Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Sex, crime and vengeance: why the world fell in love with Larsson
Do you suffer from freckles?” asks the ad. Pippi Longstocking marches right in and tells the shop lady “No.” “But my dear child,” responds that fount of rectitude, “your whole face is covered with them.” “I know it,” says Longstocking. “But I don’t suffer from them. I love them. Good morning.”
Like half of humanity I spent Christmas tied hand and foot, as it were, to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. And I can tell you this. Lisbeth Salander’s dysfunctionality may knock Pippi’s into a cocked hat but this tiny, tattooed curmudgeon of a hero is Larsson’s Longstocking. She’s his take on how Sweden’s child-anarchist-of-choice would deal with a modern, adult world.
And boy, does she deal. In one astonishing sequence – astonishing because it works – the elfin Salander is surprised at a deserted cabin by two hired assassins programmed to “tear her apart and stuff her in their saddlebags”. Within minutes she has hobbled one, sent 50,000 volts through the other’s testicles and roared off on his Harley-Davidson with (the final indignity) his treasured bike club insignia padding her helmet. Another especially satisfying scene has Salander tattoo her vengeance – I am a sadistic pig, a pervert and a rapist – across the bourgeois belly of her tormenter.
This stuff makes Swedish critics grizzle. “Larsson’s books depict a dark and violent Sweden, brimming with state and family secrets.” But to non-Swedish tastebuds, the trilogy’s dominant flavour – against which Salander makes stark counterpoint – is a low-church Ikea blond; prose so unvarnished, values so lofty and characters so cartoon-simple as to imbue an oaten plainness, more Amish than Witness.
How, then, did this high moral tale, swiftly plotted but clunky and arrhythmic in its prose, get so big? How did this uber-simplistic feminist diatribe from a socialist militant (whose only written will was a 30-year-old document leaving everything to the Umea Communist Workers League) become a world best seller?
There are theories. Dying is good, as an authorial ploy. I’d try it myself, if I could stand small spaces. And dying as Larsson did – weeks after submission of your final, government-fingering manuscript and in a manner that makes everyone look around for the poisoned brolly – now that’s class.
But it’s not the reason. Nor are the sexy titles – though switching Larsson’s earnest Men Who Hate Women to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was decidedly a good move. No, clearly the books themselves have touched some nerve. Let me count the possibilities.
There’s the sex. Quite a lot of it (which Larsson said he included reluctantly, on advice). And terribly grown up it is too, in that sensible, birch-veneer Nordic manner.
There’s also Salander, that taciturn, pierced, brilliant avenger with David-and-Goliath appeal. Journalists were always going to adore Blomkvist, indefatigable writer of books, spotter of crooks, lover of women and outer of evil; action-man, sex-symbol, master detective and all-round nice guy. While nerds, cyber geeks and design-types could be expected to love the hackers-for-a-truth parable and the way Larsson, himself a graphic designer, makes objects carry his characters’ political baggage.
(At first I took the endless minute detail about Ikea bookshelves, Apple laptops or Kawasaki bikes for shameless product placement; an uncomfortable fit, I thought, on socialist shoulders. Then I saw it was really semiotics. Like the way Larsson’s free-thinking good guys are umbilically joined to their state-of-the-art iBooks but when Berger makes a career move from edgy Millennium to a major right-wing daily, we recognise her mistake before she does because the job brings with it – oh no! – a Dell.)
But there are deeper reasons for Larsson’s success. One theory is that readers identify with Salander because we, too, feel hurt; betrayed by a system that deceives us into wars we don’t want and environmental crises we could avoid.
The second reason is more surprising. Feminism. Larsson was an active and lifelong feminist, partly for personal reasons but also because he saw that ending gender slavery was as crucial to next-stage evolution as ending race slavery was to the last stage. It’s a noble fight, not least because the various fundamentalisms threatening Western democracy are united in their urgent need to re-cage women’s sexuality.
Larsson’s female characters are therefore universally clear thinking, resourceful and good. They defend themselves and each other, define their relationships without regard to social norm and staunchly uphold principle. Untrammelled by such petty concerns as children, love or money (Salander, like Longstocking, is fabulously self-financing) they have sex in whatever form, methodology or company they choose. As comic book fantasies go, it’s pretty compelling.
And there’s another thing. Larsson’s was the Vietnam generation. He met his partner Eva at a 1972 rally. And in part, the books’ appeal is their creation of a world where little guys can still know and fight for what is right, and occasionally win. Where truth exists and exposing crime in high places will reliably shake society and topple government. Larsson’s entire saga turns on this idea.
Me, I’m filled with envy. Not for the money, but for this capacity for public shock. Set the same tale here and you’d get, what, government crooks? Mate, tell us something that matters. We don’t suffer from crooks, we love them. Good morning.