As I was (finally) starting to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I had been warned gets off to a notoriously slow start, I was pondering whether I would have agreed to represent it if I had read it as a manuscript.
And, you know, if I were actually still an agent. Which I’m not. (Please, no more query letters!!).
And… honestly? I don’t know that I would have sent it out in its present form. That first chapter (note: the actual 1st chapter, not the prologue) is one of the slowest chapters I can recall reading in a book that’s extremely popular. It’s almost as if The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo became such a success precisely because everyone has at least a few friends urging them on with “No, I swear it gets better!!”
It does get better. And that banal, antiseptic chapter ends up serving useful purposes. But wow. Had this book not traveled its own unique path, for better or worse I can’t imagine it being published first in the United States with that chapter intact.
It’s about the characters
Now, I’m writing this having read only about fifty pages, which I think may actually be a benefit for the purposes of writing this post. I don’t know what’s to come in the plot and I have only had the briefest of introductions to the characters.
But already I feel like I have a sense of what would have kept me reading as an agent had I made it past that first chapter.
And it’s simple: These are extremely interesting characters.
But it’s complicated: The reason these are interesting characters is difficult to pull off.
What makes these characters interesting is that they are seeming contradictions. Lisbeth has all the outward appearances of a surly, irresponsible youth, and yet she’s wildly competent at her job. Armansky is simultaneously attracted to, vaguely repulsed by, and paternal toward Lisbeth. Blomkvist is buttoned up and seemingly honest, and yet he lives a cavalier private life and he seems to have been improbably set up in a conspiracy.
And why that’s difficult to pull off is that it’s rarely believable when characters behave in ways that appear inconsistent, especially when we don’t know them very well. When someone we know to be buttoned up is taken in for a scam, we’ll say, “Wait, that doesn’t seem right, I thought that guy was too cautious for that.” When someone who seems irresponsible and surly turns out to be wildly intelligent and competent, it feels like the author is trying to force something that can’t be real.
But I haven’t felt that way so far. These characters are immediately compelling because of the contradictions, not despite them.
And, circling back to the beginning of this blog post, I actually think this is a case where the cold, detached, clinical prose, the same prose that nearly bored me to tears in Chapter 1, works to Larsson’s benefit.
Precision has an oddly reassuring effect on the reader because it completely hides the hand of the author. There aren’t literary flourishes in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, there aren’t artful similes, there aren’t moments that remind you that there was an actual author who chose the words you’re reading. It’s just facts, rendered straightforwardly. (At least, it should be noted, as it’s translated)
So ultimately: It’s believable. The prose doesn’t leave room for questioning because it’s so authoritative and airtight. It’s not the only way to make contradictory characters believable, but Larsson uses it for all it’s worth.
Not only that, but when you can pull off making contradictions believable the reader is prompted to ask questions that pull them through the book – Why is Lisbeth so focused and driven? Why was Blomkvist blinded?
We want to know which of the contradictory qualities we’ve seen in the characters will win out, we want to know how the characters ended up that way, and it makes for an incredibly engaging reading experience.
That’s where I’m at now, at least. I have to say there may be some genius in that tortuous First Chapter and the banality of the prose and descriptions. I believe what this author tells me, and these characters are more interesting because of it.
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Matthew J. Beier says
@Anonymous — Nathan definitely did address the "wooden prose" near the end of the blog post. He made some very worthwhile observations about Larsson's (translated) style. Take a look! I really loved this style of writing and the way it served the characters and story. It didn't need flowering up at all, and it sometimes it was so literal and straightforward that it felt as though Larsson was winking at the reader. (Think the detailed paragraphs about how Lisbeth "did this, this, and that, then immediately feel asleep for eight hours without waking up once." Or her Ikea shopping trips…)
It's just a style thing, which obviously isn't for everyone. After page 85, I could not put these books down, all the way until the end of "Hornet's Nest." The plot is so expertly crafted, and Lisbeth was extremely fascinating to me.
Similar to what Marilyn said above, it will be very interesting to see what comes out of this new publishing frontier, now that a select few are no longer the world's literary gatekeepers. I consider the Millennium Trilogy to be one of my best reading experiences (for a number of reasons) in the past few years. Funny to think that it easily could have been left on the slush pile floor.
S.P. Bowers says
It wasn't because it was "slow" that I, personally, stopped reading. I read a lot of books that most people would consider slow. I stopped becuase there were so many unnecessary side trips that went nowhere and because I couldn't care about the characters.
If all americans cared only about the car chase and explosion type reading I think the rapes and sexual content would have kept them enthralled. As it is we just couldn't get through the extraneous stuff to get to the characters and story.
I say this speaking for myself and not having finished the book. If I've made wrong assumptions I apologize.
Neurotic Workaholic says
I like characters that are multi-dimensional. I've read books where certain characters didn't change at all from page 1 to the end, and they were less interesting because of that. I think that people in real life are full of contradictions, so it's nice when authors can show that in their books.
Terin Tashi Miller says
I think you've hit on a few things here.
1) Scratching "Bransford" off the list of agents I intend to send my latest project to.
Seriously. I'm wondering if it's even the tone, more than the characters, that carry the book. The authoritative tone. The airtight, here's what happened and I know because I was there sort of indisputable voice.
As an example: The beginning of "Lord Jim," by Joseph Conrad, isn't particularly capitvating, until he abandons his first ship only to have it saved by its Malaysian crew (the embarrassment is the key, of course).
Conrad in a few sentences shows us the expectation of the character–his own, and those who judge his actions based on what actions he was expected to take.
I'll never forget someone telling me at a party how much fun I appeared to be (uninhibited), confessing "I always thought you were so buttoned-down!" (A description, by the way, that had my wife and close friends in stitches for years).
Perhaps–just perhaps–today's agents are in too much of a hurry, wanting to be wowed immediately, by "high concept" and "blockbuster" and "exciting" openings, and not actually erudite or patient enough to read, truly read, let the words and tone and story sink in, before judging the saleable, as opposed to literary, merits of some works?
I confess, I've had the same problem reading David Eggers, and even Annie Proulx. Not to mention agreeing largely with B.D. Myers' "A Readers Manifesto" that "Snow Falling on Cedars" should have been named "Sleep Falling on Readers."
I still laugh reading about what some thought of "The Sun Also Rises" before Max Perkins took the risk and got Ernest Hemingway to break his contract with Boni & Liverite by agreeing to publish both it and the abominable, purile "Torrents of Spring."
"A bunch of people going around Paris and Spain and not really doing anything."
Fair criticism, for that, essentially, is true. Yet, the characters are memorable–perhaps because the revelation of Brett Ashley's true self as actually a caring individual contradicts her initial appearance; or, perhaps, just perhaps, because in that novel, as with his short stories, Hemingway wrote as if all of it were airtight, indisputable truth.
And maybe it was…:)
I love Conrad, by the way, because his 'slow' beginnings–Marlowe sitting in a chair on a veranda on a tropical night, lighting a match–are exactly what draw me in, like a moth to the flame interrupting the darkness above his smoke, to the words that follow…
Terin Tashi Miller says
But I haven't read Larsson's series, and thanks to your endorsement–I don't have time or the need to read books just to say I have–I'm unlikely to, unless your post intrigues me enough to double-check your usually excellent analysis.
The discussion brings me to another question, though: so, what agent read it, in Swedish or English, and, based on its sales in Sweden? decided it would be big here?
And why WAS it so big here (it was), so well-hyped, that EVERYONE who was ANYONE HAD to read it and pronounce it of such greatness that nothing written in English since Dashiell Hammett's "The Dane Curse" could possibly compare?
It obviously made a lot of money, for somebody (since Larsson was dead when it came out).
Another example of "literary" taste being defined by sales figures and ancillary rights profits? Who and how figured they could make a mint with it, and why, after having to push through the first 50 pages? Aren't we actually saying that publicity and marketing, more than characters or tone, were responsible for the series' "popularity," not to mention sales? And how many other less than stellar works have been paid for by a similarly swayed public?
Don't worry, Mira, I'm unlikely to insist you read my novels, or any other for that matter. But I must say, your honesty is most refreshing!
For my shame, I have not heard of this author, but seems very interesting! I will look for his books!
Philip Martin says
I'm a big fan of novels that open with eccentricity. (It's one of the main things I emphasize in How To Write Your Best Story). Eccentricity is naturally intriguing; normality is not. It's what makes a story worth telling . . . "something interesting happened today that was odd." Or in this case . . . "here are some truly eccentric characters. Want to hear more?" Then, once you're pulled in, the plot can develop. But story comes first, and is what (as Nathan points out) tends to appeal to literary agents and attract readers. As an acquisitions editor, I agree; it's why we can read a chapter and already want to publish the book, long before we discover where the plot goes.
I thought I was crazy.
That's where I made it before I shut the book over a few years ago. I've looked at it on the shelf, wondering if I'd ever open it again. Wanting to open it, just to read what's spawned two films and a book trilogy.
I made it to page 63, largely because I realized there was probably something lost in the translation.
Something about Larrson's work reminded me a lot of Henrick Ibsen. Painfully slow setup, giving us a great full depth of character, and setting up the problem — but man, pick up the pace some.
So maybe it was the language barrier.
And I wholeheartedly agree — Lizbeth is the type of character I want to read about. I was sold a few pages in. But the more I read, I more I begged the book (no shit, actually begged the book) to get started.
I've read through my stack of new books. Haven't picked up anything in awhile. And there it is, staring back at me from the shelf.
This review couldn't be more aptly timed, as I've found myself wrestling over whether or not I can torment myself by re-reading those 63 pages, and marching on through to the end.
I'm not sure I can do it.
I'll just watch the movies instead — (David Fincher's version looks like it got Lizbeth's character wrong. She looks soft in a way the foreign version doesn't. She looks absolutely badass in the foreign version).
Great post, Nathan.
Also, I read this book. I found the characters compelling and the plot as well. What threw me out of reading the sequel was the gratuitous violence. That seems a dark ingredient often used in the Swedish writing (i.e., "Let the Right One In"), like they must include such, at least in those Swedish novels I have seen published that I have read or started reading.
Linda Sandifer says
Thanks for this post. I'm glad to know I wasn't the only one feeling as if the opening was pure torture to read. I gave up, actually, deciding to just watch the movie (which I haven't done yet either). My daughter told me I should stick with it, that it gets better. As a writer, it goes against everything I have ever learned about engaging your reader in those early pages.
I'm trying to remember the opening of the book (I read them about two years ago now) and I can't picture what it was that was so boring. It started off with Blomkvist being sentenced, and I found that compelling enough myself.
But, I also was one of three people on the planet who enjoyed the financial dealings and unravelings described in such detail, and enjoyed knowing what Blomkvist ate for lunch (all those open-faced sandwiches with unlikely ingredients!). The books were very different from how I write, but I still enjoyed them immensely. Thanks for the post disssecting what did work about the beginning for most!
AJ Mass says
My spoiler-free review of Dragon Tattoo, for those interested…
In fairness, all 3 books could use a LOT of trimming. Book 2 has an entire beginning section full of characters with no connection to the rest of the story. The only part that was important really was that Lisbeth has gotten some bodily alterations.
I've read all 3 books and watched the Swedish movies. The movies in this case are much better than the books because they trim out all the extra stuff that weighed the books down.
If you haven't read the books, watch the Swedish movies because they're worth it.
J. Anne says
I never read the books because I watched the original films, but now that you've written this post, I think I will check it out and see what I think. I LOVED the original movies and when I saw the English movie trailer I was in AWE – looks so great I can hardly wait. But the books would add another level to the stories. I have always loved contradiction in characters – it reveals the underlying bias in people (in real life) and sets up some surprises if done properly in fiction.
That's how long it took for me to say, "oh, now it's getting interesting" — it was the second try for me and the book – and I picked it up again finally because of all the hype.
I think this is funny that you say: "It's almost as if THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO became such a success precisely because everyone has at least a few friends urging them on with "No, I swear it gets better!!" – because I think it's true. But really, I would never want my book to be like that, and therefore I do not actually recommend this one to anyone.
Yes, the characters really are great, authentic contradictions… but not enough so in the beginning to hold me. (Long-ish denouement, too).
I thought the Millenium trilogy was MEANT to be like that, so I read it in good faith and appreciated the way the dry prose put across Lisbeth's character.
But I'm told the books we've been buying and reading in English are not all that Larsson wrote. What we've got in English is the continuity script for the movies. I can't verify this myself, but, on the other hand, it would explain the shopping list style of the text.