Today’s sentence I wish I written, from the end of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium 2: The Girl Who Played with Fire: “Kalle Fucking Blomkvist.”
So, finished up Larsson’s Book 2 last night in a marathon session of insomnia/mental palette cleansing. I stand before you now refreshed, almost fully recovered from The Black Dahlia, and biting at the chomp for The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. I’m tremendously excited to see how Stieg (RIP) wraps everything up. Because here’s the thing: While reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I didn’t understand that the Millennium trilogy was an epic. The first book goes into financial and governmental corruption in Sweden, sure, but the central mystery is a closed-drawing room affair that Blomkvist and Salander wrap up before also tidying Blomkvist’s work problems and riding off into the sunset having bested the baddies and stolen their money, thugged out Robin Hood style. Super-duper fun, can’t wait for the next feminist James Bond installment, but I assumed Blomvist and Salander’s adventures were a series and not a serial.
Oh, Boy Howdy, was I wrong.
Larsson didn’t just create the pre-eminent detective duo for the 21st century. He erected a gorgeous, web-like indictment of institutional misogyny, and then handed his heroine a literal can of gasoline and literal box of matches to burn the entire structure down.
Stieg Larsson, I salute you. If I start drinking regularly again, I’m-a pour one out for you, okay? You have officially made my list of the coolest people who died too young from natural causes, along with Carl Sagan, Bill Hicks, and Madeline Kahn.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a great read, make no mistake. But The Girl Who Played with Fire is when shit gets real for real.
And this seems to be a common convention in the epic trilogy. The literary trilogy can vary in content, theme, and quality, but there are several universals that crop up in the finest three-act stories.
A. Book One – Our hero, or heroes, create their team, the unit we’ll be following for the next God knows how many pages. Hints of the conflict’s origins, but no concrete explanations.
B. Book Three – Everything explained! Epic dance off between good and evil! Everyone nuts up and takes off their fingernails. And…scene.
C. Book Two – Well, goddamn, it’s darkest before the dawn.
Now, understand that I applying these rules to a trilogy of books with ONE OVERARCHING STORY. Three books with the same characters and locations but unconnected narratives do not count. And when JK Rowling and Stephen King get all crazy and stretch it out to seven books, the rules change again.
But for now, let’s talk about the night bridge that is the royal BOOK TWO.
Exhibit A: The Girl Who Played with Fire.
Exhibit B: The Subtle Knife, from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.
Exhibit C: The Two Towers, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
Books 2 of epics often get a bum rap. It’s true that they offer little in the way of closure. After the initial victory of Books 1 (the establishment of either our hero’s quest, their newfound alliance with a partner or team, or both), Books 2 are often a burning stretch of hurt for the noble questers we’ve been taught to love and onto whom we project ourselves before the sturm und drang badassery of Books 3. But, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the Books that separate the Beginning and the End of a story, because they’re the volumes in which all characters alter the most. They’re the game changers. They’re the Coliseums in which Darkness reigns and Loss cheers. They’re the brutal tests that make our hero(es)’s eventual victories matter, and the tortures that cement our heroes inability to return to the lives they had before becoming heroes. They’re the rites of passage.
They’re when everyone grows the hell up.
If you’ve yet to pick up Millennium, His Dark Materials, or Lord of the Rings, I’m not here to condemn you, or exclude you from my ramblings. I also don’t want to ruin plot points for you, so venture carefully after this point. Here there be spoilers. And deeply nerdy love.
Before I get to why Books 2 are my favorites in a trilogy, and the episodes I think are the hardest to write or enjoy, I want to talk about three protagonists:
Lisbeth Salander. Lyra Belaqua. Frodo Baggins. Our heroes. Our hearts. And, as we follow along, Bastion Balthazar Bux-style, Our selves.
They each face dilemmas with similar stakes, although Lisbeth reigns in a quasi-recognizable present reality, and Frodo and Lyra chill in Middle Earth or the Multiverse. Lisbeth has to confront her past, rise above, and turn from victim to The Woman Who Hates Men Who Hate Women, and give institutional misogyny a beat-down it will not soon forget. Frodo has to carry The One Ring, the embodiment of Greed and Want, make his way into the Black Lands, and destroy the Ring before it destroys him, freeing all the world from evil. Lyra? Well, shit. She has to become the second embodiment of Eve, liberate the prison camp that we call Death, and Bring. Down. God. For reals.
Once again, to all proponents of the notion that we have run out of stories to tell: Shut the fuck up.
But of course, on the way to these goals our heroes must suffer tremendously. And the middle volume is when we, the readers, walk into stories we know are laced with defeat.
Just look at the nouns in the titles and what they imply. Fire. Towers. Knife. Chaos and pain. Indomitable foes. Danger and blood. In the immortal words of Michael Stipe: “Everybody hurts.”
The best example, and my favorite convention, of the volumes in which our heroes are brought low, is the Rise of the True Friend.
Three more names: Mikael Blomkvist. Will Parry. Samwise Gamgee.
These are the creatures who understand, in a way elusive to all other characters surrounding our heroes and their quests, exactly how much our heroes must sacrifice, and how worthy they are of love. They are the Loyal Few. The one spark of faith in otherwise unforgiving universes of fire, knives, and towers.
Blomkvist defends Salander in the wake of indisputable evidence that she’s responsible for the murder of two of his friends, and once again takes up the mantle of Private Detective, searching for the truth despite opposition from the police, his lover, and Salander herself. All with only one conviction: “My friend would never do that.”
Will Parry, a child just like Lyra, stands on the brink of war between Heaven and Earth. He has two angelic guardians willing to take him to safety in the wake of Lyra’s kidnapping. His response: he goes no where until they find Lyra. A boy who can cow angels with the conviction, “My friend would do the same for me.”
And Samwise Gamgee, who brings tears to my eyes. The last line of The Two Towers, to which The Subtle Knife owes a debt, reads, “Frodo was alive but taken by the enemy.” And sweet Sam, more pure of heart than Mikael or even Will, carries the Ring himself and sets off for Hell, his only thought being, “My friend.”
More important even than their loyalty, is the fact that the True Friends invariably also become the guardians of the Hero’s resurrection. Working backwards, Frodo is poisoned and then succumbs to the Ring. Samwise brings him back from the brink of becoming a second Gollum. Lyra is kidnapped and drugged. Will fetches her out and facilitates her fall from innocence (and vice versa), so their mutual sexual awakening can upend the way of things and establish The Republic of Heaven (saddest. ending. ever.)
And so now, at the end of Larsson’s second installment, Lisbeth is at the brink of death, having cut ties with anyone resembling a friend only to have Mikael show up at the eleventh hour to save her, unthanked and unwanted.
“Kalle Fucking Blomkvist.”
So, here’s what Book 3 promises to be.
Over the course of two volumes we’ve gotten to know Lisbeth: brilliant, damaged, not quite right in the head, but oh wow do we love her. Book One she establishes her innate awesomeness. Book Two she has perfected the sterile, protected world she always wanted, only to see all of it crash to the ground. She is forced to do the one thing she never wanted to do: engage in the outside world and seek revenge. She ends the book pretty much accepting that she’s going to die while righting all the wrongs of her past, and happy that it’s over. And if Mikael didn’t show up in the end, she would.
So Book 3 means Lisbeth, like any great hero, gets to be reborn, emerging the same though changed (PATAPHYSICS! Wiki it!)
That means that since Mikael has excised any need for her to be forgiven, having utterly accepted her for who she is, she can emerge more powerful, unashamed and righteous, and make every chauvinist sadist in Sweden pay.
It’s gonna be a Boondock Saints fire fight. For explanation, see the following clip, excusing the operatic violence and remembering only the operatic Willem Dafoe. In fact, feel free to stop the clip after his quote.
The next title is The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Note also The Amber Spyglass and The Return of the King. Books 3 are always about looking the war in the eye and not blinking. Books 3 are when the heroes live up to their title. It’s also when they lose everything besides that title.
Long story short, I think Hornet’s Nest is going to be the death of Lisbeth Salander and the birth of someone else. Larsson had started a second trilogy before he died in 2004. I wonder if his girls were about to turn into women, and what they would have done.
I may have to buy the import paperback before the US edition comes out in May.
Read Full Post »