Friday, September 30, 2011

Rooting for sociopaths, Part I: Lisbeth Salander

I love the dark character.  Quite by accident I’ve been captivated as a reader and viewer of fictional characters in books and tv shows that are rather dark, disturbed, and deadly.  Their stories are compelling. But it always begs the question: how and when did I get so comfortable rooting for sociopaths?  

It started with Lisbeth Salander, the computer hacking bi-sexual girl with the dragon tattoo.  Her story spans a trilogy of books by the now deceased Swedish author Stieg Larsson.  
  1. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
  2. The Girl Who Played With Fire
  3. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest
I struggled at times as a reader with Lisbeth Salander's choices, her sense of right and wrong, the way she treated people (her friends especially), her wide scope in the bedroom, and more.  But if given the choice in real life, I would want Lisbeth Salander as a friend.  And that's why I root for her.

Noomi Repace as Lisbeth Salander
in the Swedish films.
Summary: Salander is a victim; she was abused as a child, tortured in a mental ward all because her father was a Russian spy who worked in concert with a super secret organization in the Swedish government.  Fed up with the abuse of her mother at the hands of her father, and with no help from the authorities, she hurled a can of gas and a lit match at her father while he sat in a car.  He erupted in flames before her eyes, but survived.  It was then that she was institutionalized in a mental ward and placed under the very careful supervision of a corrupt psychiatrist.  She was to be a permanent ward of the state, and carefully handled as an adult.  She is assumed incompetent and stupid, unable to handle her own life.  But she's intelligent, and not just a little bit.

Book 1: TGWTDT 'Tattoo' is a great read... Lisbeth Salander befriends disgraced magazine editor Mikael Bloomqvist.  He's guilty of slandering a powerful businessman in his magazine, Millennium, and must serve an eventual three month prison term.

Without his knowledge, Salander hacks into his computer and conducts extensive background checks and research into his life, including the case against him. Eventually, she broadens her research to include the powerful businessman who had him tried in court.  From her research, she knew Bloomqvist was innocent, and his story right on the mark.

Come spring, Bloomqvist is going to prison.  With nothing but time on his hands and a busted reputation hanging over his head, another rich businessman approaches Bloomqvist to solve a 40 year old mystery: the murder of his favorite niece, Harriet. Although reluctant at first Bloomqvist agrees to the job, which will take him out of Stockholm and away from his current troubles for the time being.  Soon he is engrossed by the case and the sheer scope of personal research conducted by Harold Vanger, his employer.

The story is quite enjoyable from this point forward.  The Vanger Corporation has operated for over a 100 years.  The family is rich, as is the history they share living together on a secluded island.  The Vanger's past is colorful, controversial, and dark.

Harold Vanger hired Milton Security to dig around in Bloomqvist's past, and they put their best analyst on the job: Salander.   Her reasons for prying into Bloomqvist's life were professional, but she didn't anticipate falling for him too, which for her was highly unexpected (especially for her character and what we eventually find out about her).

No spoilers here: Salander and Bloomqvist solve the mystery; Bloomqvist uses the bonus research Salander gave him and writes a more thorough exposé and brings the powerful businessman to ruin; the story breaks while Bloomqvist is in prison; Bloomqvist and Salander are lovers now but their relationship is complicated because Bloomqvist is loyal but casual, whereas Salander is taking a huge chance by embracing vulnerability for the first time in her adult life (simply, they struggle with their relationship a lot).

Book 2: TGWPWF 'Fire' hits the ground running, and with it, Salander running from everything, including Bloomqvist.  Emotionally, she's hurting.  However, she's wealthy now (no spoilers), and living under an assumed identity to cover her tracks.  Bloomqvist is torn by her sudden disappearance but also understands that that is Salander's way.

There's a point early in 'Fire' where I'm questioning my choice to root for Lisbeth Salander.  She does something truly disturbing, and then follows that up with an even more disturbing action (no spoilers).   I had to put the book down and think long and hard about my feelings as a reader for her.  It was a short walk through tall gray grass.  In the end, though, I found her story compelling enough still to go with it for a while and see what happened.   I'm glad for that.

But that's not the story of TGWPWF.  'Fire' had unbelievable pace.  Salander is soon the prime suspect in a murder investigation and on the run as a wanted killer.  That whole arc, most of the book, really, drives the story like dogs off the leash chasing a cougar all over Sweden.  Bloomqvist, who is back on top at his magazine, Millennium, believes his friend was framed.  The Police are on her heels, but she's smart enough to elude them.  Pieces fall into place that reveal what the series of books is really all about: Lisbeth Salander.

Book 3: TGWKTHN 'Nest' wraps-up Salander's story and squares most everything away for her.  One thing I don't like about last books in a series is that I know the author is tying everything together, so that we can see what the story was all about.  But to Larsson's credit, he folds new layers and arcs into the narrative.  He holds the reader's interest while nearing the end with each rapid turn of the page.

Back to business, though.  You can go down a list and check off the loose ends.  What surprised me about 'Nest' was Bloomqvist's sister and what a capable litigator she turns out to be, one who wasn't taken seriously by the major players of the prosecution.  As the trial goes on, Bloomqvist and his team at Millenium dedicate a whole issue to the story of Lisbeth Salander.  Bloomqvist is not a fan of the government's handling of his friend, but he works with them and other officials at the highest level to flush out the rogue police agency and make things right for Lisbeth Salander.

Long story short: girl's dad is a spy, corrupt officials make girl's life a living hell, girl grows up and gets her life back.  Between all that is a really good story.  But it's a dark journey for Lisbeth Salander and the reader.

Next up ... Part II: Dexter Morgan.