The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson (2009, Vintage)

I tend to ignore literary fads like I ignore every other kind of fad. Not because it’s rational to do so but simply because it’s what one does. Surely I’m better than that book, I think. Except I’m usually not.

When it comes to literature, I’m pretty amateurish. For every Ada or Ardor I’ve read, I’ve read an American Gods and a Neuromancer. For every Demian, there’s a Perdido Street Station and The Black Company. To put it another way, I’m more a fan of genre fiction than of proper literature. I read both, but for different reasons. With non-fiction I’m all over the place with philosophy, history and politics. But when I read fiction, I read for entertainment first. This is the complete opposite of my film viewing habits. If I want to be edified by art, I’ll watch a Tarkovsky film. Reading Joyce doesn’t give me the same emotional experience as reading someone more speculative (and arguably less literary, although no less wordy) like Mieville, and neither give me anywhere near the experience of watching a Wong Kar-wai film. I’ve no idea why. It’s a slap in the face to how pretentious I think I am. I lose hipster points every time I pick up a book. My mind is filled to the rafters with pointless art film trivia precisely to combat the moment when someone brings up proper literature. So you’d think when a book like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is hailed left right and center as an entertaining thriller, I’d recognize it as right up my alley and spring for it. Except I didn’t, for the silly reasons mentioned above.

And that was my mistake. It took me far too long to discover Lisbeth Salander.

Male authors have a big, big problem with writing strong female characters. Part of this is because they’re strong “female” characters, not simply strong characters in themselves. Beneath whatever steeled sense of self-preservation and independence they manifest in the narrative, there has to be some tender beating heart of femininity that’s easily recognized by the audience. When the strength is stripped away, womanhood remains. There can never simply be strength for its own sake and its own reasons, with its own motives and its own consequences.

This isn’t to say that womanhood should not remain, merely that it’s almost always played up as a rationale for protecting others – the female is strong for her husband, boyfriend, son, family. Something she feels she needs to protect beyond herself in her role as a woman. Rarely is she strong for herself. Lisbeth Salander is a character that protects no one, relates to no one, cares for no one. She is a blank slate with a nearly inhuman level of emotional detachment. She is brilliant but hates being reminded of it. She can witness genuine horror and watch the people around her break down in emotional disarray while remaining perfectly unmoved, only feigning emotion when she realizes it’s expected of her. You know there’s something deep in her past, but not only does it never come up, she resents that it should come up. People are not shaped by external events, they’re made by their choices. You make who you are. And if anyone fucks with you, you don’t back down until they’re destroyed.

Needless to say, Lisbeth Salander alone is the reason The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has sold 21 million copies. Yet, despite the title, much of the book isn’t about her at all.

The apparent chief protagonist is an investigative journalist named Blomkvist. Fined and sentenced for libel for writing a story about a corrupt billionaire, Blomkvist finds himself hired by another corporate magnate named Vanger to investigate a missing niece who vanished on an island forty years ago. It’s a locked-room mystery on an island, as the book itself refers to it, except it’s not. It’s far more complicated. Salander is an investigator at a security firm, utilizing her brilliant information-gathering skills to dig up the dirt on people whenever she feels like taking an assignment. Invariably, their paths cross and all hell breaks loose.

The first third of the book is a bit slow – there’s a lot of background to set up, and the huge dysfunctional business dynasty of the Vangers to flesh out. Both Blomkvist and Salander have chances, in their own separate arcs, to establish their characters, motives, and personalities. Unsurprisingly, Salander’s personality is by far the most interesting. Despite how distant she appears when she interacts with other characters, her motives for doing so are always clear. She has to protect herself before all else. She’s a ward of the state, deemed incompetent at a young age due to her anti-social behavior, and she constantly views all external forces as threats to her independence. Her sullen silences are more a defense mechanism than a personality trait, but perhaps it’s more than a mere “mechanism.” It’s an entire posture. It’s a view of the world.

Granted, my literary knowledge is limited, but I’ve never seen a character quite like Lisbeth Salander before. There’s much talk about her amazing hacking skills, which aren’t entirely convincing as Larsson describes them, but it’s clear Larsson understood people. Concisely and persuasively, he lets you understand Salander and why she is how she is without relaying some drawn-out back story of trauma. What’s told of her past are examples of her behavior, not explanations for it. She is who she is, and she needn’t explain herself. Draw your own conclusions.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isn’t entirely satisfying. There are genuine moments of tension and the central mystery itself is worthy of a great crime thriller, but the last quarter of the book seems to focus too much on what was the B-story to begin with. It’s handled very well, but throughout the desire is to read Blomkvist and Salander together, unraveling the mysteries and playing off each other – Salander the sullen singularity and Blomkvist the only man she’s ever met who treats her as a person without questioning her attitudes or independence. When the two characters split, the narrative can drag.

Two more books after this one (The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) form the Millennium trilogy, Millennium being the left-wing periodical Blomkvist writes for. While I’ve heard of the trilogy for some time, the final kick in the ass to buy the book came recently when I read that David Fincher of Fight Club and Se7en fame is attached to direct the English-language film adaptation of the first book. All three books have already been adapted to film in Sweden, garnering mixed reviews, but Fincher’s involvement convinced me that the book must be more than the latest literary hype. And it is, but only just so. Salander manages to be a rare character that captures the mainstream imagination. She made the book for me. The rest is a very competent, and at times quite engaging, murder mystery. But every time Salander appears, it gets truly fun again, out-dated computer references or no.

Stieg Larsson died before his books were published. He was an expert on right-wing racist and Nazi groups in Sweden, himself a journalist and editor of a periodical just like Blomkvist. Nazism and racism also play a minor role in the novel, and Larsson’s politics, while not overt, are discernible in the story. Even so, his creation Salander doesn’t care about politics at all. She’d rather worry about herself.