Tuesday, May 24, 2011

As discussed.

This review of The Millennium Trilogy, by a writer of lit-fic, Tim Parks (Vaguely familiar. Canadian?),  is predictably snooty about Larsson's clumsy prose. (The apposite comparison, after all, is with Dumas, not Nabokov.) But then, against all odds, it goes on to get almost all the major points right, chapter and verse as to why the books are wonderful  anyway. Parks is especially good on the importance of the lifestyle details some critics have dismissed as indulgent:

Not all is lurid. Food is important. Shopping. Furniture. Domesticity. Larsson invites us to identify with his heroes by filling in the ordinary moments of their lives, the humdrum aloneness that makes colorful sexual encounters so desirable. A cookbook could be compiled from Blomkvist’s efforts in the kitchen in the first novel of the trilogy. Salander prefers to get herself pizza and Coke. Both of them are used to eating alone in front of a computer screen. As independent spirits, they prefer Apple to Microsoft. Both pay more attention to technical stats than nutritional value. Replacing her computer after an accident, Salander
set her sights on the best available alternative: the new Apple PowerBook G4/1.0 GHz in an aluminium case with a PowerPC 7451 processor with an AltiVec Velocity Engine, 960 MB Ram and a 60 GB hard drive. It had BlueTooth and built-in CD and DVD burners.
One is reminded of the frequently cited technical specs of guns in Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam? [The citation of Mailer, rather than Tom Clancy or Stephen Hunter, is proof positive that Parks thinks he's slumming. - DC] The computer is Salander’s weapon. Unlike firearms, however, this is a weapon every ordinary reader handles every day:
Best of all, it had the first 17-inch screen in the laptop world with NVIDIA graphics and a resolution of 1440 x 900 pixels, which shook the PC advocates and outranked everything else on the market.
It is through the computer screen that the free individual can hack into the evil world of the great corporation with its corrupt practices and pedophile porn rings and begin the duty or the fantasy of striking back. Not quite Alice in Through the Looking-Glass but not unrelated; when Salander goes online she is transformed, omnipotent.

Many novels have captured the global imagination by presenting modern man as in thrall to a vast international conspiracy; one thinks of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum or Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The hidden organization that conditions and controls us is the antithesis of individualism and its natural enemy, an evil extension of the potentially perilous family that wields such power over us from birth, or the traditional marriage that restricts our sexual encounters, or the incompetent if not nakedly evil state that tangles us in a web of bureaucracy and is always complicit with organized crime. From all these things, Salander shows us how to be free, with inspired use of our laptops.

It is the ingenuousness and sincerity of Larsson’s engagement with good and evil that give the trilogy its power to attract so many millions of people.
Elsewhere in the same issue, Alison Lurie outlines the art-fiction consensus that a writer like Parks has to buck to say anything nice at all about a writer like Larsson:
In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) Miss Prism says of her three-volume novel, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” When Miss Prism composed this work—presumably at least twenty-eight years earlier, before she unfortunately left it in a perambulator, and the baby in a handbag at Victoria Station—this rule prevailed. Readers of Dickens, Trollope, and their contemporaries, after suffering through many misfortunes and hardships with heroes and heroines, could usually expect a happy ending.

As time passed, Miss Prism’s Rule began to be challenged. Today only genre fiction usually ends happily, though often after generous helpings of death and violence, or a great deal of jealousy, despair, and damage to female clothing (hence the colloquial term “bodice-ripper”). Best sellers typically have an upbeat conclusion that nevertheless leaves the hero and heroine somewhat tired and regretful as a result of the terrible events they have lived through. As in the Victorian novel, it is often the case that the happier the principal characters are at the beginning, the worse are the things that will occur to them later, though they may be partially rewarded at the end. Even if they do not survive they may be portrayed as looking down benevolently from heaven at the material and emotional contentment of the other good people in the book.

Literary fiction, however, now tends to conform to Tom Stoppard’s addition to Miss Prism’s Rule, first stated in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966): “The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.” The scale of the tragedy, of course, varies widely. When we begin a story by a known and admired writer in a known and admired journal, we do not always expect a major disaster, but we know that something unpleasant is going to happen to the main characters, and/or that they will end up understanding something unpleasant about themselves, their friends or family, or the world in general. (Years ago, a Harvard student called Speed Lamkin described the latter tales to me as “stupid little realization stories.”*)
Later, on the other side of the NYRB firewall, and after trudging through an entire volume of Julian Barnes stories that all end grimly, she adds:
It is disheartening to think that today the choices for a gifted writer are often unconsciously limited to satire and tragedy. Not all stories end unhappily or unluckily, and to assume that they must do so it to take as false a view of life and fiction as Miss Prism's.
A tiny hint that the consensus might be shifting; that even lit-fic purists are finally getting fed up.


Tulkinghorn said...

There's a Tim Winton who's an Australian novelist... I've read "Cloudstreet", which is pretty good if you like that sort of thing.

Tim Parks is an English novelist and translator (from the Italian) who got a Booker nomination a while back. He can be forgiven not knowing about Clancy or Hunter since he lives in Milan and spends most of his time translating Italo Calvino and Roberto Calasso.... If his knowledge of American neo-pulp fiction is equal to mine of the Italian variety, he doesn't know much.

Tulkinghorn said...

And Lurie, of course, although she has sterling credentials, including a Pulitzer and tenure at Cornell, is indulging in a bit of special pleading here, since her work is in the non-hip academic comedy of manners branch of litfic, and thus deeply unfashionable..... It's the kind of stuff that Julian Barnes used to write, oddly enough