Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Stieg Larsson: The Girl Who, etc.

I think I've mentioned before that one of the bloggers I read on a daily basis is Ta-Nehisi Coates. Since I also read Andrew Sullivan, that means that two of my favorite bloggers write for The Atlantic. And both of them are on vacation right now, and both have turned their blogs over to guest-bloggers in the meantime.

I'm of two minds about this. I sympathize with what is no doubt considerable pressure from their employer to keep generating new content during what is a well-deserved break; and I sympathize with their desire to take a well-deserved break from what is undeniably, at their level, a grueling demand for new writing. The guest blogger idea is not a bad one, considering the alternative is darkness or reruns. They used to do this on late-night TV: Carson used to have guest hosts when he went on vacation. Letterman doesn't do that, usually; he just shows reruns. But he's brought in guest hosts when he's been sick, and I've enjoyed it then. So why not try the same thing on blogs?

Unfortunately I have to say that for me, the guest bloggers are largely failing. In Sullivan's case it's because he's chosen guest bloggers based on his own old tribal allegiance to the right: his guest bloggers (and his underbloggers) are moderate right-wingers, but they're still farther to the right than Sullivan is, even if he doesn't realize it, and it means that I (and I doubt I'm alone) end up rolling my eyes at what his guest bloggers write far more often than I do at Sullivan himself.

Coates has gone a different route; this time around he's drawn about equally from the ranks of his most eloquent commenters and from other bloggers he likes. The effect is interesting, because each guest seems to be representing a different facet of what Coates does - there's the Civil War history blogger, the hip-hop blogger, etc. And I'm sure each of them is good at what he or she does - but even taken collectively, they aren't TNC. What I'm learning about a good blog (at that level: mine doesn't even count) is that it's about the personality behind it, as much as it is about any particular viewpoint or expertise. I have no interest in some of the things TNC writes about, and I'm unsympathetic to some of the points of view Sullivan airs, but in each case I'm fascinated by how a personality I feel I've come to know (yeah, yeah, impossible: but still) handles even issues I don't care about. I'm not interested in hip-hop, but I'm interested in what TNC thinks about hip-hop, if that makes sense.

That said, Lorin Stein, one of TNC's guests this week, had an interesting post up the other day about beach reading, the history and subtext of the concept. I was interested to see it because I just got through a couple of weeks of almost nonstop immersion in Stieg Larsson's bestselling trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo who Played with Fire while Kicking the Hornets' Nest. I picked up the first one as a total impulse buy while getting in line at Powell's, and the whole time I was reading them, "beach reading" was the phrase that kept running through my head.

Beach reading as both excuse and ideal. FWIW, I agree that beach reading as a marketing tool is bogus (and Stein has some more interesting things to say about marketing and contemporary literary fiction here and here), but at the same time I do find that there are certain kinds of books that are better suited to reading on the beach (or wherever you're spending your summer outdoor leisure time: for me it's the balcony of our apartment) than others. Easy to read and immediately engrossing are qualities that help; note that those qualities aren't exclusive to either "popular" or "literary" fiction. I can only think off-hand of two books I've actually read on an actual beach, and one was one of the Harry Potter books, while the other was To Kill a Mockingbird. (Which one is pop lit?)

I try to read my share of serious books, but at the same time, as should be obvious by now, I also crave the feeling of being sucked into a book almost helplessly - and "beach reading" carries that connotation for me as well. That's what I was hoping for with Larsson's books. And that's what I got, although not the way I expected.

I did find them impossible to put down. One of them I literally stayed up all night to finish. And yet I never felt like it was impossible to put it down - in the first book especially I mostly felt like I was waiting to be grabbed. I couldn't stop reading, and I couldn't figure out why. The prose reads fluidly enough, but it isn't as drum-tight as some thrillers I've read. It's actually kind of gray. The characters are intriguing, but it takes us so long to really get to know them that I don't think it was them who kept me going. The plots are intriguing and garish, but they take so long to unfold that I didn't find myself wondering what was going to happen next so much as when anything was going to happen at all. And yet, I hasten to add, I couldn't put them down.

Which isn't to say that I feel like I wasted my time with them. I felt like that with The Da Vinci Code, which swallowed me the same way when I read that a few years ago. That was an amazingly satisfying read, but the minute I finished it and realized that Brown was basically lying about his sources, not to mention pandering to the worst prejudices of his readers, I felt like I'd been had. Abused.

These books ended up growing in stature as I read them, and after I'd finished. And I think the reason for that, the themes, is connected to at least one thing I can identify as something that kept me immersed in them.

I'm a liberal: I often admire the achievements of places like Sweden and wonder why we can't do the same. I'm not ashamed of this. And I recognize that one thing Larsson was trying to do was show that maybe not everything in the welfare state is as awesome as it seems, that maybe there is room for abuse, or a tendency to control the life of the individual too much. I recognize that, and yet at the same time the Sweden in his books is still incredibly attractive: it's a society that works, that's basically at peace, that has its values in the right place. Larsson may be trying to say that this is no longer true, but even in the fallen state he presents, it looks like a pretty nice place to me.

Which is what makes his central theme - pervasive, insidious, hidden misogyny (the first book's Swedish title, acc. to Wikipedia, translates to Men who Hate Women, and it's a perfect title) - so powerful. Many of the characters, and certainly the institutions, seem to have, as I say, the right values - and in spite of that, Larsson suggests, misogyny still manages to survive, and maybe even to thrive. He's at his strongest when he's showing how the worst motives can disguise themselves as the most respectable, and how the most sociopathic urges can lurk within the most nondescript of people. And how women, so often, are the ones who pay the price. And you know, if it can happen there...

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