Monday, June 27, 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

This novel has been out for some time now.  I’m a bit behind the punch here, seeing it has sold several million copies and is the benefactor of glowing reviews worldwide.  This, of course, is one of the reasons for my being drawn to it.  Normally, when I hear the chitter-chatter regarding books I toss it aside, pay it no attention.  However, the hype surrounding this book was too grand for me to ignore.

So, I picked up the book, thinking I would read twenty or so pages a day, something to contrast my non-fiction reading frenzy, that I’ve been immersed, as both a habit and a hobby, for a very long time now. 

This plan was ill conceived.  Even the first two hundred or so pages of backstory didn’t deter me from the soon to be diagnosed, non-stop, ignore everything else in my life, literary addiction.

The first two nights, I can say that I held pretty close to my initial plan, reading only forty or so pages the first night followed by seventy or so the second night.  It was a nice change of pace.  It did add something sweeter to my normal reading fare.  Then day three and the four hundred-page-marathon occurred.  I just couldn’t stop, like a crack fiend whipping out and scraping for the next five spot, as I pandered about in darkened alleys, searching to extend my fix.  I truly believe, if it weren’t for sheer exhaustion, I would have completed The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo that night.  But, as fate would have it, day four the novel was completed.

Most people are aware of the plot.  Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist, is sentenced with a libel conviction that threw his world for a loop.  He had a jail sentence to serve in the near future, a magazine that is losing advertisers and is in financial despair.  This is when a lawyer, Frode, presents Blomkvist with an invitation to meet his client at his estate.  Mikael almost declined the invitation, but figured he had enough of his curiosity peaked, providing his motivation, to go meet up with Henrik Vanger.  This meeting sets the course for the remainder of the book. 

Long story short, Mikael is commissioned to detail a family history of the Vanger family.  But his primary purpose is to uncover whatever he can, regarding the disappearance and suspected murder of Henriks brother’s granddaughter Harriet.  And oh yeah, the disappearance/likely murder took place some fifty plus years earlier.

Mikael makes little progress in his mission, until one day, he uncovers a discrepancy with one of the last photographs taken, just some few hours, before Harriet’s disappearance.  This discovery leads Mikael closer to the truth, but to move even closer and unravel the mystery he would need some help. 

That help arrived in Lisbeth Salander, a troubled girl, with a haunted past.  Lisbeth is a pretty, yet child-like in appearance; possessing numerous tattoos and piercings, to go along with her typical black leather jacket, black jeans and uniquely slogan-filled t-shirts.

Lisbeth is a hacker with photographic memory.  She excels at patterns and mathematical design.  It’s with her help that they are able to decode a message found in Harriet’s effects.  The message leads them to unravel a few puzzles, which unveil a series of murders, that had taken place throughout Sweden, spanning several decades.  

The key to unlocking the puzzles was found by reviewing biblical passages, through tracking old newspaper clippings and through modern technological advances, used to understand and analyze fifty year old photographs.  They determined that all the murders had to be linked to Harriet disappearance.  All the evidence had similarities with each of the unsolved murders, much too many to be simply chalked up as being coincidental.  What they uncover is a serial killer, that’s been in business, alone or with help, for over fifty years.

The action picks up as the killer realizes Mikael is getting too close for comfort.  Mikael is in frequent life threatening situations, including evading sniper fire and becoming a victim himself, via torture, that takes place in the killer’s basement. 

The duo solves the mystery of Harriet Vanger.  The killer is met with and defeated.  Yet this is not the end of the story. 

Part of the reason Mikael accepted the assignment from Henrik Vanger, was to obtain sensitive data surrounding Hans-Erik Wennerstrom, the billionaire businessman, whom Mikael was found libel for erroneous reporting against earlier in the novel.  This storyline still needed resolution, and with Salander, they uncover enough dirt on Wennerstrom to bury him once and for all.

This is the gist of the novel.   I’ve purposely left out any real discussion here, surrounding Lisbeth Salander.  As I’ll be delving into her character fully in just a moment.  Briefly though, Lisbeth Salander is the reason for reading this book. Her character is extremely intriguing, whether looked upon as a source of entertainment and/or as a psychological case study.

What I’d like to do for the remainder of this discussion is to look at a particular theme, and how it, and its branches, bear an imprint, on the novel and on the characters within, specifically Lisbeth Salander.  

It is of my opinion that the theme of Identity and the connections it has with estrangement, abandonment, father figures and dysfunction are tied together and are ever present throughout the book.  I feel this discussion will provide the reader a deeper understanding of the world within The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.   

Identity, for our purpose, is the search for one’s self.  Lisbeth Salander is a lost girl looking for identity, trying to find out who she is, and what constitutes her essence.  

Throughout her life, she’s consistently been looked on as an outsider.  Therefore she dresses and behaves in a fashion that corroborates other’s views of her. 

She was separated from her mother at the age of 12. There are some extenuating circumstances regarding this separation, which are not resolved, or explained, in this book. Yet it is important to understand, because she was, for all intents and purposes, abandoned by her parents, and then by society.  

When she was separated from her mother, the courts didn’t care to look beneath the surface.  They just didn’t care.  They saw a girl who acted out in abnormal ways, but more so, they saw a reserved, shy girl without a desire to be a part of what society considers normal.  

After several failed attempts at foster service, the courts deem she is suffers from a mental illness, and were on the verge of placing her in an institution.  However, she’s given another chance and for now evades that fate.  Instead, she is placed into the care of the government, as a ward. 

This lack of familial stability bears damage to the psyche, and hinders one’s search for identity.  Yet, Lisbeth understands this, but also knows she cannot be the person she feels comfortable being.  She knows that if her actions are deemed inappropriate, she’s got a room ready for her at the asylum.

Although she had a positive experience with her first guardian, Holger Palmgren, where things started to actually began looking a bit brighter for her, things changed suddenly.  Palmgren suffers a stroke, to which Lisbeth waited at the hospital, night and day for three months, waiting for him to recover.  The manner in which she waited showed her desperation, her last grasp, to cling tightly to the only "normal" familial experience she'd ever known.  But the hospital told her they didn't expect Holger Palmgren to survive this ordeal, and so Lisbeth does what she feels comfortable doing, run as far from the situation as possible, blocking it from her mind the best she can.   

The courts moved on as well, as her case is passed on, to a second and extremely cruel guardian, Nils Bjurman.  This experience destroys any of the development that she had made with Palmgren and digresses backwards.  

She is now more lost than she’s ever been.  Her interaction with Advokat Bjurman reinforces the low self-opinion she’s been struggling with.  She feels like she must be this incredibly terrible and worthless person, for another person to treat her in the manner Bjurman had.  This experience reinforces the idea that it’s not safe for her to trust anyone, resulting in her becoming even more withdrawn.  Her search for self had been put on permanent hold.  The only thing she could do is to counter his cruelty, with a cruelty of her own, something her years in “exile” had taught her to do, at an extremely high and proficient level.

Included in this theme is the search for a father/parental figure.  Outside of the occasional fling with a woman or the casual encounter with a man, Lisbeth’s relationships are all with much older men.  Her choices, the positions she puts herself in, are defeatist in nature.  These relationships are doomed from the start.  So when they do fall apart, she then reinforces the idea that all men are pigs, that all men are cruel.  She reinforces the idea that she is nothing.  If a relationship looks as if it’s progressing, Lisbeth rejects the possibility and walks away, without giving her partner any notice, or any chance to talk her out of her decision.  Finally, when she finds a man that she’s willing to reciprocate emotions with, it’s the one man, whom by virtue of his composition, is incapable of providing the kind of love she’s now seeking, thus reinforcing all the negativity once again.  Lisbeth learns it's much easier to hate than it is for her to love.

There are other characters in the novel that experience abandonment and/or father figure complexes.  Harriet Vanger has serious issues with her father. I won’t delve any deeper into the rationale for including her, as this aspect is intrinsic to the storyline of her disappearance.  When you read the novel, you will understand the inclusion, and most likely will be able to expand upon it.

Cecilia Vanger has issues with her father.  Her father abandoned her many years ago, both literally and emotionally, after finding out her lover was 1/4 percent Jewish. Her father, being the Nazi he is, chastises and berates her, declaring his own daughter to be a whore.

Even the men in the story are not protected from abandonment issues.  Martin Vanger has a father figure complex that develops upon the death of his father.  Everything Martin does from that point forward is his way of living up to his memories of who and what his father was. 

Henrik Vanger, while the father figure complex is not developed, he has serious abandonment issues.  He didn’t have any children of his own, so when Harriet moved in with him, she became a surrogate, the daughter he never had.  When she disappeared, he devoted the majority of the rest of his life, to finding out what happened to Harriet.  The obsession made him scrutinize everyone as a possible suspect.  This obsession drove him away from his family, and drove his family away from him.  His issues of abandonment resonate in his need for a semblance of closure to this era of his life.

Mikael Blomkvist, is the abandoner.  He recognizes the fact that he’s not been, nor is, a good father.  This can be seen in his relationship with his estranged wife and daughter. It’s also shown as he distances himself from Erika Berger, his longtime friend, co-worker, and lover. 

We see Mikael as the victim of abandonment three times throughout the book.  The first is where he’s convicted for Libel.  He feels that not only did the justice system let him down, but that he let himself down as well.  He feels abandoned when Cecilia Vanger breaks off their relationship.  He also feels this in regards to Lisbeth, on more than one occasion during the time they shared together.  Cecilia and Lisbeth are very similar in the respect that both of these women leave men, Mikael in this case, without providing any real explanation for their decision.

The search for identity is also seen when analyzing the major puzzle in the novel.  The major puzzle is steeped in scripture.  Its relation to identity can be seen through looking at religion.  The people who frequently seek out religion, it can be argued, are searching for something greater than themselves.  Many people look to religion, as a way to help deal with problems, to bring cohesion to their lives.  Many others find themselves when they become more spiritual.  In The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo, religions tie-in with the serial murders, bastardizes the value of religion by attaching spirituality to gruesome acts of betrayal and sin.  

This linkage also establishes dysfunction as something that aids in the deterioration of identity.  Dysfunction is a symptom of lost identity and it also inhibits one's ability in finding their self.  Here we see something that traditionally brings peace, in religion, cast in an unbecoming and antithetical light.  Dysfunction is not only an ingredient in the loss of one's self, but also its product as well, thus a cyclical beast, forever churning against the self. 

A few other cases of dysfunction shown here are:    
The Vanger family’s Dysfunctional behavior spans entire generations.

     Mikael Blomkvist’s family details his abandoning, but his relationship with Erika resonates in dysfunction.  The fact she is married and that her husband is aware yet open to her extramarital relationship with Mikael is very dysfunctional in its own right. But when combined with the fact Mikael is also okay with the whole scenario, just adds another layer to the dysfunction here.

    Everything about Lisbeth’s upbringing and life, when it comes to family or relationships seems dysfunctional at numerous levels.

The final few points I’d like to present on this issue of identity returns us to Lisbeth Salander.  She is so desperate for an identity she makes numerous identities up, hoping to find her true self.  She creates her online identity of Wasp, whom she feels comfortable with, precisely because it’s fictitious and can go away anytime she feels like it.  Another example is seen near the end of the novel, where we see Lisbeth go into numerous disguises, each bearing a fake identity and having different personas.  She even gives these characters different hair colors and accents.  

There’s a reason for the disguises, as far as story is concerned,  but you can also see that the role playing has a deeper purpose for Lisbeth.  It appears she is hoping that she’ll find something, anything, that resonates within her, with who she is, of what she wants in life.  We see her go through progressions, as she looks in the mirror, checking herself out, how she examines the way others look at her, comparing the different looks that accompany each disguise.  Lisbeth weighs the worth of each item as she is about to dispose her alternate personas effects, even commenting on the cost and value of the objects.  At the end of this progression we find out, alongside her, that she likes the way the fake latex breasts look and feel on her.  The fact she keeps these, after discarding all the other items, shows she finally found a piece of who she is, shows that she has assessed a problem within her, and feels she has found something to help move her in a positive direction.

Finally Lisbeth Salander is one of the best hackers and researchers in Sweden, if not the world.  This occupation allows her to spy and pry into other people’s lives.  She delves deep within her marks, leaving no detail from her investigations unturned.  The process she uses not only detail her as an extremely thorough investigator, but infers the notion that she is also constantly analyzing personality traits and behaviors, to see if anything inspires or resonates within her.  Constantly we see her making little remarks or off-hand comments when she’s performing her investigative research, which shows her mind is processing everything she comes across, and albeit briefly at times, she’s also analyzing the information to see how it could or would apply to her own life.

The novel is an excellent read as a source of entertainment alone.  However, when we understand the elements within a book or a story, we gain a deeper appreciation for not only the plot, but also for the characters within. 

When we become readers of subtext, readers of what’s not written, we not only experience story, but become privy to a deeper knowledge and insight.  When we seek out the implications, read between the lines, we can infer an understanding as to why things are the way they are, or seem to be.  Through scholastic analysis, the depth of our experiences becomes fortified.  In this way, you aren’t just being told a story, you’re also perceiving reason.  You’re finding out how things work and why things don’t, from which you can take this understanding, out from the page and incorporate it into your own life, your own world.

1 comment:

  1. This review really struck a chord with me, especially the psychological character study of Lisbeth, a character not unlike Smila from Smila's Sense of Snow. The constant analysis of others as a control mechanism is common for those who experience childhood trauma. I see Lisbeth in myself and in the young woman I mentor, the way I immediately connected with Smila. Fortunately, I formed a strong sense of identity and can model the process for my mentee. The abandonment issues continue to have an emotional toll but don't dominate my life as they do these characters. I was able to resolve these issues without the violence that plagues their lives. Great work, thank you for the illuminating review.