Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Girl Whose Books Aren’t Very Good

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At first glance, Joan Acocella’s openly contemptuous piece on Stieg Larsson in The New Yorker looks like the comprehensive takedown that the Millennium trilogy has long deserved, but I don’t think she quite pulls it off. Acocella devotes a few paragraphs to the trilogy’s “almost comical faults”—bad writing, poor dialogue, irrelevant detail—but concludes by saying that Larsson is “a very good storyteller.” Which is almost exactly wrong. I’ve only read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and I have no plans to read the others, but it seems clear to me that Larsson’s faults—and virtues—are very different from the ones that Acocella describes.

First, the good. I don’t think that Larsson’s writing is nearly as bad as others have said. Although it’s true that almost every paragraph could be revised to be sharper and tighter—as editor June Casagrande has done, to amusing effect—that’s true of virtually all mainstream suspense fiction, and Larsson is no worse an offender than most. If nothing else, his prose was smooth and propulsive enough to keep me reading Dragon Tattoo for what must have been hundreds of pages, even as I slowly realized that nothing of interest was happening, or going to happen. (More about this later.)

What else? Larsson knows how to create an atmospheric setting, even if he rarely follows through. And his two main protagonists are perfectly fine. Blomkvist is something of a Mary Sue, yes, but again, he’s no worse than many other lead characters in suspense fiction. And Lisbeth Salander, at her best, is pretty much as advertised: an intriguing, memorable avenging angel. Her scene of revenge against her abusive guardian is the only really good scene in the entire first novel, and it’s so powerful that it almost provides enough momentum to propel the reader through the ensuing three hundred pages of complete inaction. Almost.

And that’s the problem. Despite what Acocella says, I don’t think that Larsson is a good storyteller at all. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo presents itself as a locked room mystery, but the solution is so banal that I had to read it twice to make sure I hadn’t missed anything more interesting. Deductions are made by such farfetched devices as a girl’s facial expression in an old photograph, which, even if it were plausible, just doesn’t work on the page. And the author’s idea of compounding the mystery is to introduce us to dozens of interchangeable uncles, aunts, and cousins, all potential suspects, none of them memorable. As Borges wrote:

The amateurs [of the detective story]…are partial to the story of a jewel placed within the reach of fifteen men—that is, of fifteen names, because we know nothing about their characters—which then disappears into the heavy fist of one of them. They imagine that the act of ascertaining to which name the fist belongs is of considerable interest.

And even these shortcomings wouldn’t matter as much if the novel were at least streamlined and concise, which it isn’t. The ideal thriller should be a perfect machine with no superfluous parts, but Dragon Tattoo is so padded that it resembles another Borges creation, the Book of Sand, in which the reader is always an infinite number of pages from the beginning and the end. It’s no exaggeration to say that, given half an hour and a red pencil, a third of the novel could easily have been cut, especially from its opening and closing sections, with no loss whatsoever.

So why are these novels so popular? Acocella seems to have no idea, aside from the possibility that readers are turned on by the trilogy’s lurid combination of feminism and rape, or, in a particularly lame conjecture, by the books’ “up-to-dateness, particularly of the technological variety.” The real answer, I suspect, is that Larsson’s combination of superficial readability and intense boredom has convinced a lot of readers that they’re reading something good for them. And for those who think I’m being unfair, I have a simple test. Read The Silence of The Lambs. Then read Dragon Tattoo again. And if you still feel like defending Stieg Larsson, then, perhaps, we can talk.

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