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Articles by Jonah Raskin

Why I Love Stieg Larsson and The Millennium Trilogy: Let Me Count the Sexy Ways

by Jonah Raskin

Run-of-the-mill novels – say, Charles Jackson’s Lost Weekend, Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly - make for more riveting movies than classic novels such as Moby-Dick and Swann’s Way. Great novels have style, and style gets in the way of directors cutting to the cliffhanger and the big cinematic kiss.

Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2005) The Girl Who Played With Fire (2006) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2007) - is better on screen than on the page, though the hit movie hasn’t stopped readers from buying the book and reading it. The first two books are in paperback now and on bestseller lists around the country, though not currently in parts of the Bay Area. (At City Lights Bookstore, Peter Maravelis said, “We'd rather turn over our real estate to Rebecca Solnit's new book than a pop thing.”) The third Larsson book won’t be a best seller at City Lights, either, but it will soon be available in paperback in all the chains and in many libraries, too.

The books sell the movies and the movies sell the books. Knopf recently published, after all the movies were out, a boxed set of all three novels along with a third volume entitled On Stieg Larsson that includes emails between him and his editors, but no revelations about his private life. Of course, for the novels to sell well, and to go on selling, and for Larsson to become a kind of cultural avatar, the movies had to be entertaining.

The success of the films is due to the Swedish producers who slashed and burned the novels to make them box-office hits. In the first film, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the two main characters have sex on movie-time, and not on Larsson’s book-time. The movies are also more suspenseful, more action-packed, and with clearer development of the major characters. Critics agree on those points, though not on others.

From England to the U.S.A, they’ve observed that no one reads Larsson’s fiction for exactly the same reasons, and certainly not for exquisite style or aesthetically pleasing literary form in the way of Henry James. Written in Swedish, the Trilogy was translated into sturdy English by one “Reg Keeland” who turns out to be a pseudonym of Steven Murray, an award-winning translator born in Berkeley, California and a graduate of Cal State Hayward, and also known for his translation of Martin Andersen Nexo’s Danish classic, Pelle the Conqueror.

“Once a book translation is finally printed, I sometimes can barely remember doing it,” Murray says. “But occasionally a really good book will stay with me, like Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy.”

Murray calls Larsson “a brilliant writer.” If so, he deserves credit for communicating the brilliance. Larsson is, indeed, brilliant, though it’s heady, not heartfelt, a matter of thinking big thoughts about big ideas and translating them into big bestsellers. For all his artistic genius, however, Larsson never learned the art of structuring a book gracefully and so the Millennium Trilogy sprawls everywhere. But he did learn to shape his characters.

Mikael Blomkvist is the slender investigative reporter at Millennium, a muckraking magazine, who is separated from wife and daughter. Lisbeth Salander is the queer computer hacker spawned of a murderous father and an abused mother. For a long time, she and Mikael move along parallel tracks that don’t seem like they’ll ever met. Both characters sit at computers, email, and do research, which doesn’t make for companionship or riveting drama. Still, the novel’s explosive moments don’t work effectively without the drabber moments. The tempo of the book picks up precisely when the characters log off their computers. Then, bullets bound about, blood flows, the body count rises, and human bodies become weapons and toys.

I wish Larsson had cut passages, and had streamlined his story. I know I don’t feel the same about Melville, who took chapters to bring the white whale, the main character, on the stage of Moby-Dick, and then piled-up lore about the whaling industry. In the age of instant text messaging, I’m more impatient with plots that meander. Larsson gets away with meandering because he’s an amateur, and, like all amateurs, he loves to do what he does, whether it’s meandering or revving up the reader’s adrenalin. His love of writing is obvious, even in the quirky Prologue to

By the time the Trilogy wraps up the loose ends in volume three, it has recreated the noir novel, the political thriller, and the detective story. Like Mikael, who reads Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, Larsson read and studied detective fiction. From it, he learned the buttons to push to hook readers. In the Trilogy, he pushes all the buttons simultaneously – sex, love, violence, crime, and power - and created a perfect publishing storm. in which he writes delicately about flowers, without once introducing a corpse or a sleuth - the essentials of crime fiction.

Paretsky and Grafton would probably applaud what he’s done, though they might also scold him. A maximalist and not a minimalist, he digresses. But there is much to like in digressions that offer news and information about a variety of topics, from journalism, and Meth smuggling in Europe, to the appeal of Fascism in the upper classes.

For years, critics and reviewers have puzzled over Larsson’s colorful lives. After all, he was a Swedish communist and a working journalist with a long-time lover to whom he was not married. In 2004 at the age of 50, he died of a heart attack in Stockholm. Mysteries about the man and his books continue, now, years after his death: whether or not he had help writing them; whether he wrote more novels that are still on his computer; and whether we can look forward to more Stieg Larsson, and more Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist.

Mikael is appealing as the underdog reporter trying to clear his name, and also because he genuinely cares about Lisbeth. But as a character, he can’t really compete with her tattoos, bisexuality, and identity as a daughter of truly dark machinations that make her a fictional character worthy of the 21st-century. Steely and yet romantic, she’s an innocent with wisdom beyond her 24-years. At last, we have a woman with a powerful libido and not the girlish, asexual characters in the best selling Harry Potter series.

Larsson must have realized, about mid-way through the first book, that he had created a memorable character in “The Girl,” and that he couldn’t let go of her, or her strange vulnerability and force. Lisbeth gets stronger as the books go along. Indeed, by the end of the first “Girl,” she’s a woman and the hero of the book, not he. In volume two, she’s front and center from the start. “Lisbeth Salander pulled her sunglasses down to the tip of her nose and squinted from beneath the brim of her sun hat,” Larsson writes in that first, alluring sentence.

Lisbeth is tomorrow’s headline about rape, violence, and the psychological and physical abuse against women. She’s the daughter of feminism, and her feminism gallops across the pages of the Trilogy – in the statistics about sexual assaults, and in the fiber of the novel itself. Still, it isn’t purely feminist. Larsson didn’t and obviously couldn’t jettison his own sexual identity when he wrote the novel and so, at times, it’s an unabashed male sexual fantasy. Larsson’s Don Juan gets to have sex with almost every woman he’s attracted to, including Lisbeth. In fact, it’s Lisbeth who initiates sex between them, and, when they do go to bed, she’s on top and clearly in control. It’s a near-perfect heterosexual male fantasy.

Sexy, sexual, and yet not sexist, Mikael is perhaps the only redeemable male character in a book in which most of the men are drug-dealing bikers, sinister cops, corrupt politicians, unethical bankers, and ex-Nazis. It’s a feminist’s all-star line-up of patriarchal villains. Larsson certainly created loathsome characters. I grew to loathe them, and to feel gratified when Mikael and Lisbeth take up the pen and the sword, and the gun and the knife, to wreck a little havoc of their own.

I saw the movie version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and was told that the novel was better – and that it was “Dickensian.” Was there really a contemporary Charles Dickens, I wondered, and could the novel be superior to the movie? From my perspective, there’s little room for argument. If you have a choice between reading and watching, watch the movie. The acting is spare and yet explosive. A sense of paranoia and claustrophobia takes over and there’s enough detail on the screen to see the movies more than once, and see something new. If you also want to read the novels, of course, read them, but don’t expect Herman Melville, Marcel Proust, or Charles Dickens.

A Proustian or Dickensian experience probably isn’t what readers all over the world seek when they hunker down with the Millennium Trilogy. Perhaps what they want is a quick read. Perhaps they’re not looking for real depth of feeling or for memorable phrases like Melville’s “Call me Ishmael” or Proust’s “For a long time I used to go to bed early.” Instead of poetic prose, readers get a kind of tabloid sexual charge. The Trilogy offers the pleasures and pains of pulp fiction with an aristocratic underpinning; Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles angels and devils from The Big Sleep, and Roman Polanski’s insidiously corrupt characters from Chinatown, all shipped off to Sweden.

Of course, its more than just sexy characters that make the books popular. The Millennium Trilogy tells us what we want to hear and yet are afraid of hearing: that we live in ominously anxious times and that the future seems continually shifting. Larsson’s novels are products of an age in which governments come and go, politicians are shot, and the media devours it and spits it out in movies and books such as the Millennium Trilogy.

I found it fitting that Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, was arrested and jailed in Sweden on charges of rape, or at least unprotected sex, which is Lisbeth’s and Mikael’s kind of sex. When she tells him, “I want to have sex with you,” he says, “I don’t have any condoms.” She fires back, “Screw it.”

That sense of screwing a lover of bed, getting screwed by the system, and, at the same time, trying to screw it, is at the heart of Larsson’s sexual politics. The Millennium Trilogy captures the feelings of our skewed, screwed, unsentimental world. Larsson shakes us and wakes us to the horrid and very human things that human beings do to one another. In that sense, his characters are reminiscent of the characters in Dickens, and at times even reminiscent of Dickens’s sense of the grotesque. The Millennium Trilogy isn’t Dickens, or Dickensian, of course, but it offers readers the kind of emotional satisfaction once provided by Dickens’s books, and the classics of 19th-century literature. Come to think of it, maybe the Trilogy does have an immortal line, after all. “Screw it” is my first choice.


© 2012 Jonah Raskin