Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millennium’ Final Volume Due Out Here, Featuring Anti-Statist, Tatooed, Near-Fembot Vs. Carnival of Criminals

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The New York Sun

The first question about “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” the final volume of Stieg Larsson’s immensely popular “Millennium Trilogy,” which is being brought out this month by Knopf (576 pages, $27.95), is why the hornet of the American title should be singular as opposed to the buzzing swarm suggested by the plural “Hornets’ Nest” (note the position of the apostrophe) in the British edition.

For neither this volume nor its mega-selling predecessors (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played with Fire”) lacks for multiple villains, winged or otherwise. Larsson, a journalist who was born in 1954 and died of a coronary at 50 shortly after handing in all three novels to his publisher, saw evil with a capital “E” everywhere in his native Sweden, a place better known for social equality, gender equality, and do-it-yourself furniture.

Another question is how and in what manner did Larsson intend to continue? He left notes for a fourth volume and had apparently planned to write as many as ten installments. Then he keeled over at his desk on November 9, 2004, either as a result of too much nicotine and junk food or because of a plot by the real-life counterparts of the criminals he wrote about in his books and in the controversial anti-racism magazine he edited, Expo. The fact that Larsson, a muckraking authority on right-wing extremism and neo-Nazi groups, should have expired on the anniversary of Kristallnacht has not gone unnoticed. Death threats had been a common feature of his life.

What is clear is that Larsson ended the “Millennium Trilogy” carefully poised to further the adventures of both his crusading journalist alter-ego, Mikael Blomkvist, who works for a magazine named “Millennium,” and his far more intriguing size zero heroine, Lisbeth Salander, the bisexual, multiply tattooed and pierced computer hacker with a genius I.Q., whose fiercely anti-authoritarian and anti-social presence powers the books forward even when she is off the page and behind the scenes trading quips on-line with fellow hackers and social misfits known by monikers such as “Plague.” Indeed, for an already celebrated twist on the Holmes/Watson archetype, Blomkvist and Salander spend an extraordinary amount of time apart. The reader’s curiosity as to when they will reunite, or at least pass each other on the street, is an innovative and clever source of tension aside from the narrative itself.

“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” picks up immediately from the second volume, practically in mid-paragraph: “Dr. Jonasson was woken by Nurse Nicander five minutes before the helicopter was expected to land. It was just 1:30 in the morning.” No nonsense, all plot — the Larsson style. Saved by the gallant Blomkvist, Salander is being flown into ER with a bullet in her head after having tried to kill her Satanic father and monstrously thuggish half-brother at the end of the previous volume. Both are part of a carnival of criminals that includes multi-millionaire rapists, sex traffickers, sadistic legal guardians, neo-Nazis, motorcycle hoodlums, corrupt state lawyers who should be hung by their toes, and secretive government agents so invisible even the Prime Minister is unaware of their existence.

Salander’s seemingly intractable dilemma is that her father, Alexander Zalachenko, is an ex-KGB agent who defected to Sweden in 1976, and though he turns out to be a violent psychopath, the country’s secret service is far more keen to protect him and his secrets than to worry about the fate of his daughter, who has had a handy psychiatric label slapped on her and been a designated a ward of the state. All they want to do with her is to lock her up permanently in an insane asylum, having convinced the public that she is the murderer she was falsely made out to be in the second volume. The lengths to which they go to do so is the meat and potatoes of the plot. That they would be happier simply to kill her goes without saying, but Blomkvist and other Millennium journalists know too much.

All these no-gooders are, of course, men. The first volume’s original title was not the seductive “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” but the decidedly unsexy “Men Who Hate Women,” hardly a title the average male would relish taking to the counter, particularly before the book was well known. Nonetheless, Larsson is careful to temper his crusading and sometimes cartoonish feminism with a few good guys aside from Blomkvist, the latest being the doctor who tends to Salander in the hospital. Stalwarts like Armansky, Salander’s loyal Armenian boss at the security company she occasionally works for, also remain from the earlier volumes.

And then there are the women. Larsson prefaces the novel’s main sections with rather pompous historical nuggets about Amazon warriors and the like, and then steadily floods the ensuing pages with virtuous heroines (cops, lawyers, bodyguards, newspaper editors, secret service agents, etc.) fighting against male evil. The culmination of this Angelic Brigade is the beauteous Monica Figuerola, an iron-pumping member of the Swedish Intelligence Service with whom Blomkvist, who casually beds almost every attractive woman he comes across, finally falls in love. She’s taller, stronger, and more muscular than he is. Is that a problem? Not at all.

One can criticize the trilogy for its often workmanlike prose, stereotypical characters, naïve view of open sexual relations, and, most disturbingly perhaps, for its gratuitously graphic descriptions of the sexual violence Larsson so adamantly decries. Yet the fascination of the books remains. The key to the trilogy’s popularity is that, in a culture that celebrates victimhood, it is about a 4’11” female ultra-victim who refuses to stop fighting back. In volume one she tattooed the torso of the legal guardian who sodomized her with the words, “I am a sadistic pig, a pervert, and a rapist.” An appropriate addition to her own collection of tattoos might be “The female of the species is deadlier than the male.” Certainly Larsson seemed to think so, and his 1,700 page trilogy, for all its excoriation of violence against women, is ultimately a celebration of that fact. In the third volume, it verges on a celebration of retributive female violence against men.

Lisbeth Salander is arguably a male fantasy object, more femmebot than feminist icon. Yet she refuses to settle on the page as a stereotype or caricature, unless it’s as a newly minted one. Most subversively, perhaps, for a Scandinavian novel, she not only distrusts the State (for obvious reasons – it has done nothing but rape and abuse her since she was a child), but is positively anti-Statist and individualistic to the core.

Although her creator is dead, Lisbeth will surely live on, not only in print but in TV series, films, graphic novels, anime, computer games, as well as a reminder that Larsson did not live to see his Avenging Angel sweep all before her on the world’s best sellers lists. The trilogy has sold 27 million copies in 40 countries. As the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa wrote, “Welcome to the immortality of fiction, Lisbeth Salander!”

Mr. Bernhard writes on culture for The New York Sun.

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