On Two Recent Books
Last week I finished two books: Heyday by Kurt Anderson, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.
These two books have little in common, save length: Heyday clocked in at 620 pages, while Larsson’s book had a nice round 600. The first was an historical novel, set in Paris, England and the United States in 1848-1849. The second was contemporary fiction, set for the most part in Sweden, though the main female character made forays into Switzerland on banking business. Recently there has been far more buzz around The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo than there has been around Heyday; at least, I haven’t heard much argument about remaking a Heyday movie, let alone making a first one. In my humble opinion, that’s with good reason.
As an aside, I frequently read several books at the same time–one in the dining room, one in the living room, one in the bedroom, one at school (for study halls and SSR time). Sometimes, though, a book is compelling enough that it travels with me from school to home, from room to room. Larsson’s book travelled. Though the characters travelled in Anderson’s book, the book itself stayed put. That’s a telling point. And when I say that I finished them both last week, I will point out that I started Heyday on December 2nd and finished on January 26th, but that I started The Girl on January 26th and finished on January 28th.
Heyday came from my friend Karen, who wanted my opinion before she read it herself (here you go, Karen!). The novel sported five main protagonists, only one of whom I found vaguely likable–the youngest, Priscilla Christmas, who sadly was saddled by the author with a form of clairvoyance, which–also sadly–kicked in a bit too late to prevent her murder near the end. Her patroness at the whorehouse, Polly Lucking (she only prostituted herself part-time, for extra money for clothes and meals at upscale restaurants), was frequently characterized as a free-thinker; unfortunately that seemed to mean that she jumped into bed at the slightest provocation, with nearly any one of her friends or acquaintances, or “special” clients. She did manage to traipse across the country, Priscilla in tow, in search of utopian communities (though when she found one sort of to her liking, she promptly fell into bed with its leader). Her brother, Duff, was a psychopathic arsonist and murderer with a touch of religious mania; their friend Timothy Skaggs was a sarcastic writer with grandiose plans. The last of the protagonists, the Englishman Ben Knowles, accidentally caused the death of a policeman during the Paris riots of the spring of 1848 with a stuffed penguin, and caused them all to be pursued across the North American continent by that dead policeman’s vengeful brother. Oh, and Ben fell in love–and into bed–with Polly. Of course.
Part of the difficulty with Heyday was its attempt to shoehorn in all the historical material from those two very rich years. Not only does Ben witness the Paris uprisings, he causes them, by instigating the first shot. Duff not only participates in the war in Mexico, but serves under the most famous of the commanders, John C. Fremont, whose actions, if not causing Duff’s plunge over the deep end, at least exacerbate it. Not only do the four (Priscilla having left them to join the Mormons at their new settlement in what eventually will become Salt Lake City) decide to join the California gold rush, but they spend some time with Johann Sutter, of Sutter’s Mill fame (Skaggs finds Sutter to be a boor, but, as he finds everyone to be a boor, that’s not a surprise). It’s not enough that the characters play out their story against the backdrop of history: they must be a part of nearly every historical event on the radar. Thus the story feels contrived–the author Anderson is working too hard, and the seams show. The labor of his writing is obvious, and it makes the reading of it equally laborious. I was exhausted just reading the thing.
Such, though, was not the case with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. My co-worker Dan lent me his copy, telling me it was a fast read. True that. Much of the story involved sex–hard not to, as one of the driving plot elements concerned two generations of sadistic sex murderers. The main male character, Mikael Blomkvist, like Polly Lucking, seemed to view sex more as a friendly way to pass the time than as a demonstration of commitment to a partner; he has a long-standing relationship with his partner at the magazine Millennium, Erika Berger (one which apparently put paid to his marriage); he falls into a sexual relationship with the niece of the man for whom he is researching the disappearance which forms the center of the mystery; and finally, with a token protest about sleeping with someone he works with, he goes to bed with Lisbeth Salander of dragon tattoo fame. Still, in terms of sheer numbers, Polly has him dead to rights; and Blomkvist doesn’t even once charge for his services, either.
Both Blomkvist and Salander are well-drawn characters, and there are elements of their characterizations that make them both attractive–though oddly, to me, she is more attractive than he. From the beginning it’s obvious to the reader that Lisbeth has some sort of personality disorder: she cannot relate well to people; to most people, she cannot relate at all. This leads to a general societal perception that she’s mentally as well as emotionally deficient; but it’s also obvious from the outset that she’s actually brilliant. Asperger’s, Blomkvist decides eventually, and that may be quite true. However, the passages written from Salander’s point of view are so cleverly constructed that, while her behavior infuriates nearly everyone with whom she comes into contact, it all seems perfectly logical and acceptable to the reader. When she skirts the law, by hacking computers, or by emptying the bad guy’s Swiss bank accounts in highly questionable ways, we rationalize that she’s justified. When she brutally turns the tables on a sadistic lawyer who takes advantage of his position as her state-appointed guardian, we cheer her on. Thus, in the final chapter, when Lisbeth rationalizes her own situation and comes to the coldly logical conclusion that she’s in love with Mikael Blomkvist, his appearance with his “best friend” and semi-constant lover Erika comes as a blow to us as well as to her. I felt so bad for her, Dan said. I did, too. Conversely, while I knew all along, as she did, what kind of man Blomkvist is in terms of sex, I was still frightfully disappointed in him.
Oh, and the mystery’s pretty good, too.
I’ll be reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest as soon as Dan gets done with it. I don’t think there’s a sequel to Heyday. I rather hope not…because if there is, my neuroses would force me to read it.
P. P. S.:
If I didn’t enjoy Heyday, why did I continue to read it? That’s 620 pages out of my life that I’ll never get back! Well, blame that on my neuroses as well. In my entire reading life, there’s only one book I began and never finished: Villages by John Updike. Don’t get me started there.