I have been meaning to write this post for a long time now, but held off until The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest*, the final installment of Steig Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy was finally published in the US. Starting with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I have been completely obsessed with this series—so much so that rather than wait for the US publication, I tracked down a copy of the UK edition at a New Delhi bookstore in December.
If you haven’t read these books, you must. You really must. Lisbeth Salander, the “girl” of the titles, is without question one of the most original—and kickass—literary heroines of all time, and the novels are as brilliant and iconoclastic as she is. But beyond that, they’re an extraordinary high-water mark in commercial fiction because, as Chip McGrath of the New York Times wrote: “[The Millenium Trilogy] also has an outspoken feminist subtext, hardly a typical feature of crime novels.”
This is not your typical “crime novel”, with a dick-swinging, hard-boiled, hard-drinking man with a gun fighting off other tough guys. Instead:
The villains are “men who hate women” (the title given the first novel in Sweden, but fortunately changed): rapists, child abusers, sex traffickers, even killers of women.
At the center of the action is the unforgettable Lisbeth Salander:
Salander is 24 when we first meet her but looks like a teenager. She’s elfin, barely 90 pounds, and has dyed black hair “short as a fuse.” Abused as a child and wrongfully institutionalized, Salander engages in dysfunctional, even autistic, behavior that might just reflect an understandable skepticism about human goodness and potential. She exists off the grid, really — having as little to do with people and institutions as possible and following an avenging ethical code of her own devising — and in the first novel makes a living of sorts as a researcher for a security firm, where she benefits from two spectacular assets: a photographic memory and wizardly computer skills. She can hack into anything.
That description is courtesy of Patrick Anderson at the Washington Post. The New York Times’s eminent literary critic Michiko Kakutani says of Salander:
…Stieg Larsson’s fierce pixie of a heroine, is one of the most original characters in a thriller to come along in a while — a gamin, Audrey Hepburn look-alike but with tattoos and piercings, the take-no-prisoners attitude of Lara Croft and the cool, unsentimental intellect of Mr. Spock. She is the vulnerable victim turned vigilante; a willfully antisocial girl, once labeled mentally incompetent by the state’s social services system, who has proved herself to be as incandescently proficient as any video game warrior.
In several wink-y twists, Larsson even draws parallels between Lisbeth and Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren’s strangely solitary and inexplicably powerful heroine of Swedish children’s books. There’s a darkness to the Pippi Longstocking stories, even though they were written for children, and that dark undercurrent becomes a raging torrent in the Millenium Trilogy. Larsson furiously deconstructs the stereotype of Sweden as an egalitarian, socialist utopia. In the Sydney Morning Herald, Robert Dessaix writes:
Larsson has lacerating comments to make about contemporary Swedish society. His favourite targets are violence against women, the incompetence and cowardice of investigative journalists, the moral bankruptcy of big capital and the virulent strain of Nazism still festering away beneath all that shiny Swedish fairness.
Evil has many faces in the Millenium Trilogy; Larsson did not shy away from the seamy, the disturbing, the violent, the psychotic and the downright terrifying. There is sexual abuse, sex trafficking, war crimes, incest, domestic violence, rape, gay-bashing, neo-fascism, and flagrant abuse of individual rights at every level of the government and judiciary. Patrick Anderson made much of the trilogy’s
“…passionate attack on sexism….At the start of this third volume, out of the blue, Larsson tells us that “from antiquity to modern times, there are many stories of female warriors, of Amazons” and digresses on women warriors in history and myth. He is clearly (and perhaps unnecessarily) telling us that Lisbeth is not simply a lone woman who has been persecuted but a mythic figure, an avenger fighting on behalf of all women against oppression.”
As the fame of the series has grown, the tattooed, violent, anti-social Lisbeth Salander has been elevated to the level of feminist icon. And no wonder—the scene in which she avenges herself on the court-appointed guardian who brutally rapes her is the most memorable payback since Lorena Bobbitt. It even led one Gawker commenter to remark that jurors deciding the fate of rapists should all ask themselves: WWLSD?
But Lisbeth is not Stieg Larsson’s only outstanding female character. He also created the business tycoon Harriet Vanger—herself the victim of horrific crimes—the fierce human rights lawyer, Annika Giannini, the sophisticated and unsually astute publisher Erika Berger, the punk singer and kickboxer Miriam Wu, and more than one heroic female police detective. Unlike traditional crime novels, where women are sidekicks at best, Larsson’s female characters are the engine that drives the narrative. Mikael Blomkvist, the trilogy’s hero, is not so much the protagonist as the partner in crime and aide de camp to any number of talented, dynamic women. He moves in their orbit, instead of vice versa. Even Blomkvist’s sexual adventuring with some of the women is portrayed merely as a pleasurable aspect of their partnership rather than the fictional hero’s usual entitlement: bedding as many willing women as the author can throw in his path. In fact, in several cases, Blomkvist is the seduced, rather than the seducer, which he accepts with good humor and without any sense that his masculinity has been diminished. Somewhat surprsingly, despite the fact that the novels tackle misogyny and sexual violence head-on, they’re tremendously sex-positive, as Patrick Anderson pointed out:
The good people in these books — including Mikael, Lisbeth and Mikael’s longtime lover, Erika — embrace consensual sex in all its manifestations: straight, gay, extramarital, serial, kinky, whatever.
Sexual politics pervade the Millenium Trilogy, from the bedroom to the boardroom to the courtroom. Even as he rails against the most despicable violations of women’s rights, Larsson also has a finely-tuned ear for subtler forms of misogyny, and he doesn’t miss a chance to skewer those as well. This is how his character, Erika Berger, describes her first encounter with new male colleagues when she takes over as publisher of a prestigious daily newspaper:
What irritated her the most was that they kept brushing off her arguments with patronizing smiles, making her feel like a teenager being quizzed on her homework. Without actually uttering a single inappropriate word, they displayed toward her an attitude that was so antediluvian it was almost comical. You shouldn’t worry your pretty head over complex matters, little girl.
Any woman who’s spent any time in the workplace—no matter how powerful she’s become—has had that experience. The passage made me gnash my teeth in sympathetic recognition. What’s surprising, and gratifying, is how well a male writer pinpointed and described it; presumably Larsson had witnessed this kind of sexism during his years as a journalist. Unlike most men, however, he was not oblivious to it, nor did he dismiss it. Instead he portrays it bluntly and negatively, then goes out of his way to make sure Berger gets her revenge on the old-boys network.
In another memorable scene, Blomkvist, investigating the death of an Eastern European prostitute, bears down on a man who describes how he’d had sex with the victim when she’d been drugged and tied to a bed. “You raped her.” Blomkvist insists. The suspect throws out all the familiar excuses for why it wasn’t rape: she was a prosititute, she didn’t struggle, someone had left her there for him, he was just the customer… Blomkvist refuses to let the man off the hook, and his obvious contempt and continued insistance that what happened was nothing short of violent rape, made me want to stand up and cheer. There needs to be a hell of a lot more of that kind of moral condemnation in our society, and Larsson wasn’t afraid to use his novel as a soapbox for it, even though some might have discouraged him for fear of alienating potential readers.
Stieg Larsson died in 2004 at age 50, before the first book in the trilogy was published. His friend Mikael Ekman, a fellow journalist, told the New York Times:
“Stieg was a true idealist, a feminist, a believer in freedom. He dedicated his whole life to fighting the right-wing extremists. The biggest thing Stieg did was not the books. It was the work he did for democracy.”
I would argue that these books are “work for democracy.” Popular fiction can open readers’ eyes to injustice and change cultural attitudes, sometimes even more quickly than the crusading journalism that was Stieg Larsson’s day job. The enormous popularity of the Millenium Trilogy, which spans multiple languages and cultures, shows it’s possible to incorporate moral outrage into commercial fiction without sacrificing a great story or a wide readership. These books deserve the largest possible audience, not only because they are terrific, tightly plotted thrillers, but because Larsson’s call to arms against sexism and exploitation is relevant to every society and in every reader’s life.
*The UK edition is titled The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. For some reason, Knopf, the US publisher, gives it as a singular: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. This American usage error irritates me. Hornets do not live one per nest; the saying is only meaningful because kicking the nest makes hornets swarm—all of them!