Book: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Author: Stieg Larsson
Type of Book: Fiction, thriller, mystery
Why Did I Read This Book: I read this book because I am a narcissist. You see, while I am not THE girl with the dragon tattoo, I am A girl with a dragon tattoo. The title sucked me in. Then I flipped through the pages and saw that a character had my own name. I have not read a book with an Anita in it since the book Anita and Me by Meera Syal. Those reasons were reason enough for the likes of me.
Availability: Published by Vintage Crime, is is widely available. You can get a copy here:
Comments: It’s been a while since I have been this enthralled by a best-seller. This is a seriously good book on many levels and I think that you should read it. I feel this way for a variety of reasons.
Larsson’s ability to write a multi-layered mystery with so many characters is in itself amazing. Generally, books with more than one sub-plot can become tiresome, with too much competing for the reader’s attention. Larsson’s tale has several sub-plots neatly woven together so tightly and interdependent on one another that the book is near seamless.
I will not attempt to summarize the plots more than this: Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist is hired by wealthy man to try to solve the decades-old mystery of his niece’s disappearance. He meets Lisabeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, because she had been hired by a security company to investigate Blomkvist. When he reads her dossier on him, her abilities as an investigator and a hacker impress him and he engages her to work with him to find the missing heiress. Together they uncover far more than just a missing girl, but rather many missing and dead girls, whose disappearances all lead to a shocking and dreadful conclusion.
The carefully laid plot is worth the price of admission, so to speak, but really, the reason this book is so captivating is because of the girl with the dragon tattoo, Lisabeth, and her intriguing, sad, maddening life.
I read some reviews of this book after I finished it and was puzzled by some of the words people used to describe Lisabeth Salander. Words like spunky. Fiesty. She is not fiesty. She is not spunky. She is not plucky. Those words describe a character in a Reese Witherspoon movie. There were those who think she is a deliberate outsider, choosing to live as she does because she’s some sort of personal agent provocateur. She is not a charming loser, a female Cool Hand Luke. Then there was a discussion online as to whether or not she had Asperger’s Syndrome, which does not even seem reasonable to me, but several felt that she did have the condition. It beggars belief that people found her personality spanning so many characterizations, from a plucky heroine who lives by her wits to a funky anarchist whose tattoos and hacking are a rage against the machine to a computer savant whose interpersonal relationships are limited because she has a psychological or behavioral condition.
How could so many people leave this book with such different conclusions about Lisabeth, though wrong most of them are in my eyes? Because in Lisabeth, Stieg Larsson managed to create a character wholly unique. So unique in fact that she is hard to pin down and even my attempt may be a shoddy representation of her.
Larsson characterized what it means to be broken spiritually better than any writer I have read in recent memory, with the exception of Caitlín R. Kiernan. As a people, we don’t often come across those who are sane but have been fundamentally broken in some manner. People who are broken simply do not see the world as whole people do, and as a result, a simple look at them may reveal spunk or antisocial behavior or self-destructiveness, when really, the issue is that the person is engaged in an internal and external war with the world around them, a war they cannot win but that they must wage anyway in order to maintain their sanity.
Lisabeth may have been born broken. She may have become more and more broken as more and more injustice was heaped upon her in life. It’s impossible to know for sure. But being born broken is not the same as being born in the autism spectrum. And being able to cope in ways that shows she still has fight in her does not show spunk. It shows that being broken does not mean she can be utterly discounted. It means she is clever, and that she will not hesitate to break any law she needs to attain revenge and freedom from an oppressive system, one that she hopes she can escape but senses she cannot. Lisabeth is broken in the way an innocent man sent to prison for life must feel.
Initially, Lisabeth seems like a typical, cyberpunk loner, like she might be suited for a role in a William Gibson novel. Her refusal to work when she does not want to work makes her seem like she is mentally pampered or merely eccentric, as she could make a very good salary working for the investigative arm of the security company that hires her.
People around her dismiss her until she reveals herself to them, and she chooses to reveal herself to precious few. This canny ability to know when to reveal her extreme intelligence and competency belies any sense that Lisabeth is in any way autistic or otherwise emotionally incapable. She simply does not like people – and given her life, can anyone blame her – and is careful only to show her true self to those who are worthy. She is about to be fired from her job as a gopher at the security company when she reveals herself to her boss, who immediately offers her a job as a real investigator and is baffled when she self-limits her success.
But there are sound reasons for Lisabeth to limit her success.
Lisabeth was deemed incompetent by the Swedish courts while still in her teens and was assigned a guardian to look after her financial and social interests. When her first guardian dies, she is assigned a guardian who is sadistic. Whereas before she had some control over her money, she loses access to her account, and has to go begging her guardian, the dreadful Bjurman, for every penny she wants to spend. Not only does she find this degrading, but early on she picked up on Bjurman’s lack of decency. Any spike in her income would alert the man that she is indeed working a real job with real responsibility, not just the basic secretary she was hired to be, and if he wants, Bjurman could reveal to one and all that she was deemed incompetent, crazy, too unstable to manage life on her own.
Lisabeth knew this. Her failures are deliberate. As a woman so broken by an intrusive social system and a series of bad luck that rivals Job (teachers not realizing she acted out not because of violent impulses but because other students were violent towards her first comes to mind as the beginning of the official perception of Lisabeth as incompetent), even success threatens the limited amount of pride and privacy she has scraped together in spite of her incompetency status.
So when her guardian forces her to commit a sex act to have access to her own money to replace a broken computer, she tries to set him up, recording what she thought would be a sexual encounter. It isn’t. It is a violent rape that almost kills her, and it is clear that Lisabeth will be subjected to more of the same. To say no or to resist will leave her in an institution or penniless – Bjurman has that level of power over her. The police are out of the question as she does not trust them, but also because who would believe her in a dispute against her guardian?
That she manages to wreak dire revenge on Bjurman is not because of spunk or pluck. Her violence is an act born of desperation because she had the one shot and the one shot only to get away from him. If she failed, she would have been at Bjurman’s mercy forever. And if she failed, she would have been sexually victimized even more.
But even as she wreaks her vengeance, Lisabeth’s clever canniness belies any sense that she is autistic. In fact, the final act of revenge she takes is one that means that like Lisabeth, Bjurman would spend the rest of his life afraid of being close to anyone. Like her, he will have to be very, very careful to whom he reveals himself.
Lisabeth has no use for the law and would no sooner have reported her rape to the police than she would commit a rape herself. Being broken and set aside from common society means she is, in many ways, a law unto herself. The only justice she gets is the justice she takes, however illegally she does it. Lisabeth has a set of ethics foreign to many people who tut at hackers or people who steal, but once a human being reaches the level of transgression committed against her that Lisabeth has encountered, there is no choice. The system does not work and to rely on the law and to live within it makes no sense at all.
It is a mistake that some have made reading this book, assuming that Lisabeth is antisocial. She’s not. She just lives in a realm of fear most of us cannot recognize for what it is. She grabbed onto a gang of misfit girls when she had the chance. She has had shallow sexual encounters and one assumes her relationship with Mikael Blomkvist will be the same, but it isn’t. Lisabeth, far from being a psychopath or an antisocial person, is capable of deep love. She just doesn’t know how to express it. I defy anyone to read a book this year with an ending as unsentimentally sad as this book. There are plenty of emotional novels out there to tug at your heartstrings but the end of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is heartbreaking. You get a sense that Lisabeth is going to turn everything around. But she can’t. She’s broken. Whereas the rest of us would have taken a very different approach on those last few pages, Lisabeth can’t. She just doesn’t know how to battle back from all the ways her life has been wrenched from her before. Like a prisoner, she is trapped in walls that follow her around and dictate how much she is willing to risk and feel.
Lisabeth is an astonishing heroine, or anti-heroine as I say above. She is nothing like anyone you have read before and she does not follow formulas for smart, clever, messed up women. She is very much worth reading and I encourage you to pick up a copy of this book.
It was very saddening to read the author bio in this book and know that Stieg Larsson died in 2004 and that we will only ever have the three Lisabeth novels. I immediately devoured the second in the series after reading the first, and both anticipate and dread the third, slated for release in May, for I know when I finish it, there will be no more.