Sunday, January 13, 2013

The "Millennium" Trilogy by Stieg Larsson

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander
Salander's greatest fear, which was so huge and so black that it was of phobic proportions, was that people would laugh at her feelings. And all of a sudden all her carefully constructed self-confidence seemed to crumble.Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
A rule of thumb has been never to romanticize crime and criminals, nor to stereotype victims of crime. I base my serial murderer in book I on a composite of three authentic cases. Everything described in the book can be found in actual police investigations.Stieg Larsson, quoted by The Wall Street Journal

Occasionally I do leave the world of historical fiction and biography in order to see what is transpiring in other genres. The "Millennium" Trilogy by the late Stieg Larsson was my first foray into Swedish crime novels, or Schwedenkrimi. I assume the sexuality, violence and coarse language are typical of a thriller taking place in post-modern, post-Christian Europe, especially one that deals with gangsters, ex-KGB agents, neo-Nazis, and corrupt government officials. In my opinion, the numerous bedroom interludes, particularly in the second volume, merely distract from the plot and are unnecessary given the crackling suspense and the dynamic characterizations. Aside from the intermittent libidinous clutter, each book is a page-turner, introducing to the world the most unlikely of heroines, the tattooed hacker Goth girl of many piercings, Lisbeth Salander. Together with her friend journalist Mikael Blomquist, Lisbeth brings to light the dark secrets of criminals from all walks of society, becoming a catalyst for justice as well as an avenging angel.

The theme of the trilogy is Larsson's exposure of violence against women, with the character of Lisbeth as the epitome of victimization. She is a victim who, while deeply wounded, refuses to break. According to Bright Hub Education:
The character of Lisbeth Salander means many different things to different people. For many she is a modern fairytale; interchangeably a blood soaked feminist avenger or a sociopathic murderer. Either way, a character rooted firmly in the imagination of Stieg Larsson. Some of Larsson's critics claim that Lisbeth is little more a sadistic outpouring of his misogynistic fantasies, quoting scenes like the brutal rape in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Others see more subtle nuances to the characterization, hints of the trials endured by real abuse victims. Salander takes actions which are consistent with her experiences, knowing with a despairing certainty that no authority figure will deign to help her.

The first four pages of The Girl Who Played with Fire describes how Lisbeth was manacled to a bed by a tyrannical psychologist, the thought of the revenge she had taken on her father being the only thing sustaining her. Later, in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, we see Salander's revenge for that trauma. But this revenge, unlike that dished out to the guardian who had raped her, was through the courts.
The court case forms the dénouement of the Millennium Trilogy, with a video of Dragon Tattoo’s brutal rape becoming a key piece of evidence. As the trial is abandoned there is a sense that, seeing authority figures actually helping her, a small chink might form in the mental fortifications Salander has built around herself.
As Larsson himself wrote of Lisbeth: "Lisbeth a sociopath with psychopathic traits, and does not function like ordinary people. She does not have the same concepts of 'right' and 'wrong' as normal people, but she also has to face up to the consequences of that." Confused in just about every aspect of her being, Lisbeth nevertheless possesses a core set of values which she never will not compromise. She is loyal to her few friends and is more than willing to risk her life for anyone she loves or even just for anyone who has shown her a kindness. She is a mathematical genius and computer whiz; her talents enable her to help her friends in ways that no one else can. A major part of the intrigue is seeing how much a woman on the fringes of society can accomplish with a computer.

It has been said that Lisbeth is autistic but I think her problems come from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. After all, she saw her mother practically beaten to death by her father, which was only the beginning of what she later called "All that was evil." She cannot connect with people emotionally which is one reason she lives a promiscuous life, as a way to deaden her pain and fill up the emptiness inside. When Mikael Blomquist tries to win her trust she falls in love for the first time in her life, only to feel brutally betrayed when she sees Mikael with his lover Erika on New Year's Eve. As Larsson describes his heroine's feelings in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: "The pain was so immediate and fierce that Lisbeth stopped in mid-stride, incapable of movement." In exposing violence towards women, Larsson, whether he meant to or not, shows us that the abuse begins in the culture of promiscuity.

In the "Millennium" Trilogy romance and courtship do not exist; sexuality is, for most of the main characters, solely recreational, and has little or nothing to do with consummating a great passion or creating a life and family together. Both Mikael and Lisbeth have many "partners" throughout the course of the trilogy. While Mikael is a chronic philanderer, Lisbeth usually seeks affection when she is sad or mad; her sex life is an extension of her insecurities. There are a few cases where the characters are married and faithful, namely Armansky, the security guru and Giannini, Lisbeth's attorney. Both are admirable characters; family life is not shown in a negative light in the books; neither is religion. As for Mikael and Lisbeth, it is clear that they are both acting out deep-rooted problems by flitting from person to person.

Mikael's principle lover is Erika Berger, his married boss at Millennium magazine, where the pair work to reveal financial malfeasance in all its forms. Erika's husband is a weak nincompoop who smilingly looks the other way when Mikael and Erika are trysting. Erika is the opposite of Lisbeth, confident, sophisticated, respected by all; no one seems to question the immaturity of her inability to practice fidelity. By prolonging their inordinate attachment to one another, Erika and Mikael are escaping total commitment. Mikael's marriage failed because of Erika, separating him from his daughter. I have seen readers praise the open-mindedness of Mikael and Erika's relationship, but it is not a healthy one, since it is based on sexual addiction and an unwillingness to grow up. Furthermore, others are hurt by it. Erika's husband is damaged whether he acknowledges it or not; his wife is so preoccupied with her own life that she has no idea whether he is in France or Finland (Book 3). The women with whom Mikael gets involved, including Lisbeth, are hurt by his refusal to give up sleeping with Erika.

When people misuse sexuality in their private lives, it is not surprising that the sex trade flourishes and crimes against women increase. When everyone is encouraged to equate sex with recreation, then it is no wonder that those who are entertained by the pain of others find ways to express their perversions. The uncovering of various criminal networks are at the heart of the trilogy, particularly those which involve sex trafficking. There is much said about government corruption and conspiracies; I can see why many Larsson fans believe he was murdered. The novels demonstrate that the lack of respect for rightly ordered sexuality is directly connected to the culture of murder and violence. From Lisbeth's self-mutilation with piercings and tattoos to a Nordic giant wielding a chainsaw in the warehouse, the fascination with the degradation of self and others is inextricably connected to death. As for the overall violence against women, the only solution offered by the author is for women to learn martial arts and become like Amazons.

One might ask if authentic love is even possible for the protagonists of the "Millennium" series. The fact that Lisbeth, who is supposed to be the most wounded among them, is able to acknowledge that she loves Mikael, is a sign of hope. She shows her love by refusing to tolerate Mikael's affair with Erika; she disappears from his life. He does not understand why; for all the sexual encounters, he knows nothing about loving a woman. He seems to understand nothing about his own heart, either, for while he continues to go on his philandering way, he is clearly absorbed by thoughts of Lisbeth, always trying to make contact with her, and then devoting himself to saving her from her enemies. It never occurs to him that he is in love with her, even when he starts haunting her apartment while she is in the hospital in order to be near her things. In the final scene of the final book, when all have been to hell and back again, Lisbeth finds Mikael on her doorstep. To quote from The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest: "She hesitated. For two years she had kept as far away from Mikael Blomquist as she could. And yet he kept sticking to her life like gum on the sole of her shoe....And he knew her secrets just as she knew all of his....She opened wide the door and let him into her life again." As I said, there is hope where there is love, even in the darkness of post-modernity. Share


Emily G. said...

You've made some good points. I was surprised to see that you reviewed these as they are definitley not a genre normally seen on your blog. They're not my typical fare, either.
I read the MIllennium Trilogy recenlty after watching the Swedish language movie of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo". I had no idea what the movie was about when I set out to watch it, and I wish that I had not. However, it left some unanswered questions and the story continued to haunt me, so I ended up reading the books, which I enjoyed far more than the movie.

elena maria vidal said...

That's exactly what happened to me. I saw the American film version and was appalled but later when I picked up a copy of the first book that someone was giving away I was intrigued by the characters and ended up reading the entire trilogy. I would not recommend them to young readers, though.