The name Lisbeth Salander, thanks to millions of readers, has practically become a household name. She is, of course, the heroine of Steig Larsson’s multi-million bestselling Millennium series, which comprises The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Like many, I was sucked into this series, and I am also guilty of contributing to the thousands of trees that have been felled in its production. Running close to 3,000 pages in total, I think it’s fair to say that its huge number of printings in the United States (and by extension, Canada, thanks to distribution) has contributed a vast amount of cash to the Virginia forestry and lumber economies.
Why Lisbeth’s life and adventures have captured the imaginations of readers is subject to debate. Many consider her a caricature and a farce; others consider her a perfect anti-hero who spits in the face of authority and convention. I suppose both are true, in their way. Pierced, unconventional, bizarre – she strikes me as a knock-off from a bad comic book about someone who has heard of a Goth, yet she is also a fiercely strong woman who refuses to balk at the slightest comment or action against her person. She takes people to task and makes them pay for what they’ve done to her or the people she cares (but perhaps cared is more appropriate in this context) about. She’s deeply flawed, but she has an undeniable conviction.
For many years, and even before I entered the publishing industry, I thought about what it was that made a bestselling book. The answer I came up with, as trite as it might seem, was mythic resonance. By and large, I think this still holds true. Take any major bestselling work and you will find echoes of the tried and true tropes from the first half of Northrop Frye’s The Anatomy of Criticism. There’s a reason we keep hashing out myth (and by myth, I do not mean lies, though all fiction survives on untruths) in books, movies, plays, and television programmes: we like those stories. And we like them a lot. We’ve been telling them to one another since we lived in caves, huddled together against the dark. Admittedly, many bestselling stories thrive because they deny or play with these conventions, but it’s a conscious and ironic mode of narrative (Ulysses springs to mind). So why does the Millennium trilogy sell so well? Its mythic elements are loose, at best. The only major element is the struggle of good against evil, which does run through all three novels, first in the form of serial killers and rapists, then later in the form of a scarred and vindictive Cold War exile who thrives in the Swedish underworld.
The answer, I think, is related to something Neil Gaiman raised in American Gods. The old gods are gone or dying; our new gods are the gods of Internet, Credit Card, Consumerism, and Money. Larsson’s series is akin to that other massive Swedish export: IKEA. Other comparisons could be made to Absolut Vodka, but let’s keep this simple, shall we? IKEA thrives on its simplicity and usefulness to the consumer (a trait it shares with Apple, another massive company); its materials are so simple that, in theory, anyone can build them, which is why they come to us in a nice and tight cardboard box with a piece of paper, a bag of bizarre looking components, and an s-shaped Allen key. They’re meant to be built by us, extolling both their simplicity and our ridiculous assumption that we actually made these simple, angular constructions (leaving aside the Poang chair, which I don’t believe has any right angles). This has worked for them pretty well; the company makes billions. While I’m sure Larsson’s spinning in his grave at the thought of calling him a priest of the cult of IKEA, and perhaps this does belittle some of the stronger elements in the series, well, if the shoe fits . .
And how does it fit? Well, for one, the consumability of the product and the satisfaction of its end user. I’m sure this was unintentional, but let’s face it – these are page-turning easy reads that do not require a great deal of mental legwork (not that a good book has to!). I devoured all three in about a week, and despite being aware of its consumability, I won’t lie that I was pretty satisfied with myself for having ploughed through so many pages in a genre that I usually avoid. Why? Because we love to consume, for better and for worse. This series is both easy to read and enjoyable – in many ways it’s akin to watching a well-made series from HBO or Showtime: it’s not stupid, it’s consumable, and it’s captivating. I cared what happened to Lisbeth, even if many of those who surrounded her were laughable or cardboard cut-outs. There was something to her and the horrid life that surrounded her for decades that made me want to keep turning pages (though some of that was to avoid some of the laborious exposition on the magazine publishing business in Sweden – when a reader can tell you’re lecturing, your exposition has failed, Mr Larsson).
Also, the series echoes an IKEA catalogue in two ways: Larsson’s obvious mobile tech fetish (one can only guess how this series would have gone had Larsson been in possession of an iPhone or iPad) – at one point I think I could map out the computers of almost every character – and a catalogue checklist of thrillers. Some of the computers are better sketched out than the characters! I knew more about Plague’s involvement in the hacking world than I did about him – he was just a Swedish version of The Simpsons’ Comic-Book Guy in my mind. I knew what he could do, though, and I had an excellent idea of the desktops and laptops he had on the desk in his hacker dungeon. Then there’s Lisbeth’s and Blomkvist’s computers – they were practically attached to them like third arms. The reader is sometimes more aware of their emailing habits than of their actual thoughts , though this is just an observation, and it’s by no means necessary in work of fiction. Oh, and apparently everyone in Sweden uses a Mac.
Then there’s a checklist of thrillers: Cold War? Check. Serial killer? Check. Family abuse? Check. Troubled heroes? Check. Government abuse of power? Check. Dark hulking evil bastard? Check. Cabin in the woods? Check, check, check. It goes on and on. In the first novel, it’s almost comical, if it weren’t for the subject matter; it’s got serial-killing rapist Nazis. The next two are a mix of a Tom Clancy novel from the early 90s peppered with a rabbit-and-hare chase involving gangsters, government officials, and caricatures from a James Bond novel. The thing is, it’s vastly entertaining. Even when you’re rolling your eyes and perhaps moaning at some of its triteness, you’re flipping the pages at a mad rate. To date, I have yet to consume a series as fast as I did this one, and for that I tip my hat, Mr Larsson, and not just because I felt satisfaction from devouring several pounds of paper.