Like we did last year, we’re going to have a little fun comparing the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Rooster contenders. Book cover design is a strange exercise in which one attempts to distill iconic imagery from hundreds of pages of text. Engaging the audience is the name of the game here. and it’s interesting to see how the different audiences and sensibilities on either side of the Atlantic can result in very different looks. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
The writing I enjoy doing most, every year, is marginalia: spontaneous bursts of pure, private response to whatever book happens to be in front of me. It’s the most intimate, complete, and honest form of criticism possible — not the big wide-angle aerial shot you get from an official review essay, but a moment-by-moment record of what a book actually feels like to the actively reading brain. Here are some snapshots, month by month, of my marginalia from 2010. (Click each image for a larger view)
Point Omega by Don Delillo
Reality Hunger by David Shields
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis
Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis
The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker
The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions
An investigative journalist doesn’t adhere to the “show, don’t tell” creed of the fiction writer. A journalist’s creed is more like “tell, clarify, prove, cite, reiterate.” When a writer moves from journalism to fiction without swapping in the appropriate creed, the result is prose so burdened by over-explanation that it threatens to overshadow the action it’s describing. Such is the Millennium trilogy by investigative journalist Stieg Larsson, composed of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, which currently sits atop every bestseller list in the country. It’s also one of the worst series of books I’ve ever read.
The Millennium trilogy, so named for the magazine where he works, is the story of Swedish investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his frenemy and sometimes collaborator Lisbeth Salander, a reclusive computer hacker who most likely has Asperger’s (and definitely has a dragon tattoo). It’s a thriller told with a journalist’s obsessive devotion to detail, classification, and explication, so that it reminds me of nothing so much as intermediate fiction, where a good deal of stating the obvious is common. Stieg’s characters respond to plot twists with broad, stock reactions taken straight from the repertoire of middle school plays. Their eyes bulge, they freeze in terror, they audibly gasp. When one character learned of a murder of good friends, she “put her hand over her mouth” and “sat down on the stairs.” She was surprised, you see.
Then there’s this description of happiness – “Her smile grew bigger and she suddenly felt a warmth that she had not felt in a long time filling her heart” – that makes you wonder if Stieg was an alien who learned about human emotions from a dictionary.
Most other useful information is inserted awkwardly into dialogue, such as when a patient is wheeled into the emergency room with a gun shot wound to the head, and the brain surgeon tasked with saving her life turns to a nurse and delivers this inexplicably detailed, full paragraph:
There’s an American professor from Boston working at the Karolinska hospital in Stockholm. He happens to be in Goteborg tonight, staying at the Radisson on Avenyn. He just gave a lecture on brain research. He’s a good friend of mine. Could you get the number?
In fact, although much has been made about Stieg’s unique heroine, she spends a large part of the second book in hiding and most of the third book in the hospital. The majority of those two books is told through the dialogue of other characters. Here’s one crackling exchange between Armansky and Bublanski:
“Armansky…Russian?” Bublanski asked. “My name ends in –ski too.”
“My family comes from Armenia. And yours?”
“How can I help you?”
Stieg will never let anything happen in his book without telling you about it at least 97 times. No coincidence goes unremarked, such as in this conversation between a writer and his editor:
“I stumbled across something I think I had better check out before the book goes to the printer.”
“Ok – what is it?”
“Zala, spelled with a Z.”
“Ah. Zala the gangster. The one people seem to be terrified of and nobody wants to talk about.”
Thanks, Stieg, but I actually did read the preceding 200 pages in which you mention Zala about once every 5 pages.
These constant, gratuitous recaps might be useful in a book that is hard to follow, where the plot moves at breakneck speed, or where the characters are multi-faceted and pulled by opposing motives. None of those conditions apply here.
Which brings us to another glaring flaw in Stieg’s estimation of humanity. There are only two kinds of people in his world: good people, and men who hate women. This is not to say that hating women is the only thing that makes you a bad person, but rather that, in Stieg’s world, any major flaw is always coupled with mysogyny. The mobster/drug dealer beats and rapes his girlfriends. The corrupt psychiatrist has thousands of pornographic pictures on his computer. The bad cop just plain hates women.
Men Who Hate Women is the Swedish title of the first book, and the common enemy of all the good people in the book, Mikael and Lisbeth especially. Lisbeth is motivated by personal vengeance. Stieg is motivated by how perfect he is as a human being. I’m sorry, I mean Mikael. It’s easy to confuse the two, so let me set them apart. Stieg Larsson was a Swedish investigative journalist who eventually became an editor of Expo, a magazine dedicated to exposing corruption, and received death threats from those he targeted in his writing. The fictional Mikael Blomkvist is a Swedish investigative journalist who eventually became an editor of Millennium, a magazine dedicated to exposing corruption, and received death threats from those he targeted in his writing.
Having used his imagination and flair for nuance to create Mikael the character, Stieg sends him out into Sweden to avenge the oppressed. He faces down embezzlers, rapists, secret agents, and gangsters, then he exposes them in his magazine. When he is cautioned from publishing a controversial story, he actually says, “That’s not the way we do things at Millennium.”
In one gaspingly improbable scene, his superior sleuthing earns him a meeting with the prime minister, who thanks him for his work and starts divulging state secrets. One of the other perks of being so exemplary is that, with no effort on his part, women throw themselves at him.
In the 1000 pages or so of the trilogy, Mikael never says anything charming, never does anything romantic, never goes out of his way to woo anyone. In The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Mikael falls in with a 6-foot blonde ex-gymnast federal agent, and this is his move:
“How long have you been working out?”
“Since I was a teenager.”
“And how many hours a week do you do it?”
“Two hours a day. Sometimes three.”
“Why? I mean, I understand why people work out, but…”
“You think it’s excessive.”
“I’m not sure exactly what I think.”
She smiled and did not seem at all irritated by his questions.
“Maybe you’re just bothered by seeing a woman with muscles. Do you think it’s a turn-off, or unfeminine?”
“No, not at all. It suits you somehow. You’re very sexy.”
Who wouldn’t want to hit the sheets with this guy? Nonetheless, he is irresistible to women. How do we know? Because Stieg tells us so. And because all the women he sleeps with in the trilogy (roughly half of the primary female characters) do us the favor to reflect at length at how great he is in the sex department. In what claims the (hard-won) prize as most tasteless passage in the series, a victim of decades of sexual abuse ruminates on how she thought she’d never sleep with another man, until she met our middle-aged, out of shape, Swedish Adonis.
Of course, even she is aware that he’s sleeping with someone else, his married best friend and co-editor Erika, whose husband is cool with it. Stieg so delights in this open marriage/lover situation that he re-explains the dynamic a handful of times each book. Erika, in turn, knows about two other people Mikael is sleeping with at about the same time in the first book. His sexual partners have a way of running into each other, having emotionless conversations about what they share, and then accepting that they can hardly be expected to keep him to themselves.
All the women in the Millennium trilogy are strong, independent, and intelligent, living in a world simply seething with men who want to abuse or repress them. Federal agent gymnast Monica, magazine editor Erika, and computer genius Lisbeth all appear as resilient victims living amidst rampant sexism. But the glaring contradiction in what is meant to be a celebration of these women is that, time after time, Stieg insists on letting Mikael save them. And then bed them, of course.
In any other book, I would see these tactics as pandering to the baser instincts of the reading public. But in this book, in which Mikael is so obviously a stand-in for Stieg, it’s just tacky. Especially since this Stieg/Mikael amalgamation has also appointed himself head of the Respecting Women Committee. For someone so earnestly devoted to preserving and protecting the rights of the modern woman, it’s strange that Stieg couldn’t conceive of one who could do without his manhood.
Which is why, in the end, my problem with the Millennium trilogy is not its genre, or its plot, or its characters. It’s the fact that the bestselling books in the world are poorly written, erotic fan fiction that a man wrote about himself.
“Yes, sir, 45 boxes over the original moving estimate.”
“How much is that going to cost?”
“Well, the revised estimate adds another 1,000 pounds, so $450.”
“But that’s just a weight estimate. It could be a lot less depending on what’s in them. They could be filled with pillows for instance. What is in them?”
Many were filled with books, hundreds of them. And if the mover was to believed, they weighed about half a ton: the approximate weight of my knowledge.
I had packed all of the books into two types of freely acquired boxes: those labeled “Adult Brief for Incontinence (Moderate Absorbency),” which my wife brought home from a hospital; and a colorful array picked up at our local liquor store, everything from Ciroc Red Berry to Kinky Blue Liqueur, a versatile concoction which doubles as an aphrodisiac and a window cleaner.
I thought about packing thematically, sorting my volumes by intoxicant. The Russians would go with the vodkas, the Irish with the whiskeys, Germans with the beers, the French with the cognacs, and those few authors whom I knew personally, along with William Faulkner, with the beloved bourbons.
It would be trickier to decide whom to put in the adult diaper boxes. Definitely the Victorians, fussy as they are, but also those darkly comic authors who would appreciate their absurd fate — Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, and Philip Roth. I’d toss Jonathan Franzen in too, just for fun.
In the end, laziness prevailed and I freely mixed nationalities and genres in whatever booze or diaper box had room. Looking at the stacked assortment waiting to be hauled north, I wondered how I had backslid so spectacularly.
Before my last big move, from California to North Carolina about five years ago, I had unloaded most of my book-hoard — I prefer this Old English construction to “library” or “collection,” both of which don’t quite capture the thrilling chaos of that word-treasure spread over my shelves, coffee tables, floors, bathrooms, and car.
Lined up for inspection as I was deciding which volumes to sell, the books stood tall, proudly baring their spines even as their pages must have trembled. My decisions were swift and pitiless; one must be heartless to enter an era of biblio-austerity. But I take heart that of all the books I eventually sold back then, I can remember, and thus regret, only one: C.S. Lewis’s Studies in Words. For a person who loved books, I was actually relieved to have unburdened myself of them.
After the purge, my book-hoard was whittled down to a few boxes to be shipped via media mail.
“Now to get the media mail rate there can only be books in here,” explained the suspicious postal clerk as she watched me hoist the boxes onto the counter.
“If we open it up and find even a toothbrush, we’ll charge you the full rate.”
(Had she divined my scheme to defraud the post office by cheaply shipping dental supplies, or was she bluffing?)
“Got it,” I replied, despite the realization that I had actually thrown a non-media mail object in with my Norton anthologies — not a toothbrush but an armless Hideki Matsui bobblehead doll. (It made it through undetected.)
Those several dozen books transported from the West Coast multiplied over the years to fill 45 some-odd boxes, proving that the greatest fiction is that book lovers can reform.
I had tried to downsize before this latest move as well. Sure, I granted a reprieve to all my old favorites and recently received Christmas gifts, as well as those books I hadn’t yet cracked open and had no immediate plans to. As recounted by Walter Benjamin, Anatole France was once asked whether he had read all the books in his library. He responded, “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?” No indeed, and I won’t take my illustrated copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey out of its cover until I’m good and ready.
But many books did go into the “sell pile.” First were Finding the Right Words, 101 Ways to Say Thank You and Great Letters for Every Occasion, which my college roommate had sent me as a joke after I admitted that I enjoyed penning “Thank You” notes. Next in were a few Peter Carey paperbacks, John Banville’s Benjamin Black mysteries and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which made the cut five years ago, but not this time, and plenty more. On a roll, I even tried to throw in my wife’s pristine and eminently resalable copy of Wild — twice. She made it clear that if it happened again, Stevenson’s donkey might wander off as well.
I took the carful to a used book store, where the clerk instructed me to wait as he sorted the books into two piles — one he wouldn’t buy and the other he’d buy for a pittance. For a bibliophile, this period is especially dangerous, akin to an alcoholic trying to dry out in a Kinky Blue Liqueur distillery. If you must browse to pass the time, I recommend confining yourself to the least tempting section, for me “Spirituality” or “Business.” Then plug your ears when the clerk offers you a figure for store credit, which can be twice as high as the cash offer. Always take the cash.
The most desirable stuff having been picked clean, I went to another store in the area, selling some of my remaining wares to a less discriminating buyer for $24 in trade. (I know what I just said, but what’s one more hardcover?)
I still had a box of unwanted books left, including a copy of David Copperfield with increasingly embarrassing marginalia from the times I had read it in high school, college, and graduate school; some tattered mysteries; a comedic romance with a moose on the cover; Anatomy flashcards; and those three indispensable treatises on writing the perfect “Thank You” note. Over the next couple days I distributed these among a local coffee shop, the library donation bin, and my apartment complex clubhouse, disposing of the dismembered corpus of rejected texts so as to leave no trace of its owner.
However, as the moving estimate made clear, I hadn’t really made a dent. And thus, here I am in a new home, resolving once more to reform my book-hoarding ways. Unlikely, especially with Politics & Prose, Kramerbooks, and Capitol Hill Books nearby. Luckily, my movers made my task a little easier. As if sensing that I was a recidivist, they took it upon themselves to smash one of my bookshelves to pieces in transit. Message received.
They also blithely informed me that they had broken my writing desk as well, which I chose to take as a sign of their carelessness rather than a pointed criticism of my work.
The books, all 45 boxes of them, naturally survived the move unscathed.
Image Credit: pixshark.