Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson, 2009

Salander bent down and picked up Nieminen's pistol, noticing that it was a Polish P-83 Wanad.

She opened the magazine and checked that it was loaded with the correct 9 mm Makarov. She cocked it. She stepped across Nieminen and went across to Lundin, took aim with both hands, and shot him in the foot. He shrieked in shock and collapsed again.

She wondered if she should bother asking about the identity of the hulk she had seen him with with at Blomberg's Café. According to Sandström, the man had murdered someone in a warehouse with Lundin's help. Hmm. She should have waited to fire the pistol until she had asked her questions.

Lundin did not seem to be in any condition now to carry on a lucid conversation, and there was the possibility that someone had heard the shot. So she ought to leave the area right away. She could always find Lundin at some later date and ask him the questions under less stressful circumstances. She secured the weapon's safety, zipped it into her jacket pocket, and picked up her backpack.

She had gone about ten yards down the road when she stopped and turned around. She walked back slowly and studied Lundin's motorcycle.

"Harley-Davidson," she said. "Sweet."
---- (page 589)

Lisbeth Salander was the heart of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and her mysterious past is front and center in the sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire. Brilliant, violent, obsessively introverted, a mixture of articulate genius and near-autistic, Salander is a highly complicated character. Writing for her must have been a task of great difficulty, and Larsson is always at his best when he's getting into Salander's head or using her as a sort of badass wild-card that can shake up the rest of the characters and plot in an instant.

It's kind of a shame that even with such a dynamic character at its center and so much going for it, Fire still stumbles where its predecessor didn't. Fire is longer, and intricate in a very different way from Tattoo. There are buckets of plot threads, clues, subplots and characters (both major and minor) all jockeying for page time. The book reads like a second draft of what could have been a fabulous thriller. Instead, it's a book with a confusing beginning, a very long middle section and a killer ending. A good editor could have turned this into a novel even better than Tattoo; instead, it's equal parts frustrating and rewarding.

Fire picks up a year after Lisbeth became a billionaire and decided to cut off contact with Blomkvist. Since then she has developed a new interest in mathematics and toured the globe at her leisure. Back at Millennium, Blomkvist has decided to run an explosive article about the underbelly of Sweden's illicit sex trade. Upon Salander's return to Stockholm, the reporter responsible for the article is murdered along with his girlfriend. All evidence points to Lisbeth as the murderer, and a frantic manhunt ensues. With all of Sweden (and a gang of nasty bikers) on her trail, Lisbeth must plumb the depths of her painful past to find the real killers and Blomkvist must try to put the puzzle together on his own.

There's a really good premise at the core of Fire: Lisbeth, the poster girl for privacy, being Sweden's Public Enemy Number One. It's a cool way to give the plot urgency and piece together the bits of Lisbeth's life as the other characters and the public try to understand the many faces of Lisbeth Salander. The focus on her past allows for some really nice bits of character development, and the way Larsson ties her secrets into the plot is oftentimes ingenious. The reason why Lisbeth is so emotionally scarred is pretty much perfect, and completely in keeping with her character. And it helps to generate a fairly awesome plot, so it's an impressive piece of writing all the way around.

It's too bad that it's buried in the middle of so much story, and so much of it superfluous or dull. There's so much material in the book that feels like it should have ended up on the cutting-room floor. The first hundred pages is devoted to an entirely self-contained adventure that Salander has in the Caribbean, stopping a murder plot in the middle of a hurricane. It's not a bad sequence by any means (it's actually quite exciting), but it serves no purpose except to serve as a slice of life. God knows the theme of violence against women is clear enough; it hardly needs further elucidation. The opening could have been a novella of its own.

Then there's the tiresome police subplot, which tells us almost nothing new about the main story and features a lot of characters without any discernible characteristics, discussing at length things the reader already knows. I kept expecting something important to come of all this thumb-twiddling, but other than a limp storyline about a sexist, homophobic detective, nothing dramatic happens. Likewise, the plot thread about the Milton Security employee with a grudge against Salander never ends up effecting the main characters in any important way. And then there's the truly bizarre appearance of Paolo Roberto (a real-life boxer and Swedish celebrity). He pops up towards the end of the book--just when I thought Larsson couldn't bring any more characters into play--and claims to be a longtime friend of Salander's. He acts as a quick and intrusive deus ex machina solution, and then disappears. Not only is his role strange, the way he's inserted is distractingly weird.

A strong editorial hand could have solved most of these problems. The fact that Larsson died before the book was published might account for the messiness. I love long novels, and I think long mysteries are often better than their bite-sized counterparts. In the case of Fire, however, less would have been more. The book feels bloated and overstuffed, which is especially a shame because there's some really fantastic material mixed in with the mediocre stuff.

For instance, Larsson's plotting continues to wildly impress me. I spent most of the book wondering how he could ever wrap up all of his loose ends into a coherent picture. The sheer volume of it was overwhelming and the labyrinthine connections between the various players (some of them pretty tenuous) became confusing. I really thought that he had lost his touch. Lo and behold, he was a lot smarter than I gave him credit for. Once again, he put together a mystery plot that's both shocking and makes sense, which is a balance that's really hard to get right. And having Lisbeth's very existence be a threat to the Swedish government? Very cool.

The novel's climax is completely unsatisfying, but that's actually intentional. The book ends on a big cliffhanger with most of the actual questions answered, but all of the players still on the board. Zalachenko is still alive, the murders of Dag and Mia are still officially unsolved, Blomkvist is the only one besides Lisbeth that knows the truth, and Lisbeth has been shot in the head by her father. It's only on the last few pages that it becomes clear that Fire is really just part one of a two-part arc (the end may not say "to be continued," but it might as well). This probably justifies the amount of material that Larsson introduces over the course of the book--hopefully The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest will be able to conclude the storyline --and the series-- with all of the raw power of Fire, but with some of the grace and finesse it lacks.

NEXT UP: A little-known work by an obscure playwright: William Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse

The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse, 1938

He returned with the tissue-restorer. I loosed it down the hatch, and after undergoing the passing discomfort, unavoidable when you drink Jeeves's patented morning revivers, of having the top of the skull fly up to the ceiling and the eyes shoot out of their sockets and rebound from the opposite wall like racquet balls, felt better. It would have been overstating it to say that even now Bertram was back again in mid-season form, but I had at least slid into the convalescent class and was equal to a spot of conversation.

"Ha!" I said, retrieving the eyeballs and replacing them in position. "Well, Jeeves, what goes on in the great world? Is that the paper you have there?"

"No, sir. It is some literature from the Travel Bureau. I thought that you might care to glance at it."

"Oh," I said. "You did, did you?"

And there was a brief and-- if that's the word I want-- pregnant silence.

I suppose that when two men of iron live in close association with one another, there are bound to be occasional clashes, and one of these had recently popped up in the Wooster home. Jeeves was trying to get me to go on a Round-The-World cruise, and I would have none of it. But in spite of my firm statements to this effect, scarcely a day passed without him bringing me a sheaf or nosegay of those illustrated folders which the Ho-for-the-open-spaces birds send out in the hope of drumming up custom. His whole attitude recalled irresistibly to the mind that of some assiduous hound who will persist in laying a dead rat on the drawing-room carpet, though repeatedly apprised by word and gesture that the market for same is sluggish or even non-existent.
---- (pages 7-8)

If this review could consist entirely of quotes, we'd all be much better off. There is no good way to do justice to the genius of P.G. Wodehouse. His writing is as brilliant as any that I've ever read, and his talent for comedy is absolutely unparalleled by any humorist I'm aware of. At his best (which he is at, in The Code of the Woosters), Wodehouse borders on the sublime. The Jeeves and Wooster series is an absolute embarrassment of reading riches, and Code is a fantastic installment in the ongoing saga.

As it so often does, Bertie Wooster's troubles begin with something deceptively small. His beloved Aunt Dahlia gives him a simple task: go to a London antique shop and sneer at a silver cow-creamer. Things quickly snowball, and Bertie finds himself headed to Totleigh Towers, an English manor house that's fraught with peril for the young Englishman. From scheming friends to sinister magistrates to harebrained schemes, Bertie is trapped in a hopelessly tangled mess that threatens to land him up to the neck in the mulligatawny-- or possibly in prison for theft. Naturally, there is only one man with the smarts to get him out.

I've never read a Jeeves novel that I didn't think was funny, but there have been a few that have been somewhat haphazardly plotted, as though the jokes were more important to Wodehouse than the story. Code,however, is not only a marvelous piece of comic writing, but a fairly brilliant and incredibly intricate example of Wodehouse's hilariously convoluted storytelling. Every single character and storyline at Totleigh Towers (and there are a lot of them) are hopelessly entangled with one another. Wodehouse was an avowed fan of mysteries (he was friends with Rex Stout, and reportedly loved the Nero Wolfe novels), and much of his writing is an affectionate parody of the genre. I love the way that Wodehouse twists mystery/thriller cliches and uses them for comedy; Wooster's straight-facedly dramatic narration is itself a bit of a sendup of overwrought penny dreadfuls. What makes the device so funny is that it isn't overdone.

Dear God, this book is funny, though. And on so many levels. Wodehouse is a master of pretty much every form of comedy: low, high and everything in between. There are several marvelous sequences of pure physical comedy--Roderick Spode getting a painting around his neck could be a Three Stooges original-- as well as farce, wit and sheer weirdness. And all of the humor works together. One scene can combine a pratfall, a play on words, a farcical misunderstanding and some sneaky inside jokes, all wrapped up in Bertie's hilariously effervescent narration. The book seems smooth and effortless, but Wodehouse was aware of the delicate balancing act he was engaging in. It would be ridiculously easy for the jokes to get stale or the stylized narration. In some of the later Jeeves tales, you can see Wodehouse struggling a bit to come up with material that feels fresh. There is no sign of this in Code, where everything works from start to finish.

Wodehouse's attention to continuity is another of his finest attributes. Not only does Bertie remember (and refer to) previous adventures, he has actually learned from them, too. Rarely has he learned anything useful, of course, but the way the past installments affect the current one is truly masterful. Code has a huge cast of recurring characters, too: Aunt Dahlia, Gussie Fink-Nottle, Madeline Basset, Pop Basset, Stiffy Byng, Stinker Pinker and Roderick Spode, who Wodehouse seems to take particular delight in tormenting. Stiffy, a highly manipulative and unlikable friend of Bertie's, makes what I think is her first appearance in Code, and she's part of a long line of female friends who torment Bertie mercilessly. She's not as much fun as Bobbie Wickham, and if I have a criticism for the book, it's that the plot relies a little too heavily on Stiffy's capricious whims.

On the other hand, my favorite piece of character development is the timid and weak-willed Gussie finding an unorthodox way to gain confidence: thinking (and writing down) insulting thoughts about authority figures. This leads to some frankly amazing scenes where Gussie bosses around the fearsome Spode and treats Bertie with cold contempt, only to revert back to his old persona when his notebook of criticisms is stolen -- hilariously, they seem to mostly revolve around the way Spode eats asparagus at the dinner table. Obviously, this is is not exquisitely subtle character work, but it is an example of the marvelously effective ways that Wodehouse plays with his characters and allows them to have just barely enough depth to not be complete caricatures. If Bertie Wooster wasn't a fundamentally kind and good person, his over-the-top idiocy would be wearying.

Likewise, a novel with this much lunacy in it needs to be tethered somehow, however tenuously, to reality. Most of all, though, it needs to be funny, which The Code of the Woosters is, gloriously, brilliantly, laugh-out-loud-in-public funny. P.G. Wodehouse was clearly a genius and one of the most accomplished writers I've ever read, even though he turns his enormous talents to comedy instead of drama. Just because something is brilliant doesn't mean it can't be fun, too.

NEXT UP: The Girl Who Played with Fire, Number Two in the Millennium Trilogy. And while you're waiting breathlessly for that review, why not hop on over to my new companion blog, As I Lay Reading? It's free for the first thirty days (and all the rest of the days)!