The girl who conquered the world

Why we can't get enough of Stieg Larsson's hacker heroine

Topics: Fiction, Stieg Larsson, Thrillers, Books,

The girl who conquered the worldNoomi Rapace, star of the Millennium Trilogy films

Can anyone be seriously contemplating reading “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” who hasn’t already read the two previous novels in Stieg Larsson’s bestselling Millennium Trilogy, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Girl Who Played With Fire”? And can there be a reader of those first two books who hopes to resist the third? Anyone who has succumbed to Larsson fever knows what it is to lavish the waking hours of entire weekends on his weirdly matter-of-fact and even more weirdly addictive fiction, surfacing at the end of the binge, bleary-eyed and underfed, wondering what just happened.

So let this installment of What to Read address the Millennium Trilogy as a whole and ponder the secret of its appeal. Certainly the charm doesn’t lie in Larsson’s prose; it’s as flat and featureless as the Scandinavian landscape it ought to be evoking (but doesn’t). Those who have proved immune to the Larsson virus protest that the books are filled with clichés, but that presumes the author to be reaching for more color than he is. There are not a lot of hearts pounding or chills running down spines in “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” As Larsson went along, he almost entirely jettisoned the dime-store thriller theatrics; a heart does occasionally “sink like a stone” in the third book, but such moments are few and far between.

Which is not to say that his writing became more terse and economical. If anything, “Hornet’s Nest” luxuriates in even more of the pointlessly meticulous, step-by-step detail that marked the first two novels. Here’s how one character begins her day:

She blinked a few times and got up to turn on the coffeemaker before she took her shower. She dressed in black pants, a white polo shirt, and a muted brick-red jacket. She made two slices of toast with cheese, orange marmalade and a sliced avocado, and carried her breakfast into the living room in time for the 6:30 television news. She took a sip of coffee and had just opened her mouth to take a bite of toast when she heard the headlines.



I should point out that this is a supporting character briefly introduced in the earlier books, and while she plays a more significant role in this novel, there’s really no reason to so exhaustively describe her morning. It’s the sort of thing that drives the Larsson naysayers nuts, and even some fans have been known to complain that certain portions of the books “drag.” So let me now testify: I love this stuff, although why, exactly, has long been something of a mystery to me.

My favorite part of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (after the scene where Lisbeth Salander triumphs over the court-appointed guardian who abused her) is the part where crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist sets up, box by box, a research office in a little cabin on a remote Swedish island. My favorite part of “The Girl Who Played with Fire” (after the chapter where Salander infiltrates the bad guys’ security system) is when she goes to Ikea to furnish her secret hideout and Larsson lists every last thing she buys there.

Of course, I couldn’t bear to read 500-odd pages of Swedish people munching on toast and buying reasonably priced plastic wastebaskets if that’s all there was to it — if it weren’t for Salander, the titular “girl” and the core of what a marketing director might (and for all I know already does) refer to as “the franchise.” Larsson begins each of the four parts of “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” with a few paragraphs of canned factoids about women warriors in ancient and modern history, but Salander is not really a warrior. Like Larsson, she reserves a special hatred for misogynists (the Swedish title of the first novel in the trilogy translates literally as “Men Who Hate Women”), but unlike the activist and leftist journalist who created her, she is no crusader or soldier. What motivates Salander is not justice, but revenge.

A folklorist once told me that revenge is the root of all narrative; few stories have more immediate practical utility to the teller than the brutal causality of “That man wronged me, and this is how I punished him for it.” You might expect a Nordic writer, someone emerging from a culture whose earliest literature is all about seeking retribution, to be acutely aware of this. For some reason, though, Larsson’s examples of fighting females are all taken from the classical world and the American Civil War, instead of the shieldmaidens of Scandinavian lore, who (besides Pippi Longstocking) would seem to be Salander’s logical precedent.

This is primitive stuff, and by the time you get to the beginning of “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” with Salander surviving both a bullet wound in the head and being buried alive in a shallow grave, there’s a dangerous drift toward Tarantino country. What keeps Salander from turning into a cartoon like the Bride from “Kill Bill” is the unedited-documentary-footage texture of the novel’s narration. It’s this integration of the mundane and the mythic that enables the trilogy to hold its readers in thrall.

The antagonists in the first novel were corporate; in the second they were organized criminals and their accomplices. “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” beards the ultimate villains in their den: abusers of legitimate state authority, specifically the Swedish Security Service, or Säpo, the national police. “I don’t believe in collective guilt,” says Blomkvist, that authorial sock puppet, and so Larsson takes great care to illustrate that the “system” isn’t inherently to blame, but rather individuals who warp it for their own ends.

The climax of “Hornet’s Nest” is, naturally, a trial. Salander, who long ago (and with good cause) lost any faith in institutions or official authority, is vendetta personified, confronting the Enlightenment institution of the rule of law. One side is so satisfying, so charismatic, so immediately appealing to our instinctive sense of right and wrong; the other, as Larsson himself was no doubt aware, is the only thing keeping us from descending back into the bloody world of the Icelandic sagas. It’s a contest that still captivates us because we all feel those warring impulses within ourselves. The story may be ancient, but somehow it never gets old.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>