Friday, July 2, 2010

Stieg! Stieg!

It’s a Stieg Larsson world and I, for one, am glad of it.

Perhaps you’ve been too busy fighting an oil spill, a war, or perhaps some nasty divorce rumors to keep up with Larsson’s career. The Swedish writer is notable for a number of reasons.  First, he’s dead.  Larsson died in 2004 following the delivery or his fiction trilogy to his editing house. Second, he is, at least for now, famous. His three books, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest are the most talked about novels in a decade. Third, the books are pretty much unlike anything recently published in the US. Aside from a Latin American author now and then or a Russian dissident writer, this country is not known for embracing writers from other cultures. And Swedish? Fourth, Nora Ephron spoofed Larsson’s tomes in the latest issue of The New Yorker, a nasty and unanswerable literary slap in the face since the man has passed on and probably will not be able to respond in kind with a pastiche of Sleeping in Seattle.

The first of the trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, takes some getting used to. At more than 500 pages. it’s a big book and a slow starter. People are constantly drinking coffee and making open-faced sandwiches as the two archetypal protagonists, Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, struggle with issues of varying importance, all of which are described in painstaking detail. We get to see the inner workings of a financial magazine as well as how the Swedish foster parent/trusteeship system operates. We get ruminations on what it means to be a journalist, and is it ok for the State administer a young woman’s life?  There are dozens of characters and even more umlauts and always, there is coffee and cake.

It’s sometimes tough stuff to get through, but what makes it really interesting is its quintessentially European-ness. No American publishing house would allow a mystery writer to spend as much time on back-story as Larsson does. In fact, an argument could be made that more often than necessary the back-story becomes the main story before being relegated to secondary status again.

The characters are both engaging and shallow. Blomkvist is a reporter and part owner of a financial magazine. He is divorced and not quite childless, and involved for years in an affair with the married editor of the monthly. He talks a lot, works a lot, is both boorish and strangely emotional. Salander is a ward of the state, a pierced and tattooed proto-punk with a serious chip on her shoulder. Oh, and she has photographic memory. And she is perhaps the most accomplished hacker in Sweden. She likes coffee and sandwiches too and rides a Kawasaki motorcycle. Everyone else drives Volvos.

The story is too complex to describe here, but well worth reading. The translation from Swedish is adequate if not entirely elegant, and Larsson, bless his soul, goes out of his way to avoid becoming a travelogue writer.  The writing is very different that found in most of the whodunit best-sellers of the day and this, personally, makes me very happy.

No doubt US editors and agents are now combing through the works of previously unknown Danish and Norwegian writers hoping to find another Larsson. I say go for it, and pass the coffee pot. Tack så mycket!

No comments:

Post a Comment