As I was reading Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (or Män som hatar kvinnor, Men Who Hate Women, a much preferable title which I shall use forthwith), I kept thinking about my previous read, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. What was it about Ishiguro's novel which singled it out as an automatic qualifier for the "Worst Read of 2010" post I will be writing early next year? What made it particularly awful? Only a handful of books make it to my all-time God-Awful Reads list.
Jonathan Myerson's Noise is one: wildly inconsistent pacing, one plot dropped in favour for another as Myerson seemingly got bored with his original idea (or found himself incapable of writing the novel he set out to do) and a constant sneering, smug sense of contempt running throughout the book (the only consistent thing about it). Julian Barnes' England, England is another. Barnes had two great ideas (England as a theme-park and a Baudrillardian take on said theme-park) but could not get them to work in the context of a novel. A cautionary tale that sometimes you need to write an essay rather than try to work your ideas out in fiction. And then dear Ian McEwan with his Booker-winning Amsterdam, a book so contrived, self-indulgent and ill-executed that it has coloured my reading of everything else McEwan has written.
I think what bothers me about Never Let Me Go was the pointlessness of it. I cannot even pretend to loathe it as there is nothing there to loathe. I cannot point to any smug, self-inflated sense of importance (Myerson's Noise), any over-ambitious intellectualism running rampant (Barnes' England, England), nor any toe-curlingly bad writing and plotting (McEwan's Amsterdam). Ishiguro's book is just .. there. It doesn't challenge, doesn't engage, doesn't take a stand and doesn't make you think. I'm bothered by this (which could be argued is an achievement, of course).
By contrast I finished reading Larsson's novel this morning having raced through it over the course of the weekend. Män som hatar kvinnor is not my cup of tea. I am a squeamish reader who does not enjoy reading page after page filled with gory details or graphic sexual encounters. I also had real issues with the main characters (the main investigator, Mikael Blomkvist, was an author surrogate; Lisbeth Salander, Blomkvist's hacker sidekick, was a pile of clichés, or, as Joan Smith points out in her excellent review, 'a revenge fantasy come to life.'). Having said that, the book made me care. I cared about finding old photographs and piecing together what happened one afternoon in 1966. The plot was convincing (if too gory for me) and unpredictable. Larsson's real strength, to me, was his description of milieus: both the remote Hedestad community and the smart and educated Stockholm media intelligentsia were drawn with a strong, decisive hand. I do not think I shall be seeking out the two other books in Larsson's trilogy - I'm too squeamish and not much of a crime-writing connoisseur - but if you like your crime novels smart, well-written and compelling, I'd recommend Män som hatar kvinnor in a heartbeat.
Next: I need to read a book written by a women, I think. Mantel & Wolf Hall, here I come.