The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

May 22, 2010

It was uneven stylistically, and in places the writing was actually rather poor – there had been no time for any fine polishing – but the book was animated by a fury that no reader could help but notice.

And the fury that animates this book is compelling. Lisbeth Salander, the twenty-three year-old girl whose description titles the book, is the demon-haunted star. She is at once sympathetic and thrilling. I doubt any women want her past, but I am sure most want her grit. Most men too.

Salander was a girl who fell through the cracks of Sweden’s social system and developed a hard-edged personality that resulted in her being labeled slow, dangerous, and incompetent to manage her own affairs. As the book begins, she is under the guardianship of a very honorable man who treats her with respect. She controls her own finances and works as a freelance investigator for a security firm. The head of the firm, Armansky, originally hired Salander as a favor to Salander’s guardian. Salander, of course, made good and is now the star researcher at the firm, valued by Armansky for her thoroughness and ability to uncover secrets. Salander will not remain comfortable for many pages.

Mikael Blomkvist is the lead male in this thriller. He begins the book as a principled journalist being sentenced to jail for committing libel against a powerful industrial magnate, Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. An old friend of his had given Blomkvist information regarding some dirty dealing by Wennerstrom. Blomkvist, investigative reporter that he is, digs, writes a story, and the story turns out to be false. The reader is not told until late in the book the details of how and why the story Blomkvist wrote ended in his being tried for libel. The mystery of the libel is one of many threads with which Larsson weaves this complicated tale.

Another thread involves the third most important character: Henrik Vanger. On his birthday, every year but one for forty-three years, he has received a pressed flower in a frame. His niece, Harriet Vanger, started the tradition as a child. The prologue shows Henrik receiving the forty-fourth specimen. He believes Harriet’s killer continues to send the flowers to torment him. He is eighty-two and wants to solve Harriet’s murder before he dies. Henrik decides to hire an investigative reporter. Enter Blomkvist.

Larsson manages plotting extremely well. I had seen the Dutch movie based on this book, so I actually knew a number of key plot points. However, fitting this 590 page (in paperback) book into a two-hour movie required a number of cuts and significant simplifications. The novel is packed with intricate plot lines. In some cases, a particular subplot seems far removed from the main action, while, in others, the connection is apparent even while the resolution is not. Larsson manages to pull all of the strands together into not one, but multiple satisfying ends. The movie was quite enjoyable despite the simplifications, but the book is better.

Small puzzles and intriguing side stories are introduced throughout to keep the reader’s appetite whetted and are resolved for little payoffs along the way to the final reveals. I use the plural, because there are several large mysteries, each of which has its own resolution. And they all are resolved satisfactorily without the denouement feeling entirely contrived or inevitable.

The rage in this book is not only Salander’s, though her emotion and her personality drive the emotional currents within. Each of the four parts begins with a statistic. The statistic for Part 1 is:

Eighteen percent of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man.

The abuse of women is a major theme throughout the novel. The cold quantitative data contrasts well with the quickly moving, emotionally-charged story lines and the indomitably vulnerable lead female. The technique may be a little heavy-handed, but this is not primarily a message book, nor a feel good one.

For instance, Salander is not spared harsh treatment, but:

Salander never forgot an injustice, and by nature she was anything but forgiving.

She is also, as we are told at one point, not passive. She is a character women admire and men respect. And vice versa.

Characterization is a strong point of the novel. Salander is an excellent creation; Blomkvist has subtle complexities underlying his affable, passionate, playboy persona. The Vanger family is large and many of them do blend together, but the principle heroes and villains almost all have three dimensions. The same can be said of other characters. Given the large number of suspects and the many subplots, flat characters and types are necessary, but I am still impressed with the complexity that Larsson has managed to give so many of the characters. Heroes are not only heroes. They have weaknesses, flaws, and foibles. Despite the pace of the story, Larsson fills in important psychological details of his characters which lends credibility to the plotting. The characters do not read like puppets, doing what they are told, but like self-directed agents, reacting to events.

This is the end of the good stuff. The novel is a successful thriller. I would even say it is unusually successful for a thriller, though I am not an aficionado of the genre. But I would not say that most lovers of literary fiction will enjoy it. This is not a literary thriller. There are prose moments that may grate.

Despite a lack of poetry, “anon” appears at least twice in this book, apparently in earnest.

Blomkvist was enraged. But he had never managed to be enraged at Erika Berger for very long.

Perhaps its just me, but this just sounds strange.

Sometimes, the wording just feels awkward. Whether this is an issue of translation, I cannot say. But Larsson sometimes struggles to get across an emotion or mental state:

Salander felt that her composure was barely skin-deep and that she really wasn’t in complete control of her nerves.

There are a number of cases in which characters run through things in their mind, unnecessarily to my ear:

She sat on the worn sofa in her living room for one whole evening running through the situation in her mind.

After going through her address book in her mind…

He went through in his mind what he knew about Cecilia.

I do not mean to be a pedant, but to alert you to what you are getting and what you are not. The sentences are often poorly constructed. If this will ruin your experience, it is best to stay away. If you tend not to mark grammatical mistakes or unnecessarily long and convoluted sentences with a red pen in your mind, then don’t worry about it. For this kind of book, the faster you read, the better it is.

So, if you want to luxuriate in silky smooth prose with pleasing metaphors grab Bellow or Woolf or Nabokov and let this one lie. If you are in the mood for excitement and complex plotting, grab The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

The March by E.L. Doctorow

October 5, 2009

Some of my favorite books are war novels. One of my first “big” books (300+ pages) was a fortuitous find on my school’s library shelves: Newberry Winner Rifles for Watie. I loved that book. I did not realize at the time, but it was my first introduction to a more nuanced understanding of the Civil War than the traditional southern “Lost Cause” mythology that seems to get passed down nearly by osmosis to those who grow up in the American South.

I read a few other novels set during the Civil War as a child, but mostly moved on to other things. In my teens, I read some war novels, usually set in Vietnam, and Clancy’s military-techno-thrillers (my mother brought home The Hunt for Red October for my brother and me; we loved it). As an adult, my experience with “war novels” includes these favorites: A Farewell to Arms, Slaughterhouse Five, Killer Angels, and Catch-22.

At the time I read Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, I would not have consciously thought of what a “war novel” would or should look like. Most of the novels I had read to that point, however, had been told from the grunt’s point of view and had taken the reasonable view that war is hell. Killer Angels has a different feel, as explained by D.G. Meyers in his interesting review of Killer Angels. In the review, Meyers argues that Shaara freshly demonstrated with his novel that “a war novel need not be a ‘trauma novel.’”

Killer Angels is told almost exclusively from the officers’ point of view, rather than from the grunts’ point of view. This does make for a different sort of “war novel.” I think Meyers makes a good point. He closes by saying “there has been no other novel like it in forty years.”

TheMarchWhile The March is not exactly like Killer Angels in elevating the war to “a conflict of strategies and philosophies – a continuation of policies rather than an uninterrupted anarchy”, E.L. Doctorow perhaps learned something from that earlier book. Doctorow gives us multiple views up and down the chain of command, both inside and outside the military. And though The March is unlikely to leave you feeling that war is anything other than hell, it also recognizes and gives homage to the strategies and philosophies motivating the conflict.

Doctorow achieves this latter effect by drafting into his cause actual participants in Sherman’s march through the South, including most prominently, General Sherman himself. Several other historical figures, including President Lincoln and General Grant, are included in Doctorow’s large cast of characters. The character of Sherman is embellished with idiosyncrasies such as insomnia and dislike of conventional beds. Doctorow’s President Lincoln is perhaps a bit too hallowed by the other characters, wringing visible sympathy from the normally cold Wrede Sartorius. Still, Doctorow must have extensively researched his material because he, like Shaara, is able to explain and convey both the military strategy and the military tactics of the battles he relates.

If you are not familiar with the American Civil War, General Sherman took over as Union commander in the Western Theater of the war when General Grant was elevated from that post to general-in-chief of the Union Army in 1864. General Sherman captured Atlanta on September 2, 1864. His victory helped secure Lincoln’s election to a second term.

From there, Sherman followed a “hard war” policy while marching southeast through Georgia to Savannah and then up through the Carolinas. Sherman’s “hard war” consisted of destroying the Confederacy’s infrastructure and, he hoped, eviscerating the Confederacy’s will to continue the fight.

The March opens from the point of view of a southern plantation owner, John Jameson, preparing his family for flight as General Sherman is beginning his march from Atlanta to the Atlantic coast. The slaves are left behind. The most important of those to the novel is Pearl, a young female slave who, by outward appearance, is white. We soon learn that she is the daughter of John Jameson. Sherman’s army does get to the plantation and Lieutenant Clarke finds Pearl:

Her chin lifted, she regarded him as if she were the mistress of the house. She couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen, barefoot, in a plain frock to her knees, but caped by the shawl into a shockingly regal young woman. Before he could say anything, she darted past him and down the stairs. He caught a glimpse of smooth white calves, the shawl flying behind her.

Clarke and his men burn down the plantation and pillage everything of value. When they leave, the slaves go with them, there being no shelter or food remaining. Pearl stands apart from the other slaves who have piled into wagons and joined the procession. Clarke sees her and pulls her up on his horse. With this, Pearl is pulled into the march to stay.

It would take too long to properly introduce all the other major characters, so I will summarize. Lieutenant Clarke’s storyline soon intersects with that of two Confederates slated for hanging by their own side. The older, cynical, and cunning Arly fell asleep at his post, while the young, naïve, homesick Will deserted. Before the march has reached Savannah, Will and Arly will have switched sides several times. Emily Thompson is the daughter of a respected Judge and, eventually, joins the march as a nurse for Europe-educated Colonel Wrede Sartorius. Sartorius is a brilliant, if somewhat cold, army surgeon. In fact, he is the most respected surgeon in the Union. Perhaps, in Doctorow’s rendering, he is a little too brilliant.

Even so, Sartorius is a particularly interesting character. While not uncaring, his sympathy is almost exclusively expressed as efficiency. A typical show of his compassion is the amputation of a limb in nine seconds, a Union army best. His sex scene will send shivers through anyone with a modicum of romance. He is dissected best, perhaps, in these lines:

It is a cold, dark life, the life of principled feeling.

Sartorius is a principled man and his principles all serve to advance medical science. In one example, he refuses to operate on Albion Simms, a soldier with a spike on his head and, instead, takes him along on the march to study his deterioration. Albion Simms loses his memory along the way:

Yes. That is why my head hurts. It’s always now. That’s what hurts. Who did you say I was?

Albion Simms.

No, I can’t remember. There is no remembering. It’s always now.

Are you crying?

Yes. Because it’s always now. What did I just say?

It’s always now.


Albion, in tears, held his bar and nodded. Then he rocked himself back and forth, back and forth. It’s always now, he said. It’s always now.

This patient and his condition act as a metaphor for the march and war. In war, Doctorow points out, it is always now.

But to give any idea of the scope of the novel, I should mention the many other characters. Wilma Jones and Coalhouse Walker are slaves freed by Sherman’s army who meet and try to survive by following the march. Coalhouse is the father of a character in another of Doctorow’s novels. Roscoe is a distinguished black slave to John Jameson. Jameson’s wife Mattie searches for her two Confederate soldier sons. Then there is the photographer Josiah Culp and his assistant Calvin Harper who have a run-in with Arly and Will.

Gen. Judson Kilpatrick is a dandy and heads one of Sherman’s cavalry units, seducing and being seduced along the march. Stephen Walsh is a Union soldier who finds his way through to Colonel Sartorius’s surgery. Hugh Pryce is an English journalist who becomes involved in events which hinders his reporting. And there are numerous other minor characters. From Generals to slaves to “white trash”, Doctorow examines all strata of those affected by the march.

Yet, while each of these characters is important, the story is not about any particular character. The story is about the march. When Sherman muses at the march’s end:

Though this march is done, and well accomplished, I think of it now, God help me, with longing – not for its blood and death but for the bestowal of meaning to the very ground trod upon, how it made every field and swamp and river and road into something of moral consequence, whereas now, as the march dissolves so does the meaning, the army strewing itself into the isolated intentions of diffuse private life, and the terrain thereby left blank and also diffuse, and ineffable, a thing once again, and victoriously, without reason, and, whether diurnally lit and darkened, or sere or fruitful, or raging or calm, completely insensible and without any purpose of its own.

And why is Grant so solemn today upon our great achievement, except he knows this unmeaning inhuman planet will need our warring imprint to give it value, and that our civil war, the devastating manufacture of the bones of our sons, is but a war after a war, a war before a war.

This hearkens back to Albion Simms and his condition. In war, as with Simms, it is always now. Immediate survival and, hence, immediate gratification are the primary aims of the participants and those caught up in its horrors. Arly and Will exemplify that approach. Their sympathies lie with the South, but, in the always now war, they will put on whatever uniform is most conducive to survival. For generals, though, their own survival is rarely an issue. They have bigger goals which become their “always now”. The devouring beast of war is a means not only to an end, but to meaning.