This is the book series I have heard everyone mention but no one describe. It appears to be popular, but I have never found out why. After having read it myself, I think I can explain both the reason it is loved as well as the reason people haven’t said why.
For those who don’t know, Stieg Larsson is Swedish – or rather, was, since he died in 2004. His book was translated to the English by Reg Keeland. There are a number of editorial issues I noticed with this book, and I’m sure many of them are in part due to the fact that I was reading a translation rather than the original. (That being said, though, I must interrupt myself here and say that the book was copy edited superbly, and I, as one of the strictest editors I know, was hard put to find a grammatical or stylistic mistake. Rather, the editorial issues I found are developmental in nature.) For instance, the transitions are often less than smooth, especially when transitioning to a flashback. The use of past tense versus past perfect is, in fact, imperfect, and I am confident this is a translation issue, since tense is handled so differently in different languages. There are times that the author flashed back, but it took me a paragraph or two of confusion to realize it.
There are one or two other developmental issues I would’ve focused on had I been the editor of this book. Larsson uses some narrative tools that I would’ve discouraged. To start with, he employs an unnecessary prologue. I can stomach prologues if I can find a good reason for them. The types of prologues I usually enjoy take place far, far in advance of the beginning of the chronological timeline of the book (like decades, or even centuries). The prologue to this book, however, begins on November 1, present day, and chapter 1 begins at the same time – just with a different character. Therefore, the prologue should’ve been scrapped and made its own chapter – perhaps chapter 1, even.
As for chapter 1 itself, its existence is the main reason I almost put the book down without continuing. I think I was a good 50 pages in before I decided to commit to the whole book. That’s how slow a start this novel gets off to. I say that not to discourage anyone from reading it but rather to encourage you to keep going, if you feel yourself stuck in those first few pages. The author makes a serious mistake of delving too deeply into a minor character who does not even become a character of interest until the last 90 pages of the book. For 12 pages in the beginning, Larsson describes in detail the shady legal, political, and financial activities of this character who is a corporate scumbag, in order to provide context for why one of the main characters is in the position he is. The problem is, instead of summarizing and leaving the reader with the basic impression that this guy is a bad dude, Larsson goes into long, confusing, unnecessary descriptions of this character’s activities so that the only audience left interested by the end of chapter 1 is likely made up of corporate or financial lawyers or maybe investigative journalists. And perhaps they are Larsson’s target market, in which case I suppose he nailed it. But I know there are ordinary readers who have missed out on a fantastic novel because Larsson lost them in those first few pages (I know one such reader personally, in fact).
But, if you can get past chapter 1, then you may have as much trouble putting this book down as I did. My conjecture is that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is intriguing for Americans first and foremost because it’s so entirely different from what we’re used to. This novel is very European, by which I mean that it is rather mature for U.S. standards and more liberal than we’re usually willing to be comfortable with, in many arenas but most especially in descriptions of both positive and negative sexual interactions.
The characters of this book are edgy. The author is open and unapologetic with his references to sexual interaction, which again points back to that European flair I love so much. Inasmuch as I don’t really agree with the characters’ worldviews on sexuality (multiple partners, sex in and out of wedlock, no commitment, casual is the key), I found it easy to forgive these actions and sympathize with the characters anyway, if for no other reason than that I appreciate reading a text that is unafraid to address the subject. (Side note: This is actually something I appreciated about Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife too, though on a smaller scale.)
In some ways, even though the sex is treated more casually and openly than it usually is in any American literature (“smutty” novels notwithstanding), the descriptions feel less offensive and less like they are breaking some sort of decorous rule. Perhaps that’s because the author knows that (in Europe, anyway) he isn’t. Or maybe it’s because there are no secrets about who is having sex with whom, and there is really no judgment about it either. (I suppose that is because there are no Christians in this novel.)
But on the other hand, Stieg Larsson also (unlike American authors) doesn’t feel the need to describe positive sexual encounters in detail (the definition of positive being consensual, in this context; for there are plenty of descriptions of non-consensual sex as well). There are no awkward descriptions involving throbbing or quivering or thrusting. I think this is where American authors fail, and fail miserably. What is the American obsession with describing sex in such detail? We’re adults. Most of us have experienced it firsthand. There is really no need to attempt a raunchy description.
Without giving away too much of the plot detail, I will say that I think Larsson is brilliant in setting up the contrast of positive, consensual sexual encounters against a counter plot of a series of sex crimes. I think this was absolutely intentional, and I think it brings the two types of interaction into sharp (sometimes painful, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes enraging) contrast, even functioning as a subtle and more convincing argument for both commitment and abstinence than any church program I’ve been subjected to. Unfortunately, because of its inability to get past the surface when it comes to societal issues, the church would never be able to acknowledge or understand this particular element.
Moving away from sex but sticking with cultural stigmas, this book is set in 2002, I think. This detail is never stated explicitly, but there is a 9/11 reference in there that made me think it was supposed to be 2002. It was first published in 2005 in Sweden, not making its way to an English version until 2008/2009. And, since I didn’t pick it up until the end of 2011, that means I have read it almost a decade after the intended setting. So it is to be expected that some of the pop-culture references are a little outdated, and some of them went straight over my American head anyway.
In addition, the title itself seemed outdated. As I got further into the book, I discovered that the significance behind the title is that it is a cultural oddity for this girl to have as many tattoos as she does. Again, in late 2011 (now early 2012), it just is not – at least in the United States – unusual for anyone (young or old, male or female) to have six or more tattoos. I kept getting momentarily confused and having to remind myself that this was 2002 Sweden, not 2012 United States.
It gave me a dose of culture shock, in a sense, to realize how quickly and drastically things change. In my post-adolescent life, tattoos have always been trendy. If I read this book 20 or 30 years from now, it might be easier to say, “Oh yeah, this was written back before it was popular or common to have tattoos.” But to be within the same decade and experience such a difference feels a little unsettling. However, I suppose it’s just incontrovertible proof that trends, culture, and society change as time marches unceasingly on.
After I finished the book, I looked up a little about the history of the book, the author, and the translation, and I learned that the Swedish title of the book translates to: Men Who Hate Women. Though I’m not entirely impressed with such a title, it does completely fit the narrative and progression of the plot and is even a repeated phrase by one of the characters (incidentally, the girl with the dragon tattoo, as it turns out). So that is an interesting consideration.
I will say that, as far as suspense and mysterious intrigue go, this novel utilizes chapter breaks perfectly. In contrast to many mysteries or action novels, the chapter itself is used as the tool for narrative propulsion, rather than the chapter break. I dislike authors who use chapter breaks as opportunities for cliffhangers (Suzanne Collins, of Hunger Games noteriety, is the most recent abuser I have encountered of this technique). Instead, Larsson uses visual breaks within the chapters to switch scenes and point of view, rather than ending the chapter smack dab in the middle of a scene or sequence of action. Therefore, when the end of a page-turning chapter is reached, I as the reader am able to take a breather, put in the bookmark and count to ten, recharge, collect my thoughts, and prepare for the next 10 or 15 pages of action. As an attempted novelist myself, this is how I use chapter breaks too. However, perhaps this confession only reveals where my bias lies and not which technique actually belies the superior skill. Whatever the case, it’s clear I have a preference, and Stieg Larsson caters to that preference masterfully.
Overall, despite the slow start, I greatly enjoyed my read of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I am eager to start the second book. However, I would recommend this book only sparingly and in particular circles, and there are definitely certain people I would specifically and actively encourage not to read it. I suspect the reason these books are popular and the reason people don’t explain why has a lot to do with the elements I have discussed without apology in this review. Americans are afraid to say they like the subject of sex in literature, for fear they will be labeled sexual deviants, and Christian Americans are just plain afraid to admit they even know what sex is. Therefore, proceed with caution, and if you have found any seeds of discomfort or discontent in my review, then I strongly urge you not to pick up the book. If you haven’t, go check it out tomorrow and enjoy!