Tag Archives: Novels

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

[Spoiler alerts inevitable here . . . ] I just finished the third book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series and have to report that I’m already mourning the loss of what turned out to be a fascinating and compelling cast of characters. Motoring through The Girl Who Played with Fire and then the last book, I found myself turning pages not as much to see what would happen, as Lisbeth Salander’s vindication seemed inevitable throughout, but more because I’d come to actually care about the characters and their victories over injustice. I was also frankly curious to see whether Larsson could maintain his even-handedness about gender issues, and was pleased to find that in subtle ways, he emphasized his liberal feminist commitment even further as the series progressed.Although she was locked up in a hospital room and then a prison cell through 85% of Hornet’s Nest, Lisbeth Salander continued to be one of the most intriguing characters I’ve come across in genre fiction. Her recovery from the near-fatal gunshot wound administered by her own evil father, the Russian defector Alexander Zalachenko, keeps her under the watchful care of an increasingly sympathetic doctor. The security guard stationed outside her door through most of the last novel makes her usual sexual rendezvous impossible until the book’s end.

But nonetheless, the third book demonstrates even more powerfully how Lisbeth’s history of physical and emotional abuse has trained her to use her mind to protect herself from situations and people intent to manipulate or harm her. Her photographic memory allows her to reread huge academic tomes of scientific and mathematical scholarship in her head, so that putting her in sensorially deprived situations like prison or an interrogation room can’t isolate her as much as intended.

Larsson’s descriptions of Lisbeth working out equations nearly in three dimensions as she watches them form in the air offer compelling examples of a brilliant woman whose life-long disempowerment has forced her to keep her own counsel and refuse to communicate according to social dictate. The scenes in which Lisbeth infuriates police and corrupt psychologists are paragons of resistance, in which through her stony silence and implacable gaze, Lisbeth turns the tables on her interrogators and gets the upper hand by removing her soul from the proceedings and enabling herself to survive.

Toward the end of Hornet’s Nest, Larsson begins his chapters with historic tales of Amazons and other women warriors, clearly analogizing the proceedings to those stories of female battle and supremacy. Those passages seem a bit out of place and sometimes heavy-handed, but Larsson meets his own challenge by unraveling this final book with his female characters firmly in control. Lisbeth might be silent, but when her faithful friend, the investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, arranges to have her her hand-held computer smuggled into her hospital room, her IT skills allow her to solve a subsidiary mystery in the story and contribute mightily to her own liberation.

Annika Giannini, Blomkvist’s women’s rights lawyer sister, takes up Lisbeth’s case with righteous feminist zeal to devastate the prosecution’s case against Lisbeth in the book’s climactic trial scenes. She uses to her own advantage her colleagues’ doubts about her qualifications to defend the notorious Salander, saying little through the trial’s earliest testimony. But when the evil Dr. Teleborian takes the stand, Annika radiates feminist ire and scorn, dismantling his fabricated psychological assessment of her client and finally publicizing the lies that have kept Salander a legally incompetent ward of the state since she tried to kill Zalachenko with a Molotov cocktail when she was only thirteen.

The scene of Annika’s triumph is a feminist fantasy of speaking truth to power, a brilliant take-down of a pompous pedophile who’s been used by the shadowy Secret Police sub-unit the Section to help protect their Russian charge.In the limited way she can, Lisbeth comes to trust and appreciate Giannini’s skill. The last time they meet, she even propositions her lawyer, inviting her over for a night of casual sex of the only sort Lisbeth entertains—no promises, no complications, and no commitments. Giannini laughs and declines her offer with thankful appreciation, delighted that Salander is the first client who’s ever propositioned her.

Lisbeth’s vindication also makes hay with the prosecution’s attempt to portray her as a lesbian Satanist (the only scare word missing from Larsson’s taxonomy is “feminist”). The book’s villains are the homophobes, like Detective Faste, who joins forces with the narcissistic and inept prosecutor Ekstrom to bring Salander down by feeding the press misinformation about the woman’s debauchery.

Likewise, Jonas Sandberg, the Section’s young operations professional who does much of the older generation’s legwork in Hornet’s Nest, is also homophobic, describing the Millennium journal’s gay art director as a “faggot.” Faste and Ekstrom’s ignominy is publicized, and Sandberg, too, is taken down when the specially appointed (female) prosecutor arrests him and his older cronies on the third day of Lisbeth’s incendiary trial.

The book, then, not only allows good to triumph, but also promotes a kind of liberal humanism that emphatically includes women, lesbians, gay men, and immigrants under its enfranchised bailiwick. Even Erika Berger, in the book’s subplot, triumphs in a distinctly feminist battle with the staff and board of directors of Sweden Morgen Poste (SMP), the Stockholm daily newspaper she’s recruited to turn back from the brink of extinction. Her ballsy approach to editing the paper incurs the wrath of a deep network of good ole’ boys, and Larsson doesn’t skimp on clarifying that the backlash against Berger’s leadership is distinctly gendered.She’s targeted for a slander campaign by Peter Fredericksson, an assistant editor who appears to be her supporter at the paper, but turns out to be behind the “poison pen” emails sent to Erika at SMP and disseminated under her name. After reading online from her hospital bed that Berger’s house has also been attacked, Salander uses her hacking skills to unmask the stalker, despite her lingering jealousy over Erika that forced Lisbeth to bleed away her feelings for Blomkvist.

That Fredericksson was a one-time schoolmate of Berger’s, holding a grudge because she never gave him a second look during high school, is one of Larsson’s only rather dubious plot resolutions. But the subplot allows Berger to employ the same kind of feminist invective that comes in handy for Giannini, and also lets Berger establish a friendship with Susanne Linder, the employee of the stalwart firm Morgan Security, who’s employed to protect Berger from her attacker. That Erika and Susanne cross what are no doubt class lines to form a fast and easy, mutually admiring friendship is also a pleasurable aspect of Larsson’s final book.

Likewise, Blomkvist’s new paramour, Sapo employee Monica Figuerola, is a sharply drawn feminist character. She’s an exercise fanatic—she explains that she’s addicted to endorphins—who almost made the Swedish Olympic team. Larsson describes her muscled physique as hard and impressive, her six foot frame intimidating to men insecure about their own professional and physical power.

Once they meet, as the “good” division of Sapo intersects their investigation with Blomkvist’s and Morgan Security’s, Figuerola makes the first pass at Blomkvist, which he accepts and begins the affair that ends the book and that might just also end his long-term relationship with the married Erika. That Blomkvist and Monica talk so quickly of love sounds another slightly false note, even though Larsson takes pains to describe the large and unwieldy passion that draws them together.

Blomkvist protests that he’s never been a one-woman kind of man, and Figuerola, too, hasn’t been inclined toward monogamy and marriage. But for some reason, in one another’s arms, they’re willing to rethink their resistance to convention. Too bad.

Lisbeth, though, seems apt to continue her randy, non-monogamous ways. It’s still refreshing to read a female character who’s casual about sex, who likes sex for physical, more than emotional, reasons, and who won’t truck with the elaborate and typically gendered plots of seduction. When she’s finally released from the hell of her hospitalization, imprisonment, and trial, she escapes to Gibraltar to see how her financier has been handling her wealth.One night, she arranges a tryst with a middle-aged, overweight, ordinary German businessman she sees alone in the hotel bar speaking to his wife on his cell phone. She follows him into the elevator and offers him sex with no strings attached. Incredulous but finally game, the businessman spends several nights with Salander until his guilt gets the better of him. Larsson portrays her sexual escapades as guileless and straightforward, not at all the depraved stuff the evil Teleborian tried to describe as evidence of her social pathology.

The finale of Hornet’s Nest wraps up the story’s various subplots with more or less panache. Larsson introduces a multitude of characters into this final book, as he reveals all the details of the establishment and ultimate downfall of the Section for Special Analysis of the Swedish Secret Police. Prime ministers, state secretaries, justices, and various detectives, police, and security operatives play their roles in the conspiracy to protect Zalachenko at all costs. The rogue’s gallery of villains are apprehended and charged one by one at the story’s end, but Larsson leaves the missing monster Ronald Niedermann until almost the end.

Forced to address her father’s estate, Lisbeth notes with curiosity that he’s bought an old, rundown brickworks factory in a suburb of Stockholm. When she travels to see it for herself, Lisbeth stumbles onto her half-brother’s hiding place and is forced to confront the last vestiges of her genetic relationships. Niedermann traps her in the factory, but with her typical ingenuity, Lisbeth not only frees herself, but sees to it that justice is meted out to Niedermann while keeping her own hands clean.

The only thread left unraveled is the mystery of what happened to Camilla, Lisbeth’s twin sister. Perhaps Larsson had something planned for Lisbeth’s identical other, the one who protested her father’s innocence and played into the Section’s hands. I can’t help wondering what a showdown between Lisbeth and Camilla would have been like, given Lisbeth’s insistence on maintaining sharp emotional borders. How might a look-alike sister have triggered her deep emotional well of frustration and anger? Larsson’s untimely death just before the trilogy was published in Sweden means we’ll never know.

Happily, though, Lisbeth’s last act as a character is to allow Blomkvist back into her life as the friend he insists on being. Salander spends a rejuvenating three months in Gibraltar and, on her financial investor’s advice, takes a two-week trip to Paris to make amends with Miriam Wu, her occasional lover who was nearly killed by Niedermann in The Girl Who Played with Fire (and rather improbably saved by the boxer Paolo Roberto, another friend-of-Salander who happens to be in the right place at the right time).

When she returns to Stockholm, intent on upholding her duty as a citizen to see through the legal proceedings against her tormentors, and after she dispenses neatly with her half-brother, Lisbeth realizes she no longer has feelings for Blomkvist, which allows her to open her door to him as her friend.

The moment is an appropriate conclusion for the character and for the story—rather unromantic and unsentimental, but true to the spirit of the “girl who” really turned out to be quite a woman after all.

The Feminist Spectator

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I’m late to the bandwagon of Stieg Larrson, but I can see why so many people are reading this translated Swedish thriller trilogy. I just finished the first novel, I’m 50 pages into The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second, and I’ve been promised a lend on the third.

Part of the appeal is that Larrson respects his reader’s intelligence and creates characters that are intellectually, as well as politically and sexually, motivated. Mikael Blomkvist, the crusading journalist and editor of a scrappy investigative magazine called Millennium, is one of genre fiction’s more appealing heroes, in part because his masculinity is surprisingly unconventional. I usually read mysteries or thrillers with women gumshoes or protagonists, because I find the hardboiled masculine variety predictable and sometimes offensive.

But Blomkvist is compromised from the start of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as he’s been indicted and sentenced to prison for libeling a powerful industrialist named Wennerstrom. When we first meet him, then, he’s already flawed, although his journey follows the archetypal trajectory of the wronged hero who’s vindicated after he survives a series of trials that prove his righteousness. I’m not spoiling anything with this description—this is one of the rules of the genre, and watching it play out with so many relatively progressive (politically) twists is what makes this kind of novel so pleasurable and compelling.

Blomkvist restores himself to favor in the course of a labyrinthine plot that takes him north of Stockholm to a small, frozen island in the Norrland where he’s persuaded to spend a year in the employ of another powerful corporate mogul, the worthy Henrik Vanger. In his declining years, the melancholy elderly man is desperate to solve the mystery of his niece Harriet’s disappearance from the island 40-odd years earlier.

Hedeby Island’s population teems with Vangers, a family dynasty with plenty of skeletons rattling in terribly sordid closets. Because Henrik Vanger doesn’t want his family to know that he’s hired Blomkvist to continue investigating the unsolved mystery of what most presume is Harriet’s murder (though her body was never found), Henrik assigns Blomkvist to write the older man’s biography as a cover. As the shrewd journalist combs through the family patriarch’s extensive archive of materials on Harriet’s disappearance, Blomkvist pieces together a story about perversion and corruption that Larrson makes both plausible and harrowing.

Much of the book describes Blomkvist poring over evidence and interviewing likely suspects or people whose lives in one way or another touched Harriet’s before she disappeared in 1966. Research and interviews are staple tools of the mystery/thriller genre, but Blomkvist’s character is set off by the fact that his stock in trade is journalism, rather than police or detective work, which gives him a slightly different cast from the genre’s typical heroes. Blomkvist’s motives start as personal; Vanger promises him that if he gets to the bottom of Harriet’s disappearance, he has information about Blomkvist’s nemesis, Wennerstrom, which will prove Blomkvist’s innocence.

But before that happens, Blomkvist actually does his time in jail, even if it seems a very cushy, decidedly white collar stint in the slammer, during which Blomkvist continues his investigation for Vanger examining files and photographs in between his mandatory work assignments and exercise.

And before he’s given the carrot Vanger promises, Blomkvist finds himself committing to his investigation for more personal reasons. He begins a casual affair with another one of Vanger’s nieces, Cecilia, whose father is a Nazi sympathizer, along with at least one of his other brothers. Cecilia proves one of the book’s several interesting women characters, and one of the three with whom Blomkvist has sex through the story.

Cecilia is in her mid-50s (about 10 years older than Blomkvist), long divorced, admits that she hasn’t had sex in some time, and chooses to seduce Blomkvist within minutes of meeting him. But because she’s wary of emotional involvement, and because sex seems to send her into frenzies completely incompatible with her more reserved daily emotional exterior, she keeps reeling him in only to cut bait and run.

The “man on a yo-yo” theme is typical of Blomkvist’s relationships with the women inDragon Tattoo, a refreshing change for a genre in which the heroes are more typically men who phone in their relationships with women, seeking bed companions on their own terms and leaving the women to wait for their call. Larsson’s hero rarely passes up a sexual opportunity, but I don’t believe he ever actually initiates one.

Blomkvist’s long-term occasional sexual companion is also his smart, competent business partner, Erika Berger, a woman he’s known since they were both young journalists. Berger is married to another man. Gregor, Erika’s husband, knows all about her relationship with Blomkvist—the arrangement seems to suit everyone just fine. Erika and Blomkvist truly love one another, and their work together onMillennium, the political muck-raking magazine they own and co-edit, sets off intellectual and political sparks that fuels their sexual commitment.

That they aren’t married to one another, however, is a nice touch; that no one minds their unusual arrangement is also kind of cool. Erika walks in on Blomkvist with other women several times throughout the story, and while she’s always embarrassed at what she’s interrupted, she’s never jealous or angry. As usual, in Dragon Tattoo, the women in his life control the enactment of Blomkvist’s desire. And none of them are eager to haul him down the aisle.

To call his third sexual partner, the series co-anchor Lizbeth Salander, Blomkvist’s side-kick would diminish her importance to the story and its action and fail to describe her relevance and appeal. The genre’s conventions typically require one hero or heroine who, although he or she might frequent likely people for support or companionship, typically goes it alone to solve the mystery and unmask the murderer.In Dragon Tattoo, Larsson writes Blomkvist and Salander as an odd-couple who complement one another and contribute equally to the resolution of the plot—in fact, they simultaneously but separately realize the villain’s identity.

The two don’t actually team up until halfway into the story, although Larsson keeps their activities on parallel tracks until they intersect. Salander, a brilliant computer hacker, works freelance for a security firm and is assigned to background-check Blomkvist by Henrik Vanger’s lawyer before the old man hires him to find Harriet. In the course of investigating the journalist, Salander comes to her own conclusions about the Wennerstrom affair, which prove relevant as the story unfolds.

But it’s only when Blomkvist realizes he’s been investigated and reads her report that he seeks Salander out and proposes that she work with him. And it’s only because her work is so extensive and impressive—even if she’s uncovered things about him that he knows she obtained by illegally hacking into his computer—that he pursues her as a work partner. Their relationship, in other words, is professional and mutually admiring; they’re both whip smart, driven, curious, and skilled.

Salander is one of the most compelling, unusual characters I’ve come across in genre fiction. She’s a young woman with her own mysterious back-story, one that Larsson hasn’t fully revealed by the end of Dragon Tattoo. She’s a ward of the state, legally determined incompetent to govern her own affairs, even though she’s by now twenty-five-years-old. Her relationship with her new guardian, a slimy lawyer named Bjurman, taps into old traumas, as he tries to manipulate her and wield his state-derived power over her ugly in ways she can’t accommodate. How Salander gets her revenge is one of the book’s most satisfying—and surprisingly feminist—chapters.

In fact, to complement Blomkvist’s equitable way with women, the unusual Salander is the book’s feminist heroine. She’s young and troubled, but she’s enormously smart and wily. Her photographic memory and quick curiosity makes her a gifted investigator, but her social awkwardness, which clearly stems from her dark personal history, keeps her an iconoclastic loner.

She lives in a messy hovel, dependent on Bjurman to dole out her finances; she chooses her sexual partners based on fleeting desires for physical connection, with little regard for emotional commitment, which she assiduously avoids; she reveals nothing of her inner life (Larsson consistently describes her eyes and demeanor as “expressionless”); and she’s particularly wary of men, even as she chooses them (as well as the occasional woman) as sexual partners.

When she and Blomkvist become lovers, it’s Salander who seduces him (in a typical mystery with a male hero, this would inevitably be vice versa). And although he protests that co-workers shouldn’t sleep together, she points out that he and Berger have an on-going affair that doesn’t seem to hamper their professional relationship.But once Blomkvist and Salander have sex, and even though they live together in the small cottage Vanger provides for their work on Hedeby Island, they don’t adopt the conventional routines of coupledom.

She keeps her own counsel, and bristles when Blomkvist tries to draw her out about her past (and even when he compliments her on her brilliance, which she thinks makes her a freak). She retains her right to be enigmatic and antisocial, often refusing to answer Blomkvist’s questions and leaving town without a word, avoiding her cell phone to prevent being tracked down. Salander is a cipher, even to the reader—through the first novel, we never find out the root of her exceedingly guarded relationship to her own life.

That mystery makes her exceptionally compelling, alongside her prodigious intelligence and commanding savvy. She dons leather chaps to ride her motorbike; she drinks heavily when appropriate, and smokes cigarettes freely; she’s hedonistic in unusual, fascinating ways. Salander understands, as the evidence unfolds, that the seamy underside of the Vanger empire is built on a profound hatred of women—she diagnoses and explicitly names misogyny in ways rarely seen in a genre that’s famous for building its plots on the backs of exploited women.

But at the same time, for reasons Larsson doesn’t fully describe, she’s deemed “incompetent” by the state, has been institutionalized for too much of her life, and is now controlled by a corrupt guardian who exercises more power over her affairs than any theoretically free person should be forced to withstand. Salander’s contradictions and the character’s ambiguities propel the narrative as much as the central plot.

I’ll avoid spoilers here, but suffice it to say that many of the book’s crises and resolutions are among the best I’ve read in the genre, and twist the typical gender politics in feminist ways. Watch for Lizbeth’s revenge over Bjurman, which enacts a kind of feminist fantasy; watch for the scene in which the villain is revealed and entraps one of the two protagonists, forcing the other to the rescue; and watch for continuing twists and turns, as one portion of the mystery is solved only to propel you into another, as each of the plot’s strands click together by the end. Even the resolution provides a kind of feminist triumph, with smart, emotionally cool new characters appearing to vindicate the proceedings.

I’ll risk one spoiler to lodge my only complaint: That Lisbeth Salander would find herself in love with Blomkvist by the book’s end seems completely out of character.Without understanding her life story, Larsson doesn’t give us enough reasons to believe that she’d allow herself the luxury of such emotion, even though he presents her feelings as a surprise even to herself. Although now that I’ve started the second book, it seems her realization could have been a plot device to set in motion The Girl Who Played with Fire, at the end of Dragon Tattoo, her however uncomfortable admission of love cheapens a relationship in which Salander has been refreshingly unsentimental and in control.

That said, I’m hooked enough to continue into The Girl Who Played with Fire, and to give Larsson the benefit of the doubt.

A Swedish film version of the first book has been released, which I’m eager to see, and press speculation circulates about casting for the English-language film. I’ve heard Natalie Portman and Kristen Stewart both mentioned for the Salander role, among other young actors. Stewart’s more sinewy frame and her sulking, emotionally guarded sexuality makes her my pick for the role.

In another world, Salander would be played by Shane, from The L Word. I don’t think Kate Moenning, the actor who played the hard-living, non-monogamous lesbian hair stylist character, is up to the task, but the look would certainly work.

A girl can dream. But in the meantime, I’m going to burrow back into The Girl Who Played with Fire.

The Feminist Spectator

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