In her marvelous 2007 memoir, Sara Paretsky writes, "Sadism is a growth industry. Despite the many welcome changes of the last twenty years, we are bombarded with books, movies, songs, and above all, video games, which show women being violated in horrific ways." I suspect the "above all" would now be followed by "the Millenium Trilogy," the extraordinarily popular series of books by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. I'm about halfway through the second volume and I'm likely to finish the series. But I'm of two minds about that. For me, these are difficult reads.
Seldom has a thriller author so explicitly condemned violence against women and so carefully titillated the reader with said violence. The books provide in considerable detail stats concerning the violence perpetrated against women, stories of sexual trafficking, and so forth. They catalogue and condemn abuse after abuse in the abstract. There are portions that read like investigative journalism, which is appropriate given the author's previous profession and given "his" role in the books, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist.
In the concrete, however, Larsson abuses his hero in just those ways and I can't help wondering whether I'm supposed to be entertained by the practices he's condemning. The main character, Lisbeth Salander, is one of the great creations of contemporary popular literature. She's a genius, a computer hacker, an extraordinarily competent hero able to assess and react to the environment around her with skill and daring. She's also abused and punished for her competence and yet escapes due to that competence only to be abused and punished again.
Larsson's creation of her as a brilliant pseudo-child prodigy raises yet more disturbing questions. The text dwells lovingly on her size in ways that make me squirm. Paretsky, perhaps, addresses those issues as well as anyone in what could now be a comment on the titles. From her memoir again: "A girl is a child. Most cultures, in most times, have viewed women not as full, legal adults but as a cross between children and chattel animals. This view so pervades American culture that many educated, otherwise empathetic people cannot understand why women object to being called girls. . . .Girls, children, are not sophisticated enough to make difficult moral choices unless they are told how."
The books walk a fine line, to invoke a cliche, seemingly escaping judgment for their horrific depictions of violence by their explicit condemnation of that which they show so vividly. Lisbeth Salander is a child, yet a woman, a hero yet a victim, independent yet helpless. I'm only partway through the series and so I may come to the judgment that these are precisely the paradoxes that make her such an extraordinary hero. But I can't help thinking, at this point, that these books want it both ways. Much like David Vitter, for example, they want exoneration for their concrete offenses because they condemn in the abstract those same offenses. In that, they share much with American culture. That may explain their popularity.