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my book reviews

From time to time, I'll decide to review a book I read.  I'll place these occasional reviews on this page, in no particular order.

1. Cormac McCarthy's The Road

Reviewed by Mitchell James Kaplan

Cormac McCarthy's The Road has been called “dystopian” and “post-apocalyptic.” While these terms may describe its setting and some aspects of its content, The Road bears little resemblance to the intricately plotted social commentary of 1984 or Brave New World, and only slightly more to epic redemption tales like The Stand or The Passage. The Road belongs, rather, to the genre pioneered by Fennimore Cooper and Zane Grey: it is a western. Like most westerns, it presents a stark opposition of good and evil, telling the simple tale of a tough individual trying to preserve the values of civilization in a wild, lawless frontier. As in most westerns, relations between good and evil are mediated not through discussion or law, but through violence.

In setting a western in a world usually associated with a different genre, McCarthy has borrowed a concept from George Lucas's Star Wars, which is a western set in a science-fiction universe. Perhaps in homage to this precedent, he has even adapted a prominent metaphor from Star Wars. In The Road, the vague moral imperative “Let the Force be with you” finds its correlative in The Man's constantly repeated advice to The Boy: “Carry the flame.” The meaning may not be the same, but the injunction serves a similar dramatic purpose: it suggests that the story's protagonists have a special role to play in a drama much larger than their individual lives.

Most novels braid narrative from strands of moral conflict, psychology, and events (some linked by causality and others simply concatenated). In “The Road,” McCarthy has not abandoned conventional narrative, but has pared it to its simplest form. The moral conflict entirely lacks nuance, with looting, cannibalistic, omnipresent “bad guys” threatening to destroy the few remaining “good guys” who consider life holy and fight to preserve their dignity and cleanliness.

There is no psychology here. The Man is defined by a handful of simple traits. He is resourceful, intelligent, tough, and practical. We know nothing of his story, except that he had a wife who killed herself, and even less of his inner conflicts or half-conscious urges. Au contraire, The Man is always in control and morally infallible, even when he has to kill another: the perfect western hero.

His son, The Boy, is defined by a contrasting set of simple traits. He is compassionate, dependent, frightened, and weak – qualities associated with the female in traditional westerns. Of course, that way of presenting females has fallen out of favor.

Their adversaries, the “bad guys,” are as undifferentiated as the masks that cover their faces. Almost by definition, they are unworthy of trust, ruthless, heartless, and murderous. None of these are well-developed characters. They are the stick figures of a child's cowboy-and-robbers game.

The plot of The Road is equally simple. There is very little cause-and-effect, and a great deal of concatenation (a structural principle reflected even in individual sentences). The Man and his son travel south through the post-apocalyptic wasteland. Along the way, they discover a series of enclosed structures – a house, a train, a boat, a store. The Man investigates each of these structures while The Boy either goes in with him or waits outside, too frightened to enter. From time to time, The Man and The Boy encounter foes, with whom they must do battle. More rarely, they meet up with allies or with others too weak to maintain a position in this black-and-white moral universe. Occasionally, The Man or The Boy makes a near-fatal mistake, allowing the gas to seep out of their propane canister or misplacing their gun, and The Man must fix everything before they can move on to their next adventure. The Boy gets sick. The Man, sick from the outset, progressively grows more diseased and then dies.

In its style, The Road shines. In the narrator's voice, one hears loud echoes of Hemingway, Faulkner, Beckett, and Jack London. The book's tone sometimes waxes prophetic; its post-apocalyptic landscape resembles nothing so much as Isaiah's and Ezekiel's. Occasionally, McCarthy carries the flame of stylistic innovation a little too far, as in his use of “secular” in phrases such as “the secular winds.” But such phrases are John-Donne-style conceits, tortured metaphors designed to call attention to an important point.

That point, ultimately, is that for all the turpitude, decay, and bleakness of the world McCarthy depicts, within it there survives another kind of breeze, contrasting the “secular wind:” the breath of spiritual redemption. This message is driven powerfully home in the tacked-on, Hollywood-style happy ending, where McCarthy's lyrical nostalgia for a better world inflates his austere prose almost to the bursting point.

Oh, and one last thing. I almost forgot to mention that I enjoyed The Road immensely. All this simplicity, it turns out, serves a powerful aesthetic purpose. I was moved by McCarthy's hallucinatory descriptions, the intense moral contrasts of the world he has created, and – most of all – by his portrayal of a man's love for his child, and of their desperate will to survive.

2.  The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Reviewed by Mitchell James Kaplan

I was impressed with its three major strengths: 

1. It is cleverly constructed.

2. Its main character (not its protagonist) is fresh and compelling. 

3.The romance at its heart is touching. 

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is built of nested stories, most of which explore the “David vs. Goliath” motif of the apparently weak overcoming the apparently strong. Its two heroes are: 

1.The financial journalist, Blomkvist. Wrongly convicted of libel, Blomkvist feels powerless against the industrial titan Wennerstrom, who has ruined his credibility and his job.

2.The young investigator, Solander, a superhero figure. A high school dropout, Solander appears to others (so we are told) to be mentally disabled, socially awkward, and vulnerable. Like Clark Kent shedding his business suit for a cape, she turns out to have a photographic memory, brilliant computer programming skills, superlative fighting skills, and the ability to speak “Oxford English” and “impeccable German” in addition to Swedish.

The nested stories consist of (1) a business rivalry, (2) a romantic rivalry, (3) a mystery, and (4) three tales of revenge:

1.The outermost shell deals with the rivalry between two large Swedish companies, Vanger Industries (weak at the outset) and Wennerstrom's business empire (strong at the outset). When Henrik, the ex-president of Vanger, concludes that Mikael Blomkvist wants to get even with Wennerstrom, who has wrongly accused him, Henrik concocts a plan to make use of Blomkvist's talent and determination.

This story of business rivalry is sketchy. Two improbabilities stand out: 

a. Two of the largest corporations in Sweden are profoundly corrupt at their highest levels.

b. The patriarch of one of these corporations engages the services of a muckraking financial journalist who has a reputation for being unkind to business, and supports his magazine.

One of the unusual aspects of this rivalry story is that the arch-villain, Wennerstrom, is never seen. He performs all his nefarious activities off-stage and is more a concept than a character.

2.The romantic story describes another rivalry: Solander's and Berger's competing claims on Blomkvist's affections. Solander is vulnerable and distrusting; over the course of the novel, she learns to love. Erika Berger is narcissistic and makes no demands of her lover – which is convenient for Blomkvist, because he too is narcissistic. Unlike Solander, Blomkvist fails to grow. He remains incapable of commitment, monogamy, and truly loving paternity to the end. As a result, the reader finds it easier to identify with Solander (who is not, strictly speaking, the protagonist) than with Blomkvist (who is). 

3.At the core of the book lies its central mystery, Blomkvist's and Solander's investigation of Harriet's disappearance.

The disappearance occurred decades ago. The victim at the center of this mystery does not appear until the end of the book. Like Wennerstrom, Harriet is a concept rather than a character, at least during most of the story. How, then, does Larsson make the mystery story engaging? By placing helpers, hinderers, and suspects in the foreground (Cecilia, Martin, Frode...) and having Blomkvist become involved with them in ambiguous ways. 

When Harriet does finally appear, she turns out to be so impossible to take seriously that I wished she had remained offstage. The daughter of a serial killer / rapist and the sister of another, the victim of multiple rapes and death threats perpetrated by those she loved and depended upon, with a mother who doesn't care about her, she has grown up to be successful, well-adjusted, and affable. Huh?

The mystery plot employs all the familiar clichés of the genre. The hero finds clues, travels to investigate, interviews witnesses, and tries to decode secret messages. There are several mysteries-within-the-mystery: Who has been sending flowers to Henrik? Who is the man in the photograph? etc. In the mano-a-mano section of this mystery (the final confrontation between Blomkvist and Martin), Larsson doesn't hesitate to use the most hackneyed of James Bond devices, in which the villain confines the hero and tortures him, all the while confessing his own crimes and explaining his twisted motives.

The idea that Henrik Vanger would hire a financial journalist in the first place, to investigate a murder in his family, seems absurd. Larsson attempts to make this story plausible by resorting to the artifice that Vanger had a personal connection with Blomkvist's family. 

All in all, it seems to me that the mystery story per se is not what makes The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo so fresh and readable.

4.Three nested revenge tales complement the three other stories. Blomkvist's revenge against Wennerstrom is set up at the beginning of the book and consummated at the end of the book, framing the corporate rivalry story. Harriet's revenge (or rather, Bloomkvist's and Solander's revenge on behalf of Harriet) occurs after her tormentor's identity is discovered, framing the mystery. Solander's revenge, an illustration of sick romance to compliment the healthy romance story, occurs in the middle of the book.

In an interesting structural decision, Larsson packed the most violence and graphic sex into the central (innermost or third-layer) revenge story. The outer revenge stories are progressively less violent and graphic. This gives an arclike dramatic shape to the novel and focuses the reader's emotional response not on the mystery or the corporate rivalry, but on the romantic story. Solander's love life thus becomes the central emotional issue.

In the second-layer revenge story, the dual nature of Martin (appparently good / really evil) balances Solander's dual nature (apparently weak / really strong). He appears to be capable, friendly, and even kind but turns out to be a psychopathic sexual predator and serial killer.

The outermost revenge story is similar to the mystery story in that one of its main characters –  Wennerstrom, the villain – is never seen. All his villainy is performed offstage. Even more than Harriet, Wennerstrom is not a character but a concept.

This baffles me. Why would Larsson deliberately place two important characters offstage for most of the book, preventing us from caring about them one way or the other? At the same time, he develops (or partially develops) a number of unimportant characters – tangential members of the Vanger clan, witnesses, etc. 

Had he developed the young Harriet, up to the time of her disappearance, we would feel her disappearance as a punch in the gut, and the mystery story would be more powerful. Similarly, had he developed Wennerstrom as a real human being, with strengths and weaknesses, we would care more about the coporate rivalry and outer-shell revenge stories.

The only explanation I can come up with is that Larsson doesn't want these stories to compete with Solander's. Apparently he made the decision to weaken the coporate rivalry story and the mystery, as well as their associated revenge stories, in order to keep the emotional focus on Solander's romance and revenge stories, which lie at the heart of Larsson's novel.

Further weakening the Wennerstrom story is the fact that the devices Solander employs (computer hacking, the use of multiple disguises, etc.) in the resolution of this subplot do not seem plausible and, in my view, detract from the believability of the novel as a whole.

Despite my reservations about some of the shortcuts Larsson took, his use of genre cliches, and the pedestrian style, I am impressed with the quality of his structural thinking and with the character of Solander. Had I written the book, I would have toned down (way down) her superhero abilities; but even as she is written, I found her touching and admirable. It is her story – her unfulfilled yearning for healthy love and her determination to fight against sick love – that makes The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo so spellbinding and popular.