“novels of conscience and reflection” – yes!!

Larssa Kyzer writes a thoughtful and well-documented response to Nathaniel Rich’s essay in Slate that I reacted to not long ago – in an article in L Magazine titled “Why Scandinavians Really Write the Best Crime Fiction.” I think she nails it. In response to Rich’s equating of Scanidavia with Ikea, wholesomeness, and a peaceful society, she documents the stresses and subtle fractures going on in Scandinavian countries as immigration challenges basic assumptions about social identity. She also points out that the current wave of crime fiction is very much in tune with the critical turn Sjöwall and Wahlöö set in their seminal Martin Beck series. It’s a bit disturbing, really, to consider that readers not familiar with Scandinavia (beyond visits to Ikea) have so totally missed the undercurrent of frustration and rage in the Millennium Trilogy that comes directly from Stieg Larsson’s lifelong struggle against racism and the rise of neo-Nazi groups. Kyzer sums it up well:

Scandinavian crime novels are not set apart from similar traditions simply because of the consistent contrast between peaceful settings and “the tawdriness of the crimes,” but rather, that the genre is unique because it tends to hold its society up to itself and take an unflinchingly honest stock of its failures. So often, these are novels of conscience and reflection. Novels which, in their own small way, take responsibility for a social system which makes earnest promises of inclusion and protection, but continues to fail so many of its constituents.

At its heart, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not so very different. It is a book about the failure of Swedish society to effectively respond to social ills at all levels. White-collar criminals are treated like celebrities and the press turns a blind eye. Women suffer inordinately at the hands of men in power — government officials, family members, even lovers — and have no recourse but to become vigilantes, protecting themselves where the social system has been utterly impotent. Larsson isn’t reinventing the genre here, he’s tapping into what really sets Scandinavian crime fiction apart. If his take on these themes has brought anything particularly new to the field, it’s misanthropy and cynicism, where there is usually at least a modicum of hope that welfare societies might face their own shortcomings and eventually, overcome them. “I made a lot of mistakes,” Wallander laments at the end of Faceless Killers, guilt-ridden even after a successful investigation. “You kept at it,” his colleague encourages. “You wanted to catch whoever committed those murders… That’s the important thing.”

By the by, her review, published some time ago, of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is extremely perceptive. There’s no question that Lisabeth Salander is the gripping focus for the book, the chief reason why it has struck such a chord with millions of readers, but she questions the way in which a victim of sexual violence is depicted (or as someone said on a discussion list, how odd that a man who is writing about men who hate women creates a heroine who is essentially a male fantasy).

If, instead of highlighting the fact that “apart from the tears of pure physical pain she shed not a single tear,” Larsson let Salander experience shock and trauma after being assaulted — if Salander overcame, rather than stifled, the myriad emotional consequences that result from sexual abuse — her triumphs would be far greater. As it stands, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo resigns itself to a world in which covert, unpunished sexual crimes are the norm, and vigilantism is a woman’s only possible source of justice.

Wow, that’s exactly what I thought – only I couldn’t put my finger on it until I read this paragraph.

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10 thoughts on ““novels of conscience and reflection” – yes!!

  1. Wow! This is what I can say about the above writing.

    This is an illuminating analysis of what is portrayed about Scandinavian society vs. the reality.

    What is raised about “Dragon Tattoo” and the abuse of women is true. I wondered when I read it why the author didn’t give Salander any way of dealing with her oppression–from women’s rape crisis centers, victims’ services, in short, anyone. And it is true, her only recourse is vigilantism, but, within that limitation, she does take a creative bit of revenge.

    It hadn’t dawned on me until I read it here that Salander is given no other recourse for justice by the author and the state, or even women’s crisis centers, offer no assistance. Is this really so?

    And it is a man’s fantasy of what a woman in this circumstance would do, though it is tough and inventive and it works. What would a woman writer do? How would she handle the situation? Have Salandar report to the abuser with a group of women? Have her go to a women’s crisis center for help?

    And that Salander remedies the financial crimes of a corporate mogul is by herself, in secret, helps make the book exciting and interesting.

    Kathy D.

  2. I think everyone’s overlooking the fact that Stieg Larsson’s life partner of 32 years, Eva Gabrielsson, was intimately involved with the books as they were being written, and I’m sure she wouldn’t let Stieg get away with portraying something in Lisbeth’s character she thought rang false to a woman’s perception. This will all probably be made clear in her upcoming book, The Year After Stieg, which she is working on at the moment.

    And what sort of “male fantasy” is a hostile, antisocial, bisexual 4’9″ waif who kicks serious butt regularly? I’ve seen this theory advanced before by other women but just don’t see it.

  3. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, actually – not just because of the character of Salander, but because other male writers have lately been writing from the p.o.v. of women who are extremely tough, often damaged, generally loners, highly trained either in martial arts or in some other means of defending herself/fighting back, and are able to respond to a situation with very effective physical violence, often for revenge. This, to me, is a new kind of kick-ass heroine than the also tough and resourceful feminist detectives who revived the PI sub-genre in the late 70s-early 90s (Paretsky, Muller, et al.) I’m sure some women are writing these kinds of characters too, but right now the only ones I can think of are male (e.g. Greg Rucka, Tim Maleeny).

    I’m not saying Larsson was bad at writing about women (he’s obviously struck a chord with both female and male readers – in a huge way!) And given his themes and original title (Men Who Hate Women) he was undertaking what is really a feminist project: showing how power and oppression work, and why this kind of violence needs to be opposed.

    But it interests me that such a number of male writers are writing about female protagonists who have (for want of a better word) macho tendencies. I think this is significantly different than the toughness of the previous feminists detectives (who started during second wave feminism, and feminism has certainly changed, along with everything else in the world). It’s intriguing that these women characters have the loner, tough-guy, violent, highly efficient, but also somewhat anti-social qualities of the old tough-guy male hero. And they tend to solve problems with violence.

    So is this just a new wrinkle on the hero (make her female?) or is this a new kind of woman hero (make her tougher?) or is this something else?

    I guess the “male fantasy” is partly because these characters are inevitably young, sexy (though often dominating and always independent) and incredibly fit – though they aren’t 180-pound weight lifters. They are usually very small and very thin, but strong in every sense of the word. And I think the idea that women can get it together without the help of other women is another common characteristic of these kick ass females that in some ways disempowers women as a collective force.

    Way more than anyone wanted to read … I’ve just been thinking about this quite a bit, but I need to assemble a big pile of these books and do a close reading if I want to sort it out. And even then I may come out scratching my head.

  4. I’m not going to play “let’s pin a diagnosis on a fictional character”, but I think Lisbeth, as written, doesn’t necessarily relate to the world and her experiences in a way which would make a more “appropriate” response to her rape either likely or particularly convincing. I was struck by the way she saw the violation as the consequence of her misjudgement of a transactional situation, rather than picking up one of the more traditionally feminine tropes with which to flay herself – wrong place, wrong outfit, wrong sentence. I think that’s partly due to the institutionally flawed Sweden Larsson presents, which makes problematic power relations more likely a cause of adult sexual assaults than is usually suggested (her rapist was supposed to be her guardian), but it also makes sense if you consider Lisbeth’s understanding of bodies and relationships are not that “standard.”

    With this reading I’m also more convinced (if not totally) by her later sexual activity, since I think there’s more of a mental divide between “rape” and “consensual sex” than usual after such an experience.

    Besides, given the trilogy as a whole, Lisbeth has infinite reasons to be distrustful of the system, and organised support services are the last place she’d look for support. (To be as oblique as possible with spoilers, with the revelations in Book 3, Lisbeth visiting a rape crisis centre in book 1 is about as plausible as blaming aliens for the death of Michael Jackson. That this isn’t necessarily clear until the end is, of course, indicative of both the advantages and disadvantages of a through-composed series.) So vigilantism becomes a plausible reaction and not merely a male authorial fantasy.

    Responding to the first comment, I don’t think the books suggest there’s no sort of decent crisis support, but (and again this is with some degree of whole-series hindsight) that you really have to be conventionally set up in society to take advantage of them. On the fringes, or when pressure is applied from those with more convential power to those with less (pace the e-mail discovery which drives Lisbeth to nail Wennerstrom), it all falls apart. Perhaps less ‘collapse of the welfare state’ than a recognition that the welfare state doesn’t – and never did – offer equal protection to everyone.

    Finally, I’m not the target audience, but I’m not sure those reading Lisbeth as a male fantasy are relating to her as a physical ideal. (Wouldn’t that be Erika, if one must go down that route? Incidentally, she gets away with a lot due to her position – see above – that society doesn’t forgive in Lisbeth.) Rather, her behaviour encompasses certain aspects are often to be found in fantasy land (bisexuality, bondage, total sexual liberation/non-monogamy.) I think this is all fair enough in context (we’re talking about Sweden, and besides, it’s not as if Blomqvist keeps his trousers on that much!) and contributes to the plot, but if you disagree with that sort of narrative technique (or find the raw view of society grating), I can see why some people might see this as gratuitous and thus consider Lisbeth male wish fulfilment.

    Gosh, that was long – well done if anyone’s made it to the end! I’ve also been pondering this for a while…

  5. Thanks, Lauren – I’ve only had a chance to read the first book so far, but I think your diagnosis (!) of the reason that standard social services and Salander don’t connect is bang on.

    It’s especially interesting to think about that in light of a current running through lots of Scandinavian crime fiction that having these services is all very well, but there still isn’t equal access; you can’t provide a “one size fits all” solution based on conventional social norms and then sit back and pat yourself on the back, thinking “there, that’s done.” (Mind you, I’d love to have even a “one size fits all” solution and have to worry about why it doesn’t fit rather than “sorry, chum, you’re on your own.”)

    I think I’m going to frame this bit, because it’s really illuminating: “less ‘collapse of the welfare state’ than a recognition that the welfare state doesn’t – and never did – offer equal protection to everyone.” Whoa, excellent.

  6. PS: an interesting piece by Manda Scott in The Independent that somewhat relates (and Salander gets a shout-out). After saying men largely avoid books by women (citing an 80/20 split) she goes on to say “Men do read crime novels. They also read crime novels that centre around lesbian characters. This year’s must-read thrillers are the Millennium series by the late Stieg Larsson. Lisbeth Salander, his autistic, bisexual, computer-hacking, ultra-violent heroine, is one of the reasons they sell so well.”

  7. Wow, Lauren, that was astonishing and somewhat over my head, but it rings true. And Barbara, I guess I’m the exception to the rule — I do read women writers and even translate them: favorites are Sophie Kinsella in the first group and Karin Alvtegen in the latter. And your citation of “sorry, chum, you’re on your own” pretty much describes the American health-care “system.” Imagine if Lisbeth had had to deal with an HMO in the USA! Heads would literally roll.

  8. I’ve heard that speculation made in more than one place. I suspect the spectrum (at least in popular culture; somewhat in actual diagnooses) has expanded to include anyone who doesn’t respond to social situations in a predictable way. I suspect there’s a bit of Rainman going on … oh she’s gifted in a freakish way, but socially maladjusted.

    Autistics tend to hate that movie. Gives everyone the expectation that they can act like a calculator.

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