When a genuine cultural phenomenon emerges for the most part through word-of-mouth, the boom can be bewildering to those who aren't immediately swept up. My first adult experience of this, aside from the rush towards Brazilians, was Eat, Pray, Love.
It was unavoidable on public transport. People led with it at parties. Sometimes, someone would put a hand on my arm, as if about to utter a caring bit of insight. No. "Have you read Eat, Pray, Love?"
Finally, a friend got it into my hands just before I boarded a train for three hours. I felt mildly assaulted by Gilbert's rhapsodic flights of self-examination, but not particularly worse for the wear. Who was I to talk? I was off for three months of pre-funded gadding about myself. Arranging gadding about can be kind of a pain. Of course, millions of people with jobs and families preferred the vicarious rewards of someone else's semi-edited, insight-rich journey.
Until Lisbeth Sander popped onto the scene, and I began to wonder why these two ladies were wholly ruling stage and screen.
Alternately enthused and agonized, Gilbert - soon, in the person of Julia Roberts - importunes the citizens of the world to provide her with life's meaning. Sullen and socially allergic, Salander has been told through various social agencies exactly who she is through her entire adolescent life. Secretly accessing secret lives of friends and enemies through the comfort of a remote server, she does know everything-except what lies in her-ach!-hard drive of a heart.
Like with EPL, I first turned to the The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Millenium series through assignment. (Er, this one.) I'd been sent it 17 times, and it had struck me as the kind of frothy mystery I generally had completely no time to read. I was thinking it was a charming urban mystery, a la Westing Game-meets-Basil E. Frankweiler for the old folks. I was thinking screwball. I was thinking mystical. I think - forgive me, associative 80s-brain - I was kind of thinking The Golden Child.
Well. Stieg Larsson! Shut my mouth.
There are many things I am prepared for the American reading public to enjoy, but here are a few I am not. Graphic anal rape with butt plug. Unironic disquisitions on journalistic ethics, or the principles of mathematics. Police meetings in which cops respond to assertions with statements like, "Sounds reasonable to me." Lines like, "At that instant he began to loathe Lisbeth Salander with an intensity that blazed like red-hot steel." Swedish family trees. Sweden. Lots of purchasing of IKEA goods and lattes. (I know we like these things IRL, but as things that are supposed to provide narrative momentum.) Sweden. So much Sweden! People with Swedish names! In civilized Swedish threesomes.
But I was beginning to understand that Larsson's trilogy, for the faithful, is sort of the literary equivalent of the IKEA meatball: lumpy, congealed, yet addictively, improbably delicious. But our interest in Salander?
If you have so much as glanced through a copy of Bitch magazine, is pretty easy to rattle off her less-than-kosher characteristics. In a recent piece on Tiger Beatdown entitled "The Girl With The Lots of Creepy Disturbing Torture That Pissed Me Off: On Stieg Larsson" one writer called the skinny, childlike Salandar "masturbation fodder for dudes who want to pretend they aren't sleazy," then continues: "Boy is that a new one in the universe. The super hot damaged skinny white chick with a bunch of tattoos who kicks ass."
Yes, it is, but Salander is not by any definition a "skinny white chick with a bunch of tattoos who kicks ass." As a character, she's far more in the tradition of Monk, or Asimov's Wendell Urth, a genius whose super-deductive powers, whose analytic strengths, are counterbalanced by a hefty dose of emotional idiocy. To be frank, she's creepy. Sure, it's nice that a ninety-pound girl can taser the balls of two bikers, but one hopes she'll be able to carve out some space between lunacy and genius. (And re: Steig. We must remember the poor author begins every chapter with a variation of, "Every day, men do something horrible to a number of women in Sweden, if not the world, and a pox upon them," and that he titled his own book, "Men Who Hate Women.")
But we titled ours The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and it's the girl's hyper-vigilant, emotionally unfulfilling life we're consumed with, just as we were consumed with Gilbert's hyper-self-consumed search for emotional fulfillment. Is Salander's hostile, embattled avenger the responsive ying to Gilbert's sunny, drifting yang? Are we avoiding some golden mean of literary womanhood, or is the appeal their clumsy extremes? Should everyone read Olive Kitteridge and rethink the whole thing? Because while, in their intensity, the two ladies are irresistible for pilgrims and partisans, for the trend-avoidant among us, it seems only that Gilbert might want to ease up on the spiritual plundering, while Salander get some Eat, Pray, Love.
But it remains to be seen whether a character who actually could do both would be interesting to anyone at all.