My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Writer Who Played with Fire
With all the success from the best selling books and motion picture in the Millennium Trilogy by the departed Stieg Larsson, one must ask is the hype warranted or is it another passing fad in the realms of literature?
Certainly it is sad to think that Larsson, having died shortly after handing over the three completed manuscripts to the publisher, never came to know his work would be well received by the masses.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the first book in the trilogy and recent film with plans for the others to follow, illustrate how a writer can, on faith alone, understand what is necessary to write a compelling story.
Larsson, an expert on Nazi organizations and the editor in chief of Expo magazine before his untimely death in 2004, knew precisely that writers require a reliable voice and tone for a story to be accepted by readers in any country in any language.
Reg Keeland translated The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo from the Swedish language into English and apparently retains much of Larsson’s authentic narrative voice.
William Zinsser in On Writing Well explains that “readers want a person who is talking to them to sound genuine” (19) and that “sometimes you will tap a vein of eloquence or racial memory that gives your writing a depth it could never attain on its own” (236).
Most translations falter in the effort of keeping a writer’s narrative voice intact, transplanting the original voice for a translator’s own, but Keeland does quite well, in fact, to stand invisible, as Larsson must have done in his own language.
In the following passage readers can readily notice just such an example of the writer’s genuine sound slipping into a moment of pure eloquence:
The old man must have thought long and hard how he was going to hook him. Blomkvist had the feeling that every last thing that had happened since he arrived was staged: the introductory surprise that as a child he had met his host, the picture of his parents in the album, and the emphasis on the fact that his father and Vanger had been friends, along with the flattery that the old man knew who Mikael Blomkvist was and that he had been following his career for years from a distance…No doubt it had a core of truth, but it was also pretty elementary psychology (84).
The reliable voice in Larsson’s work rings true throughout and becomes a foundation for the story to take flight in all its complexity and mystery.
For all its worth, Larsson knew how to stand back and allow his voice, often that of an unbiased writer reporting a set of events, to draw in the reader through its down-to-earth tone, strengthening the work as a whole.
The story is what is important here and Larsson never lets the reader think otherwise.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is, however, filled with tragedy: rape, molestation, sabotage, murder, incestual-carnal knowledge, and the reader should expect nothing less than a tragic end, to some degree.
What Larsson does so well as a storyteller is to allow such tragedies to unfold and play themselves out on the page.
In Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern reveals that “tragic endings can create a meaningful, beneficial, even exhilarating experience for an audience” (95).
And in some ways Larsson achieves this effect faultlessly. Stern, however, also explains that “perhaps in a secular society tragic endings are no longer seen as meaningful, perhaps contemporary audiences feel overburdened by the enormous tragedies of late-twentieth-century life” (95).
By the end of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, much to Stern’s satisfaction no doubt, the tragedies that unfold do become somewhat meaningless and conventional.
As the main character Mikael Blomkvist is being tortured by the antagonist, Martin Vanger, a Nazi sympathizer and serial villain of the novel’s history, Blomkvist is later saved by the female, Lisbeth Salander, who the novel’s title refers to, and where the story dips into its own time, as it may well should, and allows the reader to disassociate themselves from the pain and anguish of the moments at hand. Larsson writes, Martin speaks:
“You with your bourgeois conventions would never grasp this, but the excitement comes from planning a kidnapping. They’re not done on impulse—those kinds of kidnappers invariably get caught. It’s a science with thousands of details that I have to weigh…what do I have to do to be alone with my prey without revealing my name or having it turn up in any future police investigations?”
Shut up, for God’s sake, Blomkvist thought.
“Are you really interested in all this, Mikael?” (449)
[And as Salander saves the day…]
Her voice was as rough as sandpaper. As long as Blomkvist lived, he would never forget her face as she went on the attack. Her teeth were bared like a beast of prey. Her eyes were glittering, black as coal. She moved with lightning speed of a tarantula and seemed totally focused on her prey as she swung the club again, striking Martin in the ribs (456).
Salander chases Martin out of the dungeon of horrors only for the latter to drive head-on into a truck in a suicide-by-collision.
In essence, the evil Martin Vanger, murderer and rapist over several decades, escapes punishment and the knowledge of his misdeeds is later kept secret by the Vanger family.
Mikael Blomkvist is sworn to silence. The tragic end comes not at the death of the villain or at the knowledge of his crimes, but at the understanding that good men hide the truth from the world, at any cost.
Regardless, however, the tragedy and countless other tragedies escape meaning. Not even a cathartic end can be found in all this turmoil.
But perhaps this is what the masses so desire in such stories where good and evil cannot make sense of the other.
The last issue up for attention is the melodrama imbedded in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. “The word ‘melodrama,’” writes Charles Baxter in Burning Down the House, “is now used almost universally as a pejorative term, and it is understood to be a series of writerly moves, even ways of feeling or thinking, that should be avoided” (137).
But like Stern, Baxter’s argument doesn’t end there. He further clarifies such tactics by writers as being at times misconstrued by the readers: “To argue against melodrama, you would have to be a creature of the Enlightenment or of irony, or both, and you would have to believe that all actions are understandable, explainable, and forgivable” (139).
As from the earlier example where the tragic ending cannot be explained away one must question what is actually going on in Larsson’s narrative. Is it melodrama or not? Here is the end of the novel and a fine line is being balanced:
At Hornsgatan she [Salander] happened to glance towards Kaffebar and saw Blomkvist coming out with Berger in tow. He said something, and she laughed, putting her arm around his waist and kissing his cheek…
Part of her wanted to rush after them. She wanted to take the metal sign and use the sharp edge to cleave Berger’s head in two. She did nothing as thoughts swirled through her mind. Analysis of consequences. Finally she calmed down.
“What a pathetic fool you are, Salander,” she said out loud.
She turned on her heel and went home to her newly spotless apartment. As she passed Zinkensdamm, it started to snow. She tossed Elvis into a dumpster. (589-90)
Melodrama, where action is sometimes more important than the characters, does get its bad reputation from its excessive occurrence during the Romantic Movement, but has never really been abandoned by writers of any genre. Baxter does argue that “fascinated by what is unforgivable, melodrama dramatizes villainy” (135) and that “a distaste for melodrama in any form is probably a sign of great good luck” (154).
Larsson does dip his proverbial pen into the inkstand of melodrama throughout the story, but it is rare and often blurred enough to not upset the characters it is clearly controlling.
Larsson in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo offers up such a reliable narrative voice that it is often difficult to turn away from the pages despite glimpses of melodrama peeping out from under the guise of dramatic action, despite the disassociations between a character’s past and his/her motivations in acting out a scene.
The story simply does not blush with meaning; therefore, the characters, likewise, are also saved for the secular audience’s pleasure.
As Mikael Blomkvist recounted a few times during the story that what he was experiencing was nothing more than a murder-mystery in a locked house plot put on an island, he eventually was proved right.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo should be taken for what it is: a murder-mystery, and a very well-written one at that. The sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, just might be even better.
Baxter, Charles. Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction (1997). Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2008. Print.
Larsson, Stieg. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008). Trans. Reg Keeland. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, June 2009. Print.
Stern, Jerome. Making Shapely Fiction. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991. Print.
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well (1976). New York: Collins, 2006. Print.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 350,000+ followers