Friday, November 26, 2010

The Mary Sue With the Dragon Tattoo

Okay, kiddies. I am clearly the last person on earth to read Mystery/Crime Novel of the Decade (!), The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and after dragging myself through the final, inexplicable 100 pages, my reaction can be best summarized by the phrase: "Are you fucking kidding me?".

Let me digress for a moment. Those of you not as hideously geeky as I am may be wondering what a Mary Sue is. It began back in the dark days before the internet as a fan fiction trope, but the definition has since expanded, making the phrase a useful shorthand in most genre book criticism. One can find an excellent definition here:
MARY SUE (n.): 1. A variety of story, first identified in the fan fiction community, but quickly recognized as occurring elsewhere, in which normal story values are grossly subordinated to inadequately transformed personal wish-fulfillment fantasies, often involving heroic or romantic interactions with the cast of characters of some popular entertainment. 2. A distinctive type of character appearing in these stories who represents an idealized version of the author. 3. A cluster of tendencies and characteristics commonly found in Mary Sue-type stories. 4. A body of literary theory, originally generated by the fanfic community, which has since spread to other fields (f.i., professional SF publishing) because it’s so darn useful. The act of committing Mary Sue-ism is sometimes referred to as “self-insertion.”
What's so interesting about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is that both of the lead characters are flaming, card carrying Mary Sues, albeit of different varieties who in conjunction with each other, ratchet up the Mary Sue quotient even further. This is just unforgivable, really. Let's start with Mary Sue, #1, middle-aged Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist. I feel the need to point out the fact that the book's author, Stieg Larsson, is (or, was - he died in 2004) a middle-aged Swedish journalist. However, I have no idea if Larsson, like his creation, was as devastatingly attractive to every woman he encountered, as full of fierce journalistic integrity even in the face of a prison sentence, was the lucky owner of two pieces of glamorous real estate, or single handedly rescued the Swedish (and possibly the world) economy through his brilliant investigative journalism. Larsson apparently spent a great deal of his career investigating extremist right-wing groups, which, great. But there seems to be an awful lot of wish fulfillment on exhibit in the story of his (clear) literary counterpart.

Unfortunately, I wasn't really able to subject Blomkvist to the nearly legendary Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test as the questions are so heavily geared toward fantasy and science fiction, most didn't apply. As we shall see, Mary Sue #2 doesn't have this problem. Her Mary Sue-itude is so extreme, it is a thing of wonder.

The second protagonist is 24 year old hacker, Lisbeth Salander. I fed all her attributes into the litmus test and, honestly, I tried to be as fair and conservative as possible. Truly. Even so, her score came back as 101. This is an insanely high score. If one invents a character that ranks 50 or above, the suggestion is a terse "kill it dead". Okay, here's the list of some of her most Sue-rific attributes:

  1. Character is also known by a cool nickname ("Wasp")
  2. Is described as looking anorexic (multiple times) but eats like a horse
  3. Even though she is described in the above manner, every man in the book is attracted to her. She is also described as looking like a 15 year old, which just makes it creepy
  4. Character's clothing is chosen because it makes her appear badass
  5. Clothing that is realistically impractical or improper for the character's situation, but looks cool
  6. Character is viewed as suffering from Antisocial Personality Disorder as an excuse for character's Jerkass Loner personality
  7. Has distinctive tattoos.
  8. Raised in an orphanage
  9. Was raped
  10. Has nearly supernatural photographic memory
  11. Has insane hacker skills though she was raised in a series of institutions where her time working on a computer would be, no doubt, limited.
  12. Character was far too badass to attend school, but through some unknown means has learned multiple languages well enough to be mistaken for a native speaker.
  13. Exhibits some really ugly violent tendencies, but since she is the heroine, this is viewed as (again) badass and okay, though when characters the author doesn't like exhibit similar tendencies, this is then bad and wrong
  14. Character never makes mistakes - effortlessly accomplishes all tasks with her amazing skilz

Need I tell you that the two above characters fall in love? That Lisbeth, who is presented as nearly sociopathic and incapable of feeling any sort of closeness to anybody, pretty much immediately falls for the character clearly modeled on the author? Because, as we all know, cool motorcycle (did I mention the motorcycle?) riding 24 year old hackers are always attracted to financial reporters in their mid-forties. Also, did you know that anorexic (looking) 4'11" women can beat an (armed) serial killer nearly to death with a golf club, providing said serial killer, who has remained undetected for 35 years, just this one time, forgot to lock the door to his underground torture dungeon?

Deep breath. Okay. Anyone who knows anything about me and what I read knows that I love genre fiction. I defend it all the time. I think this particular book has me all fired up simply because I find its lunatic, runaway, world wide success completely and unutterably inexplicable. Why this book rather than the many other, far more competently written mysteries and thrillers that are released every year? Admittedly, I'm more of a mystery fan than a thriller one. But if something s making a lot of noise, I often make a point of reading it. But, here's the thing: books like Silence of the Lambs, Eye of the Needle, all of John Le Carré (who I adore), The Bourne Identity, Child 44, all of these books are justly popular entertainments. They possess all of genre fiction's strengths in that they are solidly and intricately plotted, well written, and absolutely unputdownable.

Dragon Tattoo is a mess. It takes forever to get cooking. The characters are wafer thin. The book is reasonably entertaining once we get to the central mystery, but the plot construction felt a little amateurish. It moves in a little too much of a straight line, it all seems a little too easy and simple. There are also contradictions in the the modus operandus of the killer that I found maddening (was he driven by ritual or not? He sometimes was, sometimes wasn't, depending on the convenience of the plot). I would be perfectly willing to cut him some slack on his mystery plotting, as this was his first effort if it wasn't for the other problems. After the central mystery is satisfactorily resolved, we still have about 100 pages to go. My heart sank. What followed was the take down of an evil billionaire which seemingly goes on forever. I kept turning to my inamorato, asking, "Why am I still reading this?".

I seem to be on a roll, here, but really, I'm just completely confused. I had read the book described as being "feminist", and its original Swedish title was (the cringe-making) "Men Who Hate Women". I don't have any particular problem with how women are portrayed in the book, as the characters of both genders seem equally implausible. I will say, that the male characters in the book seem to range from creepy to insanely evil. But painting men as violent assholes (except for, of course, Our Hero), and letting us all know that rape is bad, does not a feminist work make. He does bring up some potentially interesting points, such as correlating fascism with sexual violence and misogyny, but none of that ever really went anywhere and he's not a good enough writer to handle anything morally ambiguous.

I actually have the sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire, sitting, glaring at me from the shelf. But - I just can't.


Danny Bowes said...

Don't do it. If you think Lisbeth Salander is a Mary Sue now, you'll dent a wall throwing the 2nd book across the room. On the plus side, Girl Who Played With Fire will make Dragon Tattoo look like a flawless masterpiece by comparison.

Caviglia said...

I heard she gets a boob job. Or is that in the third book?

I really don't get this phenomenon. I mean, I get Twilight. But I don't get this.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

As for an explanation, I think it comes down to this: "A variety of story... in which normal story values are grossly subordinated to inadequately transformed personal wish-fulfillment fantasies" is pretty much a perfect description of what readers want in their popular fiction.

Gyda said...

Thanks for the link to the litmus test. Just for fun, I put my most recent Suspicious Package character through it (Lacie Koop, girl reporter extraordinaire) and got a 9. It's a good checklist to keep in mind while writing (too much of anything is usually a bad thing).

Caviglia said...

Ha! True. But I think there is a subtle difference between reader and writer wish fulfillment.

miconian said...

Christopher Hitchens wrote an interesting article about Larrson, and the evidence that the male hero was actually based on the author even more than many readers might suspect.

But I'm not defending the books, which I haven't read. I did see the first two movies, which were horrible. And I think that, setting aside (if that's possible) the Mary Sue issue and the author's real-life experience, the Mikael Blomkvist character had to be a saint in order to offset the fact that he's basically the only male character in either film with any redeeming qualities whatsoever (there's also an old rich guy who more or less vindicates himself by confessing to Blomkvist how evil his own family is).

Finally, once again speaking only about the films, I'm not sure I see the Mary Sue thing, because, yes, she is cute and tattooed and wears a leather jacket, and is a hacker. But she is not really in control of her life, nor has she conquered her inner demons (nor, frankly, does she really seem to be on the road to doing so).

Caviglia said...

I very rarely reply to (or, for that matter, publish) comments when someone has not read the material being discussed. Just this - I've heard pretty much across the board that the movies are far better than the book. For reals. In the book it's simply mind boggling. Last word on the subject.

m said...

this is awesome, as it didn't even occur to me as i slogged through it.

personally, i enjoyed the story, then literally set the book aside after the main plot was resolved, and didn't even read the last (unnecessary) 100+ pages until several weeks later.

the one thing that i think, if i'm reading your post correctly, that i read differently than you, is that ALL of the characters, main or otherwise, exhibit these violent and sexually "deviant" tendencies that the two main characters seem to detest. i thought it was an interesting and creepy touch that EVEN the MC's are imperfect and, in some cases, insanely violent or criminal.

MB has no respect for the numerous women he sleeps with ... interesting that his relationship with his daughter is so distant. LS has, indeed, been misused, but she takes it out on society and commits acts that she would indeed describe as being vile if anyone else ever did them. the implication that the last act at the end of the book is her doing is such a disconcerting close to the novel.

miconian said...

The new article on Slate, about the battle over the rights to the books, talks directly about the extent to which the main character was (or is) an avatar for the creator(s).