Saturday, October 22, 2016

Book Review - The Millennium Series, by Stieg Larsson

"The Lord of the Rings is often erroneously called a trilogy," Douglas A. Anderson once wrote, "when it is in fact a single novel." I feel the need to begin this review by clarifying a similar misconception about Stieg Larsson's works. Millennium is sometimes termed a trilogy, when it is actually a series of ten novels - only three of which were completed by the author. Stieg Larsson planned to write ten novels, but died of a heart attack just after delivering the manuscripts for the first three. Outlines and sketches exist for some of the later novels in the series, but Larsson had not completed any manuscripts.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a shocking, scatterbrained potpourri of a novel. I have never seen a book that cared so little about its own image. It is part cyber-punk hacker-thriller, part chronicle of a severely dysfunctional family, part Quixotic tale about the virtue of honest journalism, part scathing rebuke of the "rape culture" in modern society, part revenge story, and even part romance. And I don't think Stieg Larsson cared one bit about appealing to readers of any one of those genres. He wrote this novel because he was driven to write it. He once claimed that the inspiration for the Millennium trilogy came from when he witnessed a gang raping a girl. Larsson, fifteen years old at the time, watched the incident with horror, but did nothing to help the girl; the guilt stayed with him for years (some believe this story is actually fabricated). I believe that Larsson approached this novel not with a logical goal in mind, but in reflection upon a terrible, traumatic experience. The strength of his own passion, combined with a potent imagination and meticulous attention to detail, yielded a stunning story. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo shows much evil in the world, and implies even more.

The novel essentially has three separate plots that intersect here and there when they are in the mood. The first involves journalist Mikael Blomkvist, head of the magazine Millennium. He has recently been indicted on charges of libel, and all over Sweden his reputation is tarnished. The second involves Henrik Vanger, the aging CEO of a family corporation whose brother's granddaughter, Harriet, disappeared thirty-six years ago. Vanger distrusts many members of his family, and he is determined to find out what happened to his grand-niece before he dies. The third involves Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous "girl" who is probably hacking into your computer and writing a report on your life as you read this review. She is an introverted, reclusive young woman whose best friends live by code names, who carries a taser with her, and who trusts no one on earth.

Vanger hires Blomkvist to chronicle the family's history and search for what really happened to Harriet, promising Blomkvist a hefty salary and special information that could clear Blomkvist's name in the libel suit. When the job proves to be intriguing but overly complex, Blomkvist asks Vanger's lawyer to hire an assistant in the research, and the lawyer reveals that he once hired Lisbeth to do a background check on Blomkvist himself. Thus Blomkvist chooses Lisbeth to be his research assistant, and the two develop an unexpected relationship.

Blomkvist and Lisbeth do not meet until more than halfway through the novel. They are both prodigies, in a sense. Blomkvist is a prodigy with people, being able to communicate and connect with almost anyone. Lisbeth is a prodigy with data - she has a photographic memory, she can hack into any computer in five minutes, and when faced with an obstacle she always knows where to go in order to obtain the right tools to confront that obstacle. What she cannot do is chart her relationships with the different people in her life. In her mind, it is Lisbeth versus the world. Both see each other's weaknesses: Lisbeth thinks of Blomkvist as naive, and Blomkvist mentally diagnoses Lisbeth with Asperger's. Together, they chase a number of leads on the case of what happened to Harriet thirty-six years ago.

The dominant theme of the novel is, of course, misogyny. It depicts scenes of sexual abuse quite unsparingly, and constantly hints that we do not even know about most cases because the victims are simply powerless to report it. When Lisbeth is raped by her own welfare guardian, she does not go to the police because she knows it will be "his word against hers" - as he gleefully taunts her. A man reflects at one point, "Women disappear all the time. Nobody misses them." And that is the most palpable difference between Blomkvist and Lisbeth - probably no one would miss Lisbeth, but a lot of people would miss Blomkvist. The majority of this novel takes place in Mikael Blomkvist's world, which is a world of important people, of the affluent elite. People who make six-figure paychecks. People whose names are printed on products that ship halfway around the world. People who sit in meetings and decide the future of a company. This novel has little to say about the working-class citizen. Even Lisbeth, an outcast who cares nothing for her appearance, does not have a history of washing dishes or cooking fast food or going through the dumpsters for her clothing. Rather, she insists on buying expensive electronic equipment and splurging on new tattoos, earning her money by means of sophisticated hacking techniques that the common person would never understand. She is divided from Blomkvist, not in terms of wealth and education, but in terms of personal relationships. He has many relationships; she has none.

This book has no intention to recognize beauty in the world, even if it happens by accident sometimes. Though Blomkvist actually enjoys a lot of leisure and prosperity (his three-month prison sentence is described as if it were a paid vacation), his story is not half as poignant as Lisbeth's, and it is Lisbeth's that stays with us. She is a confused, angry, resourceful demon of a girl, perverted by a dark past that is not revealed to us yet. She detests those who prey on the weak, but does not quite know how to take care of herself - somewhat like a cross between Zorro, and Katharina from The Taming of the Shrew. If she had her own version of the Bat-Signal and I saw it in the sky one night, I think I would run for my life.

The Girl who Played with Fire takes place roughly a year after the events of the first novel. It has almost no connection to the Vanger family of the first novel. Instead it focuses more on Lisbeth herself. Three people are murdered, the police find Lisbeth's fingerprints on the gun, and in the course of the investigation we learn more and more about her dark past.

In theory, this sounds like an excellent follow-up to Dragon Tattoo. However, The Girl who Played with Fire opens up a can of worms and does not know what to do with its contents. To put it simply: it is a plodding, shapeless novel. The entire first section describes a long, decadent vacation that Lisbeth takes on a series of tropical islands, a vacation that has no relevance or connection to the rest of the story. Meanwhile at the Millennium magazine, Blomkvist and his editor, Erika Berger, begin to collaborate with a journalist named Dag Svensson and his girlfriend Mia Johansson on an article and eventually on a nonfiction book about illegal sex trade. As Dag and Mia finish up their research, they discover an obscure criminal figure named Zala and try to find out more about him. Suddenly Mikael Blomkvist comes to their apartment one night and finds that Dag and Mia have both been shot; a few days later, the police discover that Bjurman, Lisbeth's corrupt and sadistic legal guardian, has also been shot, probably with the same gun. When they find Lisbeth's fingerprints on the matching gun outside Dag's apartment, the police begin an all-out campaign to find Lisbeth, putting out "wanted" posters that portray her as everything from a prostitute to a lesbian Satanist.

Much of the novel dwells on a cat-and-mouse game between the police and Lisbeth, except in this case the mouse can watch the cat's every move on a computer, so we know that Lisbeth could probably elude the police for several decades. The arrogance, misogyny, and corruption within the police force does not help, either. It is a one-sided game, and it gets repetitive. Gradually Larsson switches the focus to an epic mystery that surrounds Lisbeth. It turns out that she is the focal point of a criminal conspiracy that involves the entire Swedish government, an illegal Russian defector who is a threat to national security, historical events that took place in several other countries, an untold number of past murders, a superhuman "giant" who is afraid of the dark, and half of the sex-trade activities that have gone on in the past twenty years. It is spellbinding but slightly implausible. By the end of the novel, everyone is desperately seeking Lisbeth, as if she is a sort of inverted "chosen one" - a missing piece in a gigantic puzzle that might fall down and crush everyone.

The story does a good job of building up my sympathy for Lisbeth. Her guardian, Nils Bjurman, was terrible to her, but now we see that Lisbeth's life was abominable long before she met him (although it turns out that he "knew" who she was ever since she was born, and his guardianship of her was planned from the start). The shadowy criminal Zala and the sadistic doctor Teleborian made her childhood a nightmare, and we finally understand why she never trusts the police or any figure of authority.

But overall, this book lacks the tight construction of the first. Lisbeth Salander was easily the strongest and most fascinating character in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I understand why the author chose to focus more directly on her in this sequel. Yet somehow, Larsson did not quite give her enough to do in this book; her character is like the kid who keeps waiting and waiting to go on at the talent show, and when it's finally her turn she gets stage fright and can't go through with her own act. At the end of the first book, Lisbeth steals three billion kronor (about $325 million in U.S. dollars) from a corrupt businessman, and so she is suddenly wealthy beyond her wildest dreams. Throughout the sequel, Larsson spends a lot of time describing all the fancy things Lisbeth buys: Ikea furniture, an apartment with enough rooms for twenty of her, coffeemakers, first-class hotel rooms, silverware. Why doesn't she use her resources to help people? Start her own magazine? Buy a building and create a homeless shelter? Attend the best college in the country and learn to be a social worker? If she cannot trust any authority figure, at least she could become something that others could look up to. But Lisbeth does none of these things. Her introversion is such a handicap that Larsson does not seem to know how to make her do anything on her own; things must happen to her.

Thus the dynamic nature of her character runs into a roadblock, namely, Larsson's passive treatment of her. I don't know if this was intentional - perhaps Larsson meant to demonstrate that people's mistreatment of her made it impossible for Lisbeth to have any creativity or positive initiative in life. I want to stress that I really did feel sorry for her. It's just that I expected her to do more than just evade police and find out about her own past and occasionally shock people with her taser. Is her indifference to the world a character flaw that she will eventually overcome? Are we supposed to feel responsible for this flaw - have we bred the outcasts of society to be sullen and listless?

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest begins almost immediately after the events of the second novel. Lisbeth Salander is in critical condition, and an actual helicopter arrives to deliver her to a hospital. The criminal Zala is also in critical condition (after Lisbeth hit him with an axe...twice...), and they are both taken to the same hospital even though the police know that they were basically trying to kill each other. So the tensions flare when the two injured parties are placed two separate rooms, within about two hundred feet of each other. Meanwhile the giant henchman working for Zala has vanished.

For most of the novel, Lisbeth lies on a hospital bed recuperating from three separate gunshot wounds. In theory this does not sound very dramatic, but Larsson actually makes the most of it, and she proves to be a very intriguing patient - the kind of patient you might see in one of the better episodes of Grey's Anatomy, with Dr. Shepherd mentally comparing Lisbeth Salander to his coworker Meredith Grey.

But I stray. The third installment of Larsson's series is a dense kevlar-suit of a novel, stretched out yet compact, insanely intricate yet oddly stagnant. The action of the novel consists of the effort of three armies battling against one. The tireless reporters of Millennium magazine, the clever tricksters of Milton Security, and the courageous local police officers (on Lisbeth's side this time!), have all joined forces against a select few members of SIS (Swedish Internal Security) who have broken laws in the past and are now desperately trying to cover their tracks. It resembles a conspiracy novel, such as i.e. Grisham's The Pelican Brief; but here the conspiracy has already occurred, and we are just watching the aftermath of it and waiting for the crooks to get caught. The men of the SSA (Section for Special Analysis, a group within SIS) once granted sanctuary to the Russian defector Zala decades ago, and his horrible lifestyle and violent tendencies got him in trouble time after time; SSA was forced to cover up for his crimes.

I will confess that I simply could not follow the course of the story at times. In order to keep track of all the characters working for Millennium, Milton, the police, and SIS, you would probably have to fill up an entire notebook. As Lisbeth recovers, she is surprised to find that she has a number of friends who are ready to defend her in her upcoming trial. SIS has stacked the deck against her: they have influenced the prosecution into charging her with aggravated assault, possession of illegal weapons, unlawful threats, breaking and entering, theft of a vehicle; and, in general, the crime of being crazy. To slander Lisbeth's character, SIS depends upon Dr. Teleborian, who insists that Lisbeth is completely incapable of being a responsible citizen. For over four hundred pages the SIS and the allied forces compile evidence against each other, preparing for a trial that does not occur until the last quarter of the novel.

All of this centers around Lisbeth Salander. The girl who has stirred up a swarm of metaphorical hornets with her proverbial kick. Her code name is "Wasp," but other than that, this story has nothing whatsoever to do with insects. This is a story about a girl who was in the wrong place at the wrong time - a girl who got mixed up with a terrible man (Zala) through no fault of her own, and must dig herself out of all the trouble that is heaped upon her. The only crime she committed was fighting back, fighting for her survival. That is why she must face this conspiracy that is bent upon eradicating her from history.

At one point in the novel, Erika Berger begins working at a different journal called Svenska Morgon Posten - SMP for short. Berger argues with the other members of SMP: she says that the aim of a business should not be to make money, but to create the best possible product and let the consumers decide if that product is worth their money. When the others claim that this goes against the idea of capitalism, Berger insists that this is the very definition of capitalism: "Ownership implies's the market that decides whether you make a profit or take a loss." Now, at first I was tempted to see this whole subplot of Berger working at SMP as an erroneous digression from the main plot of the story, since it has almost no influence on Lisbeth Salander's situation. But I believe that Erika's argument, about progression versus profit, has been put here for a reason: it is exposing the same sort of hypocrisy that Lisbeth's plight is exposing. As Dr. Teleborian and his cohorts seek to exploit women, so the editors at Svenska Mogon Posten seek to exploit the middle class, claiming that some people's success is more important than other people's success. Larsson is raising a question here: can you earn the respect of others without taking away their own self-respect?

Again, my assessment waxes political, or didactic; I sound like I am preaching rather than reviewing. But as I mentioned before, Larsson's very intent seems to be didactic, a struggle to make people aware of how many disgraceful things happen in the world every day. It is not a question of precisely how much we can do, but, rather, a question of whether we are willing to take the first step in addressing a wrong. Most of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest is about a group effort to bury the wrongs of the past, while the friends of Lisbeth Salander try to exhume those wrongs. The novel is fairly black-and-white, with obvious distinctions between the people Larsson hated and the people Larsson admired. Lisbeth is disconnected and dysfunctional like before, but I could see a slight change in her demeanor, a realization that she cannot survive if she does not trust a few people. Of course it ends in a vicious courtroom battle, in which the resourceful lawyer Annika (sister of Mikael Blomkvist) takes on the evil Dr. Teleborian. However, when Lisbeth watches this lawyer defend her so energetically, Lisbeth is forced to do something she hates: feel indebted to another person.

The symbols we see in the titles of these novels - dragon, fire, hornet - are not entirely the inventions of the author. The original Swedish titles of the novels are, translated literally, Men Who Hate Women, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Air Castle That Was Blown Up. The translator, Steven T. Murray (a.k.a. Reg Keeland), chose to change two of the titles, perhaps to make the series sound more unified.

Where was Larsson going with these strange ideas? Hatred, fire, air castle - the last one reminding us of Laputa, the flying castle from Gulliver's Travels - all of them are about intolerance. The anger we feel for those who are different from us, and the anger they feel in return when they are not accepted by us. Permeating through the stories is the benevolent Millennium magazine, determined to tell the truth about how people have been mistreated by society. We all crave equality; but there are different ideologies concerning how to achieve equality. Larsson was a die-hard leftist, and he believed reform was necessary to make sure people could live as equals.