Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire

I read the first book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy over the summer, when my mother visited for a week and unwisely brought the book in her carry-on. I hijacked the book whenever we weren’t otherwise occupied with coffees or my host sister’s wedding, without as much thought for whether she might want to read it, and finished the book in six days.

This seems now like the ideal way to read one of Stieg Larsson’s books. My time with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was so limited that I had to push through the dull parts, and later on couldn’t give much thought to, say, the striking similarities between Stieg Larsson and one of the trilogy’s main characters, Mikael Blomkvist. (Since reading the Stieg Larsson: Swedish Narcissist piece on the Millions I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that this trilogy is kind of like my stock of stories about the noble Peace Corps Volunteer Elena Ruby, out digging wells, teaching English, delivering babies, and saving the world.)

After finishing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo my thoughts on Stieg Larsson as a writer and Lisbeth Salander as a character were mixed, which is basically to say I had some suspicions that the book wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, but that I had read it so quickly I couldn’t put voice to any of my doubts about its quality. I just finished the second book of the trilogy, though, The Girl Who Played with Fire (mailed by my mom – thanks mom!) and having had more time to enjoy, or live with it, its prose, I am now slightly better equipped to voice the things I like and don’t like about the books.

Stieg Larsson is not, to state the obvious, a great master of prose. After about two hundred pages The Girl Who Played with Fire became a pretty interesting, if not gripping, read, but the first two hundred pages went so slowly that I thought I might expire before reaching the interesting parts promised by the gazillions of people who are reading and talking about these books. I am not sure how best to describe Larsson’s writing – because he writes about things with an exhaustive depth that yet fails to reveal anything about his characters or the world he’s writing about. He spends pages describing Lisbeth Salander’s trip to Ikea to stock her apartment, the details of how she found a new apartment, and before that her year-long trip around the world, but fails to reveal anything about Lisbeth as a person.

I’ve finished the first two books in his trilogy, and I will probably read the third, but that I’ll be waiting for it to come out in paperback, then for my mom to read it and mail it to me, doesn’t bother me. I won’t be going to Amazon to buy the last book for my kindle, as I did with The Hunger Games trilogy. And this is because ultimately, despite the hundreds of pages of back story Larsson provides us with, I don’t feel like his characters are real people, and I don’t care what happens to them. (Lisbeth Salander’s nearly been kidnapped? Huh. So-and-so and his pregnant wife have been shot, execution-style, in their apartment? Huh. So-and-so’s been shot in the head and buried alive? Interesting but still, Huh.)

This statement takes me dangerously close to the realm of “I didn’t like the characters so I didn’t like the book”-ism, which is not what I’m trying to get at. I just don’t care one way or the other about Larsson’s characters, and that makes it hard for me to care about the books in any lasting fashion. It’s not that I like or dislike Larsson’s characters, that I think they’re likeable or unlikeable; rather, I think they are occasionally interesting, but drawn in such a way that they often seem, despite the amount of space given to documenting their histories, flat. And what’s more, I can’t help feeling Larsson got tired of his own stories by the time he reached the end of his manuscripts – the trilogy’s first book ended suddenly and unsatisfyingly, with the case being investigated by Blomkvist and Salander wrapped up in just a few pages after hundreds of pages of background information. When I finished that book, I wanted more – not more description of say, Blomkvist’s bedroom technique, but a more fitting close to the case they had spent so much time investigating.

I’ve heard Larsson’s writing of women alternately praised and reviled, and on that front I land somewhere in the middle. His portrayal of Salander and the manner in which she takes control of her body and life, and responds to those men who “hate women,” is in some sense inspiring, but again, feels oddly flat. Despite the praising of Salander as some sort of feminist hero, she doesn’t read so positively to me – whether because her actions are balanced by Blomkvist’s ability to fall into bed with all kinds of women, victims of sexual abuse and all, and make them forget what’s come before, or because Salander responds to the sadism of men who hate women with actions just as sadistic as theirs.

The Girl Who Played with Fire
didn’t, though, seem as offensive on that front as did the first book. This one has a different offense though; that the mystery we devote so much time to unraveling is explainable by Salander the entire time, and that about a hundred pages before the end much of the “mystery” is revealed in a monologue by one of the characters. There are books that can reveal aspects of their plot early on, or by an “accident” of publication (as with The Hunger Games trilogy – I knew that Katniss would survive the Games in the first book because there were two to follow, but it made no difference in my interest in the trilogy), but this ain’t one of them. By such tricks of writing, by having one character (Salander) knowing the whole story the whole time, and another (Niedermann) revealing most of the unclear plot points partway through the book, and another (Blomkvist) figuring out the whole thing largely while the reader’s eyes are trained elsewhere, Larsson reveals himself to have been a lazy writer.

Countless pages spent describing a character’s reasons for getting breast implants (then explaining again, twenty pages later, then again, a hundred pages later), or the intricacies of publishing a magazine, or just how two characters came to know each other doesn’t, then, mark a writer as energetic. This is something that a lot of people working on NaNoWriMo have been discovering this month, as I have sadly discovered in years past; it can be a hell of a lot easier to write at length (proven by this post, maybe) than it is to write well, or compellingly. The most I can say about this book is that I finished it but that I mostly pushed through so that I could remove it from the stack of books I’m currently working on. I guess this isn’t the worst thing you can say about a book, but nor is it the best.