Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Book Review Twofer! (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Everything Bad is Good For You)

So remember when I said I probably wouldn’t be finishing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Friday of last week, for various reasons? My foresight was reasonably accurate; I didn’t finish the book until some time on Saturday. Larsson definitely wrote a serious page-turner, and I can understand why it’s such an international phenomenon that some people in the U.S. are going to extraordinary lengths to get copies of the third book in the Millennium trilogy, which has been released in Europe but not yet in the States. I know I’ll certainly be picking up The Girl Who Played With Fire sooner than later.

Now I’m going to talk about the content of the book itself so, as usual, SPOILERS et cetera.

One thing that I found particularly interesting about the book was the way it plays with a lot of different ideas, some of which are hyper-timely and topical, dare I say zeitgeisty, while others are about as old and universal as literature itself.
On the of-its-moment side, we have the two main protagonists, Blomqvist and Salander. Blomqvist is an investigative journalist who focuses on commerce and industry, and ends up railing against the fact that the media are really slack about holding the ultra-wealthy robber barons of the 21st century accountable for anything. Blomqvist, for his part, goes after a corrupt mogul, gets in over his head, gets convicted of libel, and yet goes after the corrupt mogul again later, with bigger guns, and triumphantly draws blood and achieves a kind of moral (and financial) victory. I know “fat cats = bad” is hardly specific to the chapter of history we’re all living in, but it is a defining characteristic of the era and Larsson handles it in a way that feels both fresh and familiar and ultimately real. Salander, Blomqvist’s partner-by-circumstance, is an intriguingly weird girl, with lots of quirks ranging from poor social skills to an eidetic memory, and towards the end of the book it’s revealed in a fairly offhanded way that she falls somewhere along the autism spectrum and most likely has Asperger’s, and at that moment I felt like her character finally clicked into something recognizable and understandable (not to mention something that seems to keep popping up everywhere from the tabloids to sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory and dramas like Parenthood to car magnet ribbons to Facebook groups …).

Point is, if I had sat out the Stieg Larsson phenomenon, but then in the year 2050 someone had said to me, “Here, read this book, it’s about corporate malfeasance and Asperger’s!” I would have immediately pegged it as a book from and about the 00’s, as quickly as the 70’s would be evoked by someone handing me a book about “disco and Vietnam vets with PTSD”. Not that that’s an inherently good or bad thing (sometimes I think “timelessness” is a touch overrated).

But like I said, the book blends a lot of ideas, including good old Sex and Death; it is, after all, a story about the investigation into a teenage girl’s disappearance which leads to the trail of a depraved serial killer. (Truth be told, one of the things that kind of annoyed me about the copy on the book jacket was a blurb about how the book was like “Ingmar Bergman does Silence of the Lambs” because the serial killings are revealed after great build-up as kind of a mid-story twist, but Silence of the Lambs puts serial killing front and center so, y’know, spoilers? At least I warn about mine up front.) Fortunately, Sex and Death are not the sole province of said serial killer. The whole investigation begins under the pall of mortality, as Blomqvist is hired by the missing girl’s aging and infirm grandfather. And during the course of the novel, Salander’s mother dies of natural causes. Death is always all around us, sometimes cruelly and unfairly coming too soon, too violently, but waiting ultimately for everyone. Sex is always going on all around us, too, if Larsson is depicting something close to the real world – or, at least, the real Sweden. I consider myself a fairly open-minded, laid-back red-blooded American dude but it’s always a bit of a bracing shock (followed by laughing bemusedly at myself) when I encounter non-American libertine attitudes towards sex. Blomqvist is introduced as a divorcee who has a long-standing way-beyond-booty-call arrangement with a married female friend, and in the course of the novel he sleeps with a few other women as well – and not in serially monogamous couplings, either, but very casually drifting back and forth from one bed to another as circumstances allow. All of which is presented totally non-judgmentally; everyone is a consenting adult, and sometimes feelings get hurt but there’s never any “and then the woman who seduced Blomqvist got killed by the serial killer, and she totally deserved it for being a slut!” punishment meted out.

Which is not to say that the book puts forth rural northern Sweden as a hedonist’s orgiastic paradise. There’s bad sex aplenty, mostly of the non-consensual variety, some of it in the mix for plot-driven reasons and others for let’s-go-ahead-and-generously-call-it-verisimilitude. But the point is that overall the attitude towards sex is even-handed. Sex is natural and commonplace – but bad people can twist it to bad ends. Just like death.

A few weeks ago I read a non-fiction book, a bit of pop-sociology called Everything Bad Is Good For You, and I never got around to talking about it here, but I’m not about to pass up the excellent chance I have to work it in now. The premise of the book is basically a scientific refutation to the theory (perhaps best expressed in Mike Judge’s Idiocracy) that humanity is just getting stupider all the time. Cultural scolds will cluck to anyone that will listen that entertainment keeps racing to the bottom, pandering to the worst elements, and as a result western civilization is being dragged down into the amoral muck, a process which will only end when the last fat, stupid couch potatoes die off due to be unable to provide for their own basic needs. Steven Johnson, the author of Everything Bad, argues (pretty convincingly, I thought) that it’s only some entertainment that is getting more and more vapid. Meanwhile, other forms of entertainment are actually getting more complex, and in order to enjoy complex entertainment people have to make mental efforts which actually make them smarter.

And it’s all well and good to reference neurology studies showing that people who play modern video games do have faster reaction times, or psychology experiments concluding that people who follow long-form television serials like The Sopranos or 24 are better able to keep track of extensive social networks and navigate human topography. I absolutely buy into all of that. But interestingly (or unsurprisingly, considering Johnson regards himself as an empiricist of sorts) the author completely sidesteps the issue of content and morality. Yes, video games require split-second decision making. Yes, you have to have watched and digested dozens of episodes’ worth of content to make sense of Season 3 of The Sopranos. But what about the fact that in all those previous episodes, there’s multiple cold-blooded murders? What else changes inside a person besides reaction times when the split-second decision they make in a video game is whether or not to visit and/or rob a hooker? Johnson doesn’t even come close to opening those cans of worms. His thesis seems to be that if interfacing with the medium has any measurable beneficial neurological effects whatsoever, then intangible things like “appropriateness” are besides the point.

Just in case you were worried I was taking this all a bit too seriously ...
My own take on the whole sex-and-violence-as-entertainment thing is not exactly a perfectly polished gem, but I can at least say a few things about it rather than looking the other way and whistling innocently. First, I do think that adults are entitled to pretty much any entertainment they desire, whether it involves Spelling-esque jiggling or Tarantinoan violence. Adults are capable of holding things at a safe distance and enjoying spectacle, reveling in explosions or bloodletting or titillation even if they have no desire to actually experience those things firsthand. I’m pretty solidly anti-censorship at the macro-societal level because I don’t think violent or sexy entertainment ruins society as a whole. Of course there will always be some people missing those safe-distance circuits in their brain and who do want to experience the blood and guts firsthand, but I tend to believe that even if we sanitized every inch of pop culture out there, the freaks would just find their inspiration elsewhere, in clouds that look like eviscerated bowels or dogs that bark in killing chants or whathaveyou. Given a choice of living in a world with or without provocative art that some people will learn good useful things from and other people will claim as inspiration to do evil, I’ll take the one with the art every damn time.

But I know that’s thoroughly oversimplified and doesn’t even touch on things like outright exploitation inherent in pornography, or the fact that one of the fundamental ways we differentiate children from adults is that children still lack the safe-distance ability to critically evaluate images and messages. I don’t believe in sheltering children, for what it’s worth, because I fail to see how that does anyone any favors. When some people say, “If you think your kids shouldn’t watch it, don’t let your kids watch it!” and other people say “But it’s everywhere, so it’s impossible to keep my kids from watching it, therefore I wish it just didn’t exist!” I kind of roll my eyes, because yeah, it is impossible to stop kids from consuming a certain amount of sex and violence in entertainment, but is it also impossible to be the first and strongest Voice Of Reason your kids know and love? I certainly hope not, because that’s what I’m banking on. I refuse to let sex and violence in entertainment operate on my little guy’s developing world view and personal philosophies IN A VACUUM. (Awesome! Now all I have to do is hold onto that’s elf-righteous surety for another sixteen and a half years.) It may not always be easy or pleasant or something I feel like I have a ton of time for, but sweet holy Jormungandr, could anything be more important than providing the life I brought into this world with a modicum of moral context? I swear, I feel like people who say “I wish that tv and video games and movies and rock and roll weren’t so overflowing with bad attitudes towards sex and violence! Won’t someone think of the children?” should be obliged to add on, out loud, “Think of the children, who are being raised by tv and video games and movies and rock and roll! That’s where they’re getting 100% of their character. They’re certainly not getting any from me! I don’t have time for that!”

Anyway, not only does “I don’t want to talk to my kids about sex and death (which is really inseparable from violence), therefore entertainment vehicles shouldn’t talk to my kids about it in my absence” pretty well miss the point about the responsibilities of parenting, it also pretty well misses the point about pop culture as well. Pop culture is supposed to speak to all of us, and illuminate the human condition, and strike universal chords. (Even if it does those things tritely or ironically or any other less-than-transcendent way.) Do you know what the biggest, most human, most universal concepts are? Sex and death. Everyone comes from sex and is headed for death. Everyone carries both around with them all the time. Everybody has a sexuality, everybody has a sense of mortality. Is there more to life than trying to get laid and trying to avoid getting killed? Yes, of course, no question there is so much more to it than that, but that’s where we start getting into infinite variations in infinite combinations with differing amounts of relatability for different people. Sex and death should be the things everyone can grasp, and it’s crucial that everyone get a handle on them, and they are very much worth taking the time to think about and talk about, and yet, somehow, the two universal elements of being alive are two of the most taboo subjects in our culture. People with upstanding senses of propriety Do Not Talk About Such Things. And when pop culture does talk about these things, we (some of us) get collectively outraged.

Granted, pop culture does not talk about these things very reverently. But that’s not pop culture’s job! Reverence is important but it’s (gasp!) kinda boring. Irreverence is entertaining. Pop culture is always going to aim for column B there. Which would not be a problem at all if there were some kind of balanced back and forth going on. Parents and extended families/communities can and should provide a counterweight against the excesses of pop culture, and take the onus of shaping the moral backbone of the next generation off of action-adventure directors, comic book writers, heavy metal lyricists, and FPS developers.

Wow, this really went off the rails Crazy Train style. I think I was trying to say something about how Stieg Larsson’s willingness and aptitude for naturalistically presenting both Ideas Ripped From the Headlines and also Great Big Universal Human Concepts without sensationalizing them really resonated with me and won my admiration. Let’s close on that note, at any rate.

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