Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Review: The girl with the dragon tattoo

TRIGGER WARNING: Misogyny, domestic violence, torture, rape culture

The girl with the dragon tattoo by Steig Larsson, translated by Reg Keeland

Something niggles.

I finished the book in less that 24 hours in two sittings (I don't 'pull' all nighters any longer) so I suppose the first thing to say is that it is a page turner. Okay, it is a slow starting page turner but one which, after it finally does get up a head of steam, kept me reading nonstop until I finished it.

So on that level I certainly understand why the book became an international best seller. I get why the movie rights were snapped up.

But something still niggles.

I finished the book in a matter of hours while there are other books I have struggled with for days (and in the case of the one I am wrestling with right now, months.) But I am not sure how to rate the book. I am not sure what I would say to someone who asked me if I would recommend it.

The writing itself is competent although not great. However since I was reading it in English I cannot really speak to the writing style of the author can I? All one needs to do is read the same book translated by different individuals to know how much style can be created, changed and obscured by translators.

But something still niggles.

Finally, I realize what it is. Yes, the author was outraged at violence against women but by presenting so much of the violence as outsized and horrific he was undermining his message.

Few of us feel sympathy or empathy with serial murders. Few of use feel sympathy or empathy with sexual sadists and torturers. But that is not what most of the violence that women endure looks like.

Most of the violence and abuse that women suffer is banal.[1] Yes it sometimes escalates to a level of abuse that the next door neighbours and the police can recognize as unacceptable. But most of the time the soul destroying violence and abuse that women suffer is not the stuff that makes for best sellers.

Most rapists don't indulge in the type of showy behaviour that if witnessed by police ensure that the victim is never doubted or questioned. Most of the men who grope women, or make threatening and demeaning comments, go home to normal looking families and normal looking homes.

I don't need a man to tell me that torturing people in dungeons is wrong. I don't need a man to tell me that raping your daughter is wrong. I don't need a man to tell me that murdering people in slow and excruciating ways is wrong.

I don't need a man to defend women by writing books full of graphic descriptions of the mistreatment and torture of women to demonstrate that other men shouldn't do such things.

I don't want to feel that the person sitting in the train station reading the best-seller about how bad it is to hurt women is having their minds eye filled of material that otherwise they could only find in torture porn magazines.

So now instead of a niggle at the back of my mind I have a question. Doesn't a book like this help the guy down the street to feel he isn't doing anything really wrong if he only slaps his wife and if he only verbally abuses his children?

[1] Not, of course, to the person on whom it is inflicted. But it isn't telegenic and it isn't material for an international best-seller. It just destroys the minds, souls and often the bodies of those who endure it.


  1. I'm told by a Swedish friend that the translation is very poor, even losing important bits of plot in places. People who've both read the book and seen the (original Swedish) films tend to say that the films are very much better. To me there's something about the way one plot thread can be reduced to "middle-aged man gets exciting young sex partner" that doesn't quite feel right either.

  2. Firedrake: Would that be the plot thread that (at least in the English translation) could be described as rather obvious piece of Gary Stu-ism?

    As for the translation issue -- I wish I could read in more languages. I know from my own experience that even a Maigret novel is much different when read in the original French than in translation.

    Do you have any details as to why people find the films better? Did they tighten up the plot or downplay the graphic violence?

  3. mmy, yes, it's rather reminiscent of the subgenre of modern English "literary" novel in which the ageing writer protagonist is endlessly fascinating to, and gets to screw, a variety of willing young women...

    My understanding, not having read the books, is that the films concentrate rather more on the conspiracy/action/thriller side of things than on the nastiness of the villains - there are after all conventional filmic ways to show men attacking/torturing/etc. women without dwelling endlessly on the topic or making the villains look cool.

  4. Not only does he "get to screw them" they are almost always the ones who make the first move therefore he can presented as (and think of himself as) someone who is a "gift" to women rather than someone who takes advantage of them.

    Actually, if you look closely at the details of the book, most of the work (intellectually and even physically) is done by women.

  5. Thanks for the warning. I was wondering whether I should try to get a hold of these books, so I'm glad I know to only reading them if I feel like reading graphic descriptions of violence against women.

  6. That the original title of the book was "Men Who Hate Women" might've been a clue.

  7. Yeah Marc --except Larsson presented himself as a fighter against violence against women. There would be ways, one thinks, of writing a book about men who hate women without providing vicarious voyeuristic pleasures for men who hate women.

  8. Only a fighter against violence to white women, mind:

    Which rather suggests to my mind that there's an element of fetish going on: the helpless white victim who needs rescuing by the man who then gets to ravish her himself is a very ancient trope, and having her fight back strikes me as just a bit of leather over the lace. In both cases it's fetishising female victimisation while attributing it to a villain, so you can get the benefits of seeing a woman hurt without having to 'be' the one hurting her.

    Plus, while the work is done by women, how often do they actually work together, or achieve anything with their work without a man to go through? Lisbeth seems to stand in for all women: she gets all the abuse of all the world, but she doesn't exactly operate within a female context. In the films, anyway.


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