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By (October 1, 2009) No Comment

The Girl Who Played With Fire

Stieg Larsson
Translated by Reg Keeland
Knopf, 2009

When we compiled this feature last year, I was clubbed and dragged raw by a romance novel, Nora Roberts’ Tribute. I never wanted to open a bestseller again, much less read one with a pencil.

But as it turns out not all bestsellers are the same. I started reading Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played With Fire on my sofa last Saturday and finished it somewhere between Sunday night and Monday dawn. It was, in brief, a blast. As with nearly all page-turners, I felt hollow later on, but while it was happening it was fun.

The Girl Who Played with Fire is the second volume in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (named for the Stockholm monthly where sleuth Mikael Blomkvist writes), and has been flying off airport shelves all over the world. Irma Heldman, our resident mystery expert, reviewed the book very well here, and so there’s no need for me to sum up the plot. I’ll confine myself to a few observations.

Firstly: it’s interesting to me that the characters in the book bare very little resemblance to anyone you or I might meet or ever could meet. They are less human than they are mythic: trolls, elves, and wights. I think this is true of a lot of bestseller fiction but it’s especially true in Larsson’s Stockholm. Here we meet few round characters; people are very good or they are very, very bad. They are also impossibly talented, impossibly resourceful, impossibly strong.

This isn’t stated outright, of course. Larsson’s heroine, Lisbeth Salander, was born of mortals, keeps an apartment, drinks coffee, and heats up Billy’s Pan Pizza from the 7/11. But, in fact, she as little resembles a citizen of earth as Superman resembles Clark Kent. Because the book also doubles as an exploration of real-life problems (the sex trade in Sweden, sexism in specific) and because it is so earnest about injustice, it is able to play both sides of the fence: The Girl Who Played with Fire is a social critique, but it’s also an impossible fantasy.

Take our heroine. “Rich as a troll,” Salander has 3 billion Kronor in the bank (about four hundred million dollars) which she has embezzled, electronically and untraceably. She is a master hacker who can get into any computer or network, security experts revere her; she solves the world’s most difficult mathematics for fun, denying herself knowledge of the proof of Fermat’s last theorem, she works-through her own proof. Punked-out with piercings (tongue, labia, ears, eyebrows, navel, nipples), she wears a dragon tattooed on her back. Originally flat-chested, she now sports implants that look and feel, we’re reassured, just like the real thing. She’s otherwise petite and she’s just about old enough to drink.

Is she tough? Is she tough! Says an old friend, “if she’s provoked or threatened, she can strike back with appalling violence.” It is very little exaggeration to say this creature (a kind of hard-ass elf, and sexy) at one point sustains trauma equivalent to being killed, buried, and her grave pissed on, before rising from the dead to bring vengeance. This is in the book’s blood-soaked finale, of course, about when I began to wonder what I would make of the time I’d spent reading it. It’s one of the usual everything-falls-apart thriller endings where bad guys fall dead with one shovel-blow while the good guys get swiss-cheesed yet still find the heart to keep coming.

Her opponent – the bad guy – is monumentally tall, blond, strong, and literally incapable of feeling pain (he has congenital analgesia, useful in a hired goon). Few more ghastly ogres have been conceived.

What’s surprising to me is that I’ve never really been one for fairy stories or for cosmic struggle. And I’m not into punk girls (or tech geeks, or ogres). All I can guess is that Larsson has stumbled onto a magic formula, one that enables his readers to get off on the mythical, while feeling that they’re in the right spot politically. Men Who Hate Women was the original title of the first Millennium novel and The Girl Who Played with Fire is charged with a healthy current of anti-misogyny. The evil-doers are pimps, men who abuse women, and plain-old sexists. They are dealt their comeuppance and doubters see the light. The fairy girl beats the ogre. Or am I giving too much away?

When a novel moves or affects me deeply, I think about it when I’m walking around. I don’t find myself thinking about The Girl Who Played With Fire, but while I was reading it, I was useless until I got to the end. In retrospect, my experience of the book, like it’s characters, seems unreal. As, of course, it was.
John Cotter
is the Art & Small Press Editor at Open Letters. His short story Scarecar can be found online at Lost Magazine and some of his poems are just out from Free Verse and Sixth Finch.

On to #7, Fate of the Jedi: Abyss by Troy Denning

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