Sunday, 25 April 2010

Millennium; and it felt like it was taking that long, and all

When I finished reading the first Millennium book, I was in a very rare state of mind; I was angry with a book. I am not a particularly equable person by temperament, and it's rare for me to get through twenty four hours without feeling the need to take a steak hammer to someone, but I don't often get angry with a book. After all, if the damn thing is boring or annoying me, it's easy to put it down and walk away. What makes me angry is knowing that I'm stuck with a person or a situation and that there's nothing I can do about it. But if you're reading a book or watching a TV programme, you just stop, and the provocation stops. So it is, indeed, rare for me to go all the way to the end of a book and be angry with it.

How did Stieg Larsson pull this off from beyond the grave?

In fact, when I was reading the first book I didn't know Larsson was dead, and I was so cross about my wasted time that when I found out he was dead, my response was thoroughly uncharitable. Larsson's dead? Good. Obviously God decided to call a halt to the endeavour. Apparently the original game plan for Larsson was that it would be the Millennium decalogy, but after three God felt we'd all been exposed to quite enough and called Stieg home. This was very meanspirited of me, and I'm not terribly proud of thinking it. Still, context is king. As far as I know, no-one has ever set out to write a decalogy without it being completely crap. The only completed on purpose decalogy I know of is L Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth sequence, which is the point made without me belabouring it. It might be true that everyone's got one book in them; it's definitely true that no-one's got ten GOOD books in them. A small number of very good writers might ultimately write more than ten good books in the course of their lives, but at any given time in a writer's life, there's just no chance at all that there's ten good books built up and ready to go.

But I obsess on mechanics to no purpose. What bugged me so much about the first book? Why didn't I like the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Well, that's simple. I didn't like it because it was a bad book. And I was angry because the thing has been a gigantic mainstream success. I'd read a load of reviews that suggested that the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the best book of the year and such, so I trudged on through it for days of hard slog, waiting for it to live up to the hype.


There's a wonderful critique by Mark Twain of James Fenimore Cooper's writing in which he takes a sample chapter of the Deerslayer and rips into it for its crimes against English style. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is crying out for someone to hack his (or her) way past the critical adulation and make the simple points that the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is poorly written, has laughable characters and a plot which is almost, but not quite, as compelling as the Stockholm bus timetable. And man, does it ever drag. Larsson seems to mistake description for incident, and incident for action. The speed at which nothing happens is truly astonishing. It's one of those books by which you could teach people how NOT to write a book, except that it's so leaden and slow that it would be sadistic to use it when there's so many other crap novels out there which commit the same sins in real time.

Larsson was a famous journalist in Sweden, if that's not a contradiction in terms, and it seems to have dawned on him one day that there wasn't any outward difference between writing stories in a magazine and writing stories in a novel. Well, it's all typing, but there are differences.

A journalist writes about things which at least in principle are factual and provable. In general, you don't expect a journalist to be making it all up. On the other hand, if a novelist wasn't making it all up, you'd feel a bit short changed. Fiction's supposed to be made up stuff.

Much as with the helpless victim of the most withering (undelivered) putdown in literary history, there are things in Larsson's work which are interesting and there are things in it which are made up, but there's damn-all overlap between them. I think I might have been quite interested in a book of his journalism; there's a moment in the third book of the trilogy where one of the other characters (using that word loosely) has happened upon a good scoop and is getting ready to run with it which actually caught my interest. To give you an idea of the overall excitement level, it involves toilets. Once Larsson moves away from commentary on the weird reality of Sweden, however, the going gets very tough indeed.

I purposely put off commenting on the whole thing till I had read all three books, and had it not been for the fact that books 2 and 3 came into my keeping without me having to take any action, I might never have made any comment at all. Having had the other two books wished on me I thought what the heck; maybe it's just me. I'll try to work my way through the other two and see if they're any better. Nope. They're not actually any worse, but they're no better.

The problem is three fold. Firstly, either Larsson or his translator is a poor stylist. I'm inclined to blame the original. A bad translation would have been more idiosyncratic. More to the point, it reads like the writing of someone who's spent a long time writing calm factual explanations of how things are, rather than the writing of a person who's spent any time at all trying to write something vivid and arresting about actual people. I'm being generous here, to be honest. Most of the time it reads like typing.

Secondly, the plots are somewhat all over the place. I'll be brief, which is more than Larsson can claim. The first book is about the principal protagonist, Mikael Blomqvist, investigating a disappearance. He meets all kinds of people, including the eponymous Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and at the end he has solved the mystery and taken an appropriate and ghastly revenge on the entire Swedish financial sector for their crimes against him. The second and third books are effectively a mash-up of the resolution of the backstory for the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and an messy attempt to write something about the sex industry in Sweden; the second book focusses on the sex industry, drags the Girl with Dragon Tattoo into it through wild coincidence, part resolves the sex industry investigation and leaves the fate of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo hanging into the third book, which wraps it all up with a bow while taking a big swing at the Swedish secret police. My problem with the plots is that they're messy, littered with side plots which don't do much, and depend on coincidence not just for their resolution but for their existence. Also the first plot in the first book punchlines out with child abuse, and while I'm not minimising the horror of child abuse, I wish it would go away as a plot element in detective stories.

The third problem is the biggie. If you're going to spend 1500 pages in the company of the characters of a book, they'd damn well better be entertaining. And when it comes to characterisation, Larsson's only got two speeds; Mary Sue and cardboard. The overwhelming majority of people we meet in the course of the three books have no sense of reality to them; they're sketches, there to meet the needs of the plot. One thing I can't fault Larsson with is being parsimonious with his dramatis personae; he throws characters into the mix willy nilly. He must have chucked in thirty cops, of which perhaps three or four were in any way distinguishable by anything other than size. His criminals are mostly sketches, with the occasional larger than life cartoon. Lots of people are guilty of this; the thing which makes me crazy is his two main characters and the people closest to them.

A word here about how most novels get written. They are, for the most part, books that the writer wanted to read, which turned out not to exist. The only way to bring into existence the ideal book for that person was for him to write the damn thing himself. Writing fiction is about trying to make things the way you wish they were. And most writers are vulnerable to the trap of starting off by making themselves the way they wish they were. Writers don't get out much; if they did, they wouldn't have time to write. They don't solve crimes, fight fires, break the bank at Monte Carlo or get the girl in the final reel. If any of those things were true, there wouldn't be a hole they needed to fill with comforting lies.

So writers make stuff up, and one thing countless writers make up is a better them. Stieg Larsson was not immune to this. Boy, was he not immune to it. I can't tell you the last time I read a book in which the writer was less immune to it. Mikael Blomqvist is probably the Mary Sue-iest character I've ever read. Just like Larsson, he's a crusading journalist. Just like Larsson, he's a liberal. Just like Larsson, he runs a magazine which isn't breaking even and his crusadingness isn't making life any too easy for him in getting work. Here's a couple of things about Blomqvist which I suspect weren't true about Larsson; he's quite the ladies' man. Women just can't get enough of him; he loves them and leaves them, but they don't mind because he's just that cool, middle-aged office worker with no exercise habits though he is. He's admired and feared in equal measure by his professional colleagues. When he publishes a book exposing the fiendish manipulations of Swedish financiers he becomes a journalistic superstar feted wherever he goes and rolling in money. Here's how cool Mikael Blomqvist is; he's been carrying on an affair with a colleague for a couple of decades, and her husband is cool with it, because he realises that Blomqvist satisfies her in ways the husband can't. (Blomqvist's own wife, not so cool with it; she dumped him. I was totally rooting for her on that).

Annoying and all as that is, wait till you meet Lisbeth Salander. Having read all three books, I really don't know what Lisbeth Salander's existence says about Larsson's outlook on life. I mean, I really don't. Here's an apparently disconnected story that actually DOES tie back to it. One of the finest SF authors in the world is a guy called Iain M Banks. A while ago he brought out a non-fiction book called Raw Spirit, in which he went around Scotland's single malt distilleries with his long suffering wife, who seemed like a thoroughly good egg. So sympathetically was she depicted that when I discovered that Banks had dumped her for another woman, I was completely furious with him. Then I read about the new woman, and being furious was replaced by disbelief. She was maths professor half his age who was into SF and adventure sports. I mean, I could see how getting that thrown at you could turn your head a bit, but that people like that existed outside the world of fiction?

Anyhow dial that up to 11 and you get the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander. I'm sure the marketing says that she's like no woman you've ever met, but I'm here to say that this is true; there is no person like this on the surface of the planet. She's a tattooed, multiply pierced woman in her twenties who is - for no readily apparent reason - a computer hacker of genius and a stone cold badass at anything else she turns her mind to. Characters like this are an administrative convenience in detective fiction; the field is littered with improbably cool sidekicks who have all the skills and ruthlessness that the protagonist (who's usually depicted as a fairly ordinary and relateable type) can't be expected credibly to have. If I ever write a detective novel, I shall replace this plot convenience with an enormous bolt of lightning which will strike dead anyone who bothers my viewpoint character while also being able to tap telephones, solve crossword clues and make tasty sandwiches.

What I'm saying is that any detective novel writer could be forgiven for whipping up a wish-fulfilment side-kick character who was hot, tiny, bisexual, violent and insanely talented with computers. What gumshoe wouldn't want one of those? Only the kind who thought one wasn't enough and held out for two, of course. What's a bit disturbing is what Larsson then did to the character. Between the childhood from hell, the time in the psychiatric hospital, the violent rape and the getting shot in the head, Salander really gets put through the wringer. It's all in the cause of the plot, of course, but the thing is that Larsson's quite preachy about the evils of violence and oppression against women (the original Swedish title of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was The Men Who Hate Women). So it reads a bit oddly when the person who gets the biggest caning all the way through three books is a woman.

That could just be me, fretting. But it's a marvel to me that none of the reviews I read called Larsson out on the utter implausibility of the character herself. It was just ludicrous; I never managed to believe in her for an instant. And not just the whole thing of how she got to be a computer hacker when her circumstances didn't throw up any real way in which she could have been exposed to the lessons she'd need; it was the totality of the character. Salander is depicted as well out on the much-touted, much-more-misunderstood Aspergers spectrum. I've met a lot of people with milder versions of those personality traits, and in my experience they're memorable, but not the kind of people you make a connection with.

Getting back to where I began; it's a source of great irritation to me that these books are taken so seriously. They're just not very good. And I was very disappointed by that. When I gave in to the hype and started reading the first one, it was with no very great expectation of being hugely entertained. What I did hope for was an insight into Sweden; the books had been touted as take on Sweden's underbelly, and I was intrigued by the notion of a counter to the general picture we have of Sweden as a responsible, balanced careful society in which people lead comfortable and carefree lives. And I didn't quite get that. Larsson plainly had a lot of axes to grind about the country he lived in, and it's quite plain that Sweden's social tranquility has come at a heavy price in enforced conformity, but the news that rich people are corrupt and selfish? Not uniquely a Swedish problem, let's leave it at that. I did actually like the take on sex-trafficing in the second book; that it wasn't a huge business and didn't involve either enormous amounts of money or criminal masterminds, just the unnecessary suffering of many women for the benefit of mouthbreathing goons who weren't seen as a problem worth solving by the people who run the show. That rang true and solid, but largely because Larsson WAS a good journalist and this was obviously the fruit of sound research. As I said at the outset, I'd quite like to have read his journalism.

One thing which Larsson didn't know much about, ironically enough, seems to have been computers. Typical Mac user, he has his genius hacker using Apple kit (which he painstakingly specs out, while getting the specs that little bit wrong which makes it clear that the numbers weren't actually intelligible to him) at a time when hacking with Apple equipment would have been the most expensive and awkward way of doing it. So, yeah. maybe that's why his hacker character didn't ring true.

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