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Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Why are so many people reading this book?

That was the question that kept bugging me long enough for me to accept a copy of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo when someone offered me one. For months I had seen people reading it on the subway, on my bus ride, or carrying copies on the street and sneaking in a paragraph or two while waiting for the light to change. I'm always interested in what people are reading, and even though I have mostly forsaken the thriller genre, I decided I needed to see what was so special.

After reading the book, I still have the same question: Why are people reading this book?

Let's get a few things out of the way, because I'm not a snob and this isn't a terrible book. The story definitely has momentum, and you find yourself flying through the pages. (I read the book in about four days, mostly over my lunch break at work and on my commute home.) And the title character is an undeniably fascinating creation, a cipher with a serious anti-social streak and crippling issues with intimacy, who just happens to be a world-class computer hacker with a photographic memory. When she's in the story the book hums along quite nicely. There is also an appealing set-up for a mystery. The main character, a journalist named Mikael Blomkvist recently convicted of libel is hired to investigate a decades-old case of a missing girl. Nothing outrageously original, but perfectly serviceable for this type of novel.

Unfortunately, the negatives start to far outweigh the positives the further you get into the novel, and even worse, you keep coming up with negatives for as long as you think about the book. That forward momentum I listed as one of the book's strengths is really the only thing saving it from ruin. A moment's reflection and the magic is lost. The appealing mystery devolves into a nonsensical solution seemingly plucked randomly from the list of suspects. All of the characters behave stupidly and out of character when it suits the needs of the plot.

As for the writing, look, I don't expect Shakespeare when I crack open a thriller, and I don't need it to enjoy a book. I've read plenty of mystery novels where the prose was just adequate and never uttered a complaint. Here the prose only rises to the heights of adequacy intermittently. I have seen speculation that this is largely a translation problem, but that strikes me as a convenient scapegoat. The problem is that there seems to have been next to no thought put into the words on the page. Every thing is just plot. This happened and then this happened which meant this happened. There is no art to it or originality. The novel never creates a feeling of place or people. Everyone speaks exactly the same way, no matter what their age or disposition. The book reads like it took the author exactly as long to write these sentences as it does for you to read them, and that is pretty damning.

So, again, why is this book so outstandingly popular? I admit I am dumbfounded. Again, it is not a terrible book, I have certainly read much worse. But there have to be thrillers much better than this. (I don't expect literate fiction to dominate the bestseller lists, but more competently written thrillers would be a start.

Maybe I'm the strange one, but I tend to think of reading being different from other forms of entertainment, if only for the more significant time investment. I'll watch a stupid movie or a light TV show because, what the heck, what's the loss? But to spend the time on a book that isn't unique or special in any way, that has no art behind it, seems wasteful. When I'm looking to shut off my brain, and believe me, I know how valuable it can be to do just that, I turn on the television. I open up a book when I want to engage my brain.

Was The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo a fun read for a while? Yeah, it was, although the end of the story was disappointing to say the least. But there have to be better ways to spend your time.

P.S. I don't feel like going into specifics, but there is a lot of deviant sexual activity in this book, and it is handled in such a banal way as to be frankly disturbing. Also, and this is more of a complaint of the thriller genre, I get really tired of near-superman male protagonists that every woman immediately jumps into bed with. It's tacky and feels like wish-fulfillment through fiction.

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