Friday, September 3, 2010

The girl with the dragon tattoo: genius or a cartoon?

Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – who in case you were wondering, is the girl with the dragon tattoo – was described in the book blurb behind as “a genius computer hacker”. Which to me meant that she was in grave danger of being a cartoon. Naturally, I had to read to find out.

You see, the thing is there is a thin line separating geniuses with cartoons in popular culture. After all, do we ever question the "what, why or how" of Tom and Jerry’s antics? No we don’t, because they are cartoons. They are not encumbered by any physical limitations the way we humans are. So often becomes true of geniuses in popular fiction. Once you have set your character up as a genius – established that his brain functions differently than us lesser mortals – you are released of any need to limit his actions and abilities by any normal human standards. They are like superheroes.   

A genius computer hacker is the worst of the lot. He or she is the scientific equivalent of Harry Potter with his invisible cloak. They can simply enter anyone’s server, network, email accounts, phone lines and happily gather all the incriminating information required – and all in the time that would take you to fill in your username and password. And they don’t have to explain anything. Since their brain functions differently, they just know how to break codes and encryptions in a way that they themselves can’t explain – so who are you to ask.

Further, their status as a genius will demand that they have extreme and inexplicable personality quirks, further taking them closer to their animation-counterparts.

So does Stieg Larrson's Lisbeth Salander fulfill her cartoon potential? Spoiler alert: Yes, she does. But the novel is a page-turner anyway. 

I mean she is as much of a cartoon as can get. She can not only hack through any computer system, she also has a photographic memory, can master complex financial money movements in a jiffy, is good with weapons, knows all about international travel on false passports, is fabulous with disguises, and is asocial, moody and emotionally stunted. In short, she is James Bond on steroids.

But on one point, Salander is truly original and not a cartoon at all. She extracts revenge in the most unforgiving way. In fact, one of the most staggering moments for me in the novel was when she takes revenge on her newly appointed legal guardian. I didn’t see it coming.

Funnily enough, Larrson’s novel only in part requires Salander’s genius abilities. Most of the plot is a rather more staid mystery of a missing child which is solved using standard sleuthing techniques: going though old, old newspapers and photographs, questioning people, piecing together the scene of crime, and lots and lots of plain old thinking and connecting the dots, which is done without any computer hacking required. The end is somewhat grisly, let me warn you.

Besides, Larrson plays off Salander against her mature and serious-to-the-extreme sleuthing partner Mikhael Blomkvist, which takes the edge of her extremities.

Most of the computer hacking is limited to a sub-plot within the plot – a sort of mystery that depends on solving the main mystery. Which means that – whether you enjoy old style whodunits or new-agey digital thrillers – the novel has something to offer.

However, one thing glaringly missing from the novel is sparkling humour. In fact, Larrson’s sense of humour is strictly juvenile. Here are some gems:

“For a moment he stared at Blomkvist with an expression that was presumably meant to instil respect, but which made him look like an inflated moose” (pg 312).

Inflated Moose – doesn’t that have a secondary school corridor ring to it? In fact, I think even secondary school boys might have moved on.

“He, on the other hand, told a funny story about how Nilsson had come home one night to discover the village idiot from across the bridge trying to break a window at the guest house. Nilsson went over to ask the half-witted delinquent why he didn’t go in through unlocked front door”. (pg 127)

Was there ever a more boring rendition of a funny story?

Other than that, the only points of humour are Ms Salander’s T-shirts which declare stuff like “Armageddon was yesterday. Today we have a real problem”.

T-shirt humour? As I said, juvenile.

So would I read the other two Salander novels to complete Larsson’s trilogy?

Yes, what to do? I love Tom & Jerry.

Here's the trailer of the Swedish film by the same name:


Vaibhavi said...

Aww c'mon, Lisbeth was the best character in that snoozefest of a book. I would fall asleep in the other parts but only wake up whenever the narrative mentioned her.

I thought she was an unusual underdog that I couldn't help rooting for. One of those tough exterior, soft insides characters. I loved her, she was interesting. So I guess I'm Steig's target audience for her :)

Michael was zzzz-inducing. And the book as a whole was what americans refer to as "torture-porn". I didn't intend to read parts 2 & 3, but I lately read some reviews that said Lisbeth has a big role, so I'm tempted. :)

About the jokes - perhaps some humor was lost in translation?

globalbabble said...

I agree with the "torture porn" bit. What a perfect word to describe the book.

Perhaps I really dislike extraordinary characters, so I didn't care much for her. I love ordinary characters doing extraordinary things - I feel there is something identify with. They are also tougher novels to write.

Though I agree Blomkvist was quite boring. Which is why I don't think anything got lost in translation. I think Larrson didn't have a good sense of humour. There was something juvenile about his writing and humour - the extreme posturing, the torture, the silly moralising.

Perhaps if I had to choose between Lisbeth and Blomkvist, I too would choose the first.

What really surprises me is that with so much really really good writing around - it is the Da Vinci Codes & Dragon Tattoos that become worldwide bestsellers. Tch Tch!

You should read more about Larrson himself - I am sure Blomkvist is his alter-ego - lone, serious journalist fighting the system. That is how he saw himself. And Lisbeth was is fantasy heroine.

Vaibhavi said...

I loved DaVinci code :P. I'm your average reader and I make no claims to superior discernment :D. On that note, I thought The God of Small Things was like the Frieda Pinto of books. All style and no substance :) I hate pretentious books, I get all Amir Khan-like and go "Appan public hai public, kuch bhi bol sakta hai, jisme apna paisa vasool nahi, uska dubba gul!" :D

Read more about Larrson? God, never. Especially if you think he's like Blomkvist! zzzzz....
Apparently Lisbeth was like a grown up Pippi Longstocking. Since I never read that, that doesn't mean much to me. But may check up on that later, when life permits :)

globalbabble said...

No, I had never heard of Pipi Longstockings, though I see the book at Helsinki Airport when I was passing through.

That's the thing with Scandinavia - we know so very very little about. Everybody knows it is there - but nobody really knows what goes on there.

The other big bestseller to come out of Scandinavia was Ms Smilla's Feelings for Snow. Don't know if you read it. But it too had a supremely clever, confident, emotionally scarred, athletic heroine following a murder mystery with life-changing results.

Though she was not a genius computer hacker. She was an expert in snow - really! Go figure!

Do I see a pattern here?

zaphod beeblebrox said...

Smilla's Sense of snow was awesome. And the movie turned out well. hope you have finished all the 3 books of Larsson's Millenium series. Really enjoyed them, and then there was the sudden news of him having died of a heart attack. The books have been converted into movies - but I have seen only 1 of them, and it was nice. Remained faithful to the narrative in the book.

Another Swedish author you prolly have heard about being in UK is .. Henning Mankell, the guy who created Kurt Wallander, from the TV series. Managed to download and watch Season 1 - again, these are true to the original narratives in Mankell's books. Mankell's work takes darker turns at times - given his extreme dedication (supposed) to projects in Africa. His newer books are not about Kurt Wallander though.

The most popular 90s/early 2000s book out of Scandinavia was weird - a book on pop philosophy by Jostein Gaarder.

Sorry for the random comments. Just going through some posts and typing at leisure.