The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

OK, I’m a bit behind the times. And behind on my writeups, since I read this some time ago. But, yes, I only recently got around to reading the smash hit of a decade ago. Oh, well. Anyways, it might be the intervening decade but the aspects that jumped out at me, rather negatively, weren’t the ones I recall getting much play at the time. Namely, this book is manifestly about sexual abuse. Now, there are a couple of standard stereotypes for the parties involved in sexual abuse:

  • Sexual abusers are always men (this is the nearest these stereotypes will get to actual true statements, since sexual abuse is largely perpetrated by men).

  • Girls who suffer sexual abuse go on to become avenging badasses: they have all sorts of ninja-chick abilities of stealth and disguise and burglary and kung-fu, and they use these powers against all the evil, evil men out there. But they’re all broken inside and emotionally flat and need the love of a good man to learn to interact with other people in a non-sociopathic way.

  • Boys who suffer sexual abuse become monsters, perpetuating their own victimization on others. They’re usually pretty devilishly clever too, and in the end turn out to be completely fucking crazy.

  • Women who suffer sexual abuse are too old to develop into badasses, so they have to be broken spineless balls of fluff, or, more likely, corpses. They never know the identity of their attacker, because that would make it too easy.

  • Men never suffer sexual abuse, except in the form of Humorous Prison Rape in the kind of genre that depicts prison rape as funny.

Hopefully, it’s pretty obvious why these are all harmful. I know a lot of people love the avenging badass trope and find it empowering, but given that most victims do not, in fact, turn out to be superhuman ninjas but are simply normal humans trying to get through badshit as best they can, telling them, “why don’t you just manifest revenge skills and beat up all the bad rapemen?” is not actually all that helpful.

Now, this might be a bit unfair to Stieg Larsson, but suffice to say most of these are on display in his book. There’s no HPR, but it’s not actually genre-appropriate and I wouldn’t expect it. The identities of most of the specific examples are kind of spoilertastic, but I’ll focus on Lisbeth Salander. She is the very model of a modern rape-avenger chick. She’s violent and brilliant and mentally she’s kind of sick. She tattoos her exploiter and has lots of no-strings-attached sex. She hacks into computers and wears tattoos across her neck. In short she has repression making her a badass lunatic. She is the very model of a modern rape-avenger chick.

Ahem. As I said, about Lisbeth Salander. She ticks off pretty much all the boxes, and as far as I can tell the whole Bjurman incident, which was pretty much irrelevant to the plot, is just to give her bonafides as a defeater of nasty men who exploit helpless women. The one box she doesn’t fit into fully is that it’s not overtly spelled out that she’s been raped, but there is all sort of coy intimation that she suffered some sort of horrible childhood trauma. I assume the details of that eventually emerge in the sequels, and I would be very much surprised if it isn’t sexual abuse. There’s also another woman with childhood sexual trauma in the story, who is not nearly so badassed as Salander, so, I dunno, half credit for that?

Anyways, I’ve spent many words talking about rape cliches and giving Larsson shit for it. How about talking about something in the book other than ol’ Lisbeth? Well, it’s very Swedish, with IKEA and tunnelbanas and aquavit and little cottages in fishing villages. Saunas and free health care aren’t very prominent, but maybe they’ll show up in the sequels. Fortunately, Sweden is not all that much different from anywhere else, so the basic plot is not much impaired by my ignorance of anything much about it. I was slightly at sea with regard to the legal and political issues that came up: in the US, for instance, Blomkvist probably couldn’t be successfully prosecuted for libel, but I get the impression protections for that are very different in Europe (I know they are in the UK). Likewise, I wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that one character was a neo-Nazi. I assume Larsson’s sensibilities are close enough to mine that this is a bad thing, but is it supposed to be an atypical thing? I know Sweden (and Scandinavia as a whole) has a complex, multi-layered interaction with both Russia and Germany from World War II that they’re still sorting out, so I have no idea what the public perception of neo-Nazis is there.

Ahem. OK. Enough griping about Swedishness too (after all, we should read books from other nations and cultures, and my incomprehension is my problem, not theirs). How is the actual prose and story? Pretty good, or at least good enough to explain its popularity. It is not dethless prose, but it has a good pace and every character who doesn’t have characterization defined by their role in rape is pretty well characterized. There are some reasonable false leads in the mystery but the identity of the actual perpetrator isn’t a complete gotcha. It works along most of the axes it wants to work on.

Số đỏ/Dumb Luck, by Vũ Trọng Phụng

What a difference a century makes! Only a little more than a hundred years after Nguyễn Du’s elegant, Chinese-influenced epic, comes this howlingly profane and unashamed satire of a Vietnam deep in the grips of French influence. Satire, I fear, is a product of its time, and although there were certain elements of this romp through Vietnam which were quite amusing, among them the “Being There” motif of a wholly unqualified person rising stratospherically throguh society. The central conceit of this work, as I understand it, though, is an exploration of just what “modernization” and “Europeanization” were thought to mean in early-mid-20th-century Vietnam, simultaneously representing desirable progress and the abandonment of cherished traditions. The overarching theme thus becomes “modernization is a great thing… for everyone else!” This comes to the fore early on with Mr. TYPN (translated into English as Mr. ILL)’s vocal objection to his wife’s shopping at his boutique, and doesn’t really develop much more in the way of nuance thereafter. I feel like certain aspects of the story straight up sailed over my head, because I wasn’t familiar with either the pre-Europeanized Vietnamese culture (aside from knowing it was heavily Chinese-influenced), nor the particular stew of European influences and the lens they were seen through at the time. It was a reasonably enjoyable read, because it was fun and lively and clever even when not wholly comprehensible, but I fear I might not actually have gotten the joke.

Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot

So I was studying 19th-century literature last winter, and my parents were reading Daniel Deronda for their book group (a rather unusual choice: it’s a Jewish book group, and their usual material is contemporary literature with Judaic themes). So I decided to read along (which also gave me an excuse attend the group, a thrill in its own right, as this group has been around in some configuration since I was a wee sproglet not mature enough to take part). I was nowhere near done when the book group met to discuss, but I’ve finished it since.

It is a very strange book. I’m not quite familiar enough with George Eliot’s oeuvre to actually put it in its place, but I can see why it’s not regarded as one of her best. It is very well-crafted on the level of sentences and chapters and characters but has some severe structural problems. The most striking problem is that it is not at all clear who the primary character is. We get about 20% of the way through the book before meeting the title character, and almost all of that pagecount is spent on an unlikeable girl named Gwendolyn Harleth (incidentally, it’s a very long book. 20% of it is a pretty sizable wodge-o’-text). Ms. Harleth (later Mrs. Grandcourt) remains a pretty major character, no a plot strand which is pretty much entirely divorced from the activities of Mr. Deronda himself. The plots merge to some extent late in the story, but in a purely one-sided direction: Gwendolyn depends tremendously on Daniel, and her dependence on Daniel tremendously drives her story, but Daniel’s own plotline is one to which Gwendolyn is completely irrelevant.

So why was a Jewish book group reading a novel about the lives and loves of a bunch of Brits written by a 19th-century Christian? Well, Daniel’s plot is actually aggressively Judaism-influenced and even proto-Zionist. See, he takes in an impoverished Jewess (it’s a 19th-century novel, so they use that word), and decides to help her find her family, which sends him neck-deep into the Jewish communities of London, where he feels surprisingly comfortable. Meanwhile, there’s some confusion about Daniel’s own identity, since he’s the ward—emphatically not recognized as a son—of a gentleman (who happens to be Mr. Grandcourt’s uncle, part of the tenuous connection to Gwendolyn). So midway through the novel, Daniel is basically wearing a neon sign on his head saying “I am the bastard son of my guardian and some Jewish lady”.

To Eliot’s credit, he’s not actually Sir Hugo Malliser’s son. He is, however, totally Jewish and spends a lot of the book figuring out what this means to him. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn gets happily widowed and her plotline kind of peters out as Daniel goes off to be all Zionist in Palestine.

I make it sound worse than it is. It’s actually a very good, well-observed book, with mostly good characters, excellent prose, and some interesting plotting. The actual pacing’s a bit off, and the text seems to move in fits and starts, but it still seems to mostly work. It’s just unfortunate that everything having to do with Gwendolyn seems like so much irrelevance. That includes the character (and rather sudden dispatch) of her husband. Mr. Grandcourt is a fairly thoroughgoing villain, who seems to ooze jealous malice. It’s never entirely clear why he’s such a nasty piece of work: he doesn’t actually seem to much care about or for Gwendolyn, but makes her life miserable for the sheer giddy hell of it. I mean, yes, we’re all glad when he dies, but can we get some reason for why he lived the way he did?

Daniel Deronda is an intriguing work, not least as a viewpoint from a fascinating 19th-century Christian woman who developed an extraordinary and atypical interest in Judaism and Hebrew (George Eliot was remarkable in many ways, among them her scholarly pursuits into Judaism and her proto-Zionist leanings). But I’m not sure it’s actually her best work or even in her top class: it’s structurally a real mess.

The Short Victorious War, by David Weber

I’m afraid that I continue to self-harm with David Weber’s long-running mil-SF series. That’s not entirely fair, actually: On Basilisk Station and The Honor of the Queen were authentically good in their way. Certain admirable aspects of those works continue in this, the third Honor Harrington book. For instance, Weber still has a pretty coherent, self-consistent way of how space naval battles might work (in a way suspiciously similar to the way that, say, actual naval battles worked in the 19th century, but, hey, at least he goes to the trouble of trying to make his contrivance make sense). However, in terms of plotting, character development, and suchlike, I can’t help but feel that Short is coming up, er, short.

Both Basilisk and Honor were set on worlds which were in themselves unusual and provided grist for the plot. This work, by way of contrast, is set on wholly unremarkable Manticorean worlds, with wholly unremarkable Havenite foes. There are a few technological twists, but neither of them are quite equal to the gender politics and religious subplot of Yeltsin or the native uprising plot on Basilisk. The weight of the story thus falls on Manticore and Haven themselves, and not only are they not terribly interesting, but the places Weber shows interest come across as political potshots.

For instance, previously, Haven was just the designated black-hats. They were skirmishing with our designated heroes, and that was enough to give them the role of guys-we’re-rooting-against. Also, they weren’t front-and-center in previous stories, and the central villains (particularly the Masadans) were loathsome enough that we didn’t need to delve very far into who the Havenites were and why we should be rooting against them. But here Weber decides to actually spend some time on world-building Haven, and it’s awful. The premise, which I suppose we’re supposed to take seriously, is that the existence of social welfare has developed the majority of society into a nonlaboring underclass on the dole, with the result that the economy is wholly unsustainable except by relentless pillaging. It’s like a bad parody of Communism blended with a strawman version of the US’s welfare system. With transparent references to revolutionary France that seem frankly a bit cheesy and unworthy of a work that wants me to take it seriously. Manticore itself is not terribly well-developed, but they come across as basically a fantasy-UK. One without the dole.

So the basic premise of Haven is this weird bit of socialism-bashing, and the unfriendliness to liberalism doesn’t end there. Remember Houseman, the straw bleeding-heart diplomat from Honor that didn’t understand that sometimes force was necessary? Well, his cousin’s in this story. He basically does nothing and has no impact on the plot, but he’s present so that every 50 or so pages we can get a reminder of just how weak and stupid he was.

So, yeah, there’s another Honor Harrington story here (spoiler: she wins), which unlike the last two, doesn’t do much to develop her character. She gets a romance subplot and faces some fears, but all in all she feels pretty static here. A lot of energy is devoted to worldbuilding, and the world built is so incomprehensible and crafted to score cheap political points that it was quite hard to actually view the page-count spent on it as worthwhile.

The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

So Trollope wrote an obscene number of books, and I’m only now getting into the ones not in the Palliser or Barchester series. The Way We Live Now is a monumental doorstop of a work, but it remains interesting throughout (if, like me, you find Trollope’s satire of Victorian society interesting). There are a lot of interspersed subplots, including a rather enormous cast of characters, but unlike in some of his other works they all feel relevant (possibly because none of them are used as an excuse to tip foxhunting chapters into the work). There’s an overarching theme of financial expediency throughout the whole work: both Felix and Mrs. Carbury act according to their want of money (Felix somewhat less assiduously than his mother), while Henrietta resists the easy path. The seemingly irrelevant chapters about the Longestaffes and Lord Nidderdale likewise point up the strangely necessary compulsions of the embarassed aristocracy, and their hypocrisy in trying to wrap their heads around the need to marry below their station.

It’s also one of Trollope’s few works in which Americans play a significant role. Trollope seems to hold to the pretty common view of Americans being wild, uncontrollable, and somewhat untrustworthy, although in the end the American visitors are presented far more sympathetically than the British youths. There is, however, a somewhat xenophobic streak to the characterization: Fisker is unscrupulously aggressive in the market, Mrs. Hurtle ferocious in her passions, Auguste Melmotte a swindler, and Madame Melmotte stupid and fat. Surprisingly, Germans and Jews come out rather well: Kroll behaves with significant scruples and gets a happy ending, while Breghart, despite being decried as vulgar by most of the characters in the story, is presented as a quite decent fellow.

It’s an entertaining read, rife with brazen outrageousness on the part of Melmotte. His disappearance from the story takes a bit of the momentum out of the work, and really there is nothing left to be done but to tie up the loose ends, but for as long as he is still a central figure the book really runs along quite merrily. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone not already acquainted with Trollope—it really is very long and is best enjoyed by someone who likes his style—but if you’ve enjoyed Trollope’s wit, and are willing to see some of his same with applied to financial cautions more particular than “don’t countersign other people’s loans” (which is the bulk of the financial wisdom in, say, Framley Parsonage or Phineas Finn), you might find The Way We Live Now an enjoyable sprawl.

A House for Mr Biswas, by V.S. Naipul

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Certainly, earlier this year, when V.S. Naipul was getting a moderate amount of flack for saying horrible things about his female colleagues, I was reminded that I never had gotten around to actually reading any of his books, so I settled down with this one, albeit with the thought in mind that Naipul really didn’t like women very much.

Viewed with this preconception, it’s pretty easy to see Biswas as more than a little misogynistic. There is a very strong theme, from Mr Biswas’s marriage on, of Biswas’s persecution by more powerful women (mostly Mrs Tulsi) who despite their despotism are actually incompetent in managing their households. Shama’s character is presented less starkly, and I actually found her rather sympathetic (probably unintentionally, as Naipul seems to regard her as a loveless harridan).

Moving past the kinda distressing gender-presentation, it’s actually a pretty good experience-delivery system. Naipul’s prose is well-crafted, and he describes well a time and place alien to me: Trinidad, in the peculiar genteel poverty of a brahmin of little means. He expansively describes a spectrum of settings from remote villages to cities, and gives a good idea of the economic realities of privation punctuated by certain luxuries. As a character study I found it less appealing, since Biswas isn’t actually a terribly sympathetic character and feels more than a little bit like an unreliable narrator, prone both to overstating his own misfortunes and understating his own responsibility for them.

In all, Naipul wrote in a way I found easy to digest and quite absorbing, in spite of the fact that I was a little bit less than sold on the actual content of his writing. That speaks, I suppose, to his talent as a prose stylist.

See also: Wikipedia.

Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust

Proust’s great literary classic À la recherche du temps perdu is well-known among those who haven’t read it for two things: first, that it is really fucking long (who is Tom Perdue, and why is it going to take 7 books to find him?), and second, that the enormous hundred-odd-page recollection at the beginning is set in motion by the narrator dipping a madeleine in tea and eating it (I have trains of thought like that too, but I don’t write them down). Among a certain class of intellectual in a certain generation (neither of which I belong to, I think), reading Proust or at least pretending to have read Proust was compulsory. So I borrowed a copy of Swann’s Way (in the Moncrieff-Kilmartin-Enright translation) and set off to be blown away by an extraordinary work of literary genius.

Six hundred pages later, I’m a bit torn. At this point I have no particular desire to read the other six volumes, for reasons which will probably become abundantly clear, but I can appreciate the craft. One thing I can definitely appreciate is Proust’s command of language, which I imagine even comes through well in translation: the structure at both the sentence and multi-sentence level is evocative and well-handles (despite a multitiude of subclauses which often muddles the grammatical structure and makes the reader slow down). On technical issues, this is a beautiful work in a superb translation, rich in sensory detail and in expository whimsy. That’s the sort of thing I like. My problem with it is that this this display of mastery is in the service of very little indeed.

For Swann’s Way (and, as I am given to understand it, the entirety of In Searth of Lost Time) has no actual plot to speak of, but is cast on flotsam and jetsam of memories. The first chapter, “Combray”, was almost intolerable, because it seemed to go nowhere. Things much improved in the second and third sections, “Swann in Love” and “Place Names/The Name”, both of which had a cohesive strand running through them. i’m afraid the rest of the volumes probably more resemble the first section, and its dreamy, pointless ramble through memory. But the last two chapters were very enjoyable indeed.

You might argue that I’m inconsistent: I pan “Combray” for its lack of cohesiveness, and enjoyed The Mezzanine for largely the same reason! That maybe gets to the point of how this book can be enjoyable to people who are not me; those who prefer a ramble through childhood memories of nature and family circles to musings about shoelaces and milk cartons might feel completely opposite to my impression. However, I found disentanging (and trying to derive meaning from) Proust’s memoryscapes to be exhausting. Some of that might be subject matter, some might be the complexity of the sentance and phrasal structure, some might simply be how extraordinarily long the work was. I didn’t find the first chapter enjoyable at all, but I could appreciate the craft.

And, really, the second and third sections are well worth the read.

See also: Wikipedia.