Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Book #15: Selves Like Costumes in Stieg Larsson

"In the bathroom mirror she looked at herself for a long time, examining her angular, assymetrical face, her new breasts. And the tattoo on her back - it was beautiful, a curving dragon in red, green and black." - Stieg Larsson, The Girl Who Played with Fire

No one disputes that this novel is a page turner. The plot is propelled forward by a vigilante rescue of a woman about to be killed by her husband, a crime syndicate importing Eastern European prostitutes, and the murder of the husband-and-wife team investigating the johns and thugs - all this before I've even reached the novel's midpoint. It didn't take long for my heart to start pumping like a piston. I was expecting this adrenaline high based on the reviews I'd read.

But what caught me off guard is the idiosyncratic, original characterization.

These characters have a complexity that gets under my skin. Our heroine, Lisbeth Salander - hacker extraordinaire, world traveller, bisexual Don Juan - is particularly fascinating because she is comprised of multiple contradictory "selves" that she dons with the insouciance of costumes. Indeed, her identity seems to be a mystery even to herself. Looking in the mirror and admiring her newly implanted breasts (bought with the fortune she acquired in a recent heist), she seems to regard her own features as no more real or natural than the artful tattoo on her back. There's something marvellous about how she's able to reinvent herself from moment to moment, conjuring an identity that suits any situation. A hitman attacks her? Her keys turn into brass knuckles. She needs to furnish her new apartment under an alias? She throws on a blond wig, grabs a Norwegian passport and heads to IKEA.

Ironically, her theatrics and adaptation skills stem from how she overcame the sadistic sexual abuse inflicted on her during childhood. While the details of Salander's past remain obscure, we know from the opening scene (presumably a flashback) that she "lay on her back fastened by leather straps to a narrow bed with a steel frame" for more than 43 days, awaiting her captor's daily assault. Trapped in this horrific state, her calmness and clarity of mind are all the more striking. Although she is afraid, she isn't debilitated by fear, for with every passing second, she is channelling her fear into a plan for settling the score: "She had discovered that the most effective method of keeping fear at bay was to fantasize about something that gave her a feeling of strength. She closed her eyes and conjured up the smell of gasoline." The girl who plays with fire is born.

The abuse that could have easily paralyzed her for life has instead become a source of power and focus. I think this is why I find myself sympathizing and identifying with and above all liking this oddball heroine. Although an extreme case, she appeals to that universal desire in all of us to overcome our childhood traumas and humiliations, of whatever magnitude, and move on. Rather than letting her past control her, she has taken control of her past and transformed it into a new, creative identity.

(By the way, a few days ago I added a page called "What's Your List?" at the top of the blog. This is where you can post a list of your favourite books.)

Photo from: here


Mimi said...

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" movie was hard for me to watch due to the explicit violence and yet, intriguing. I want to read the book you've highlighted. You keep your blog up to date and so interesting - well done!

celi.a said...

Very interesting. I have heard wondrous things about Scandinavian crime fiction (mostly riding on the wave of this one book), but am hesitant to try it. I like hopeful (read: escapist) endings. Nice teaser!

If you'd like, you can check out mine here.

LKT said...

I haven't read these novels yet, though they are on my (ever-expanding) list. Thanks for the insights. Compelling plot and compelling character sounds like a winner.

My teaser is here.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Great teasers! For those readers who are new to the game we're playing, here's how it works:

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

Grab your current read
Open to a random page
Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

JL said...

Very intriguing! I've looked at this book several times, but have yet to pick it up. Will have to take a closer look. My TT is here

Lizzy said...

I haven't read this series yet, but I need to. I actually watched the movie based on the first book (shame on me), and have to pick the books up. Great teaser!

Marg said...

Lisbeth Salander is definitely one of the most memorable characters that I can remember reading about over the last couple of years.

My teasers this week are here.

Gabrielle Renoir-Large said...

I liked Lisbeth Salander even though I'm not like her at all. I liked the book and the movie, though I found the book's narrative a bit messy at times. Strangely, Larsson described Lisbeth as a "sociopath, bordering on a psychopath." Strange that we should identify with her so strongly then. I liked her strength and daring.


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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.