyed this as a plot-driven finale, with appearences from characters that I love.

  2. I love this review-along idea and have to agree that the 2nd installment was much weaker than the first. In fact, it left me with very little desire to read this book at all....which is why the galley is still sitting on my shelf, where it's been for the last several months. I'm sure I'll get to it at some point, if for no other reason than to form my own conclusion about the strength (or lack thereof) of Larsson's finish, but can't say I'm looking forward to it.

  3. I actually really enjoyed this installment (I reviewed it yesterday) but I do think that many people aren't going to like it because of its procedural feel and the lack of Salander.

  4. Home- As I said, a lot of people are quite happy with HORNET'S NEST. I do think most people, though, signed on for Salander, but that's just my sense of it.

    Rebecca- If you didn't like the second one, you probably will like the third one even less. But it's a publishing phenomenon and probably worth having read.

    Krishna- I guess it does depend on how you take the switch from action/Salander to procedure/Blomkvist. Glad you liked it.

  5. I waited until I finished and reviewed the book to read your review. I agree, this book was simply not as good as the other 2. Honestly the first half of the book was, well, boring.

    Larsson did manage to pull it all together toward the end, but still, I missed Lisbeth.

    My review: