As I was (finally) starting to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I had been warned gets off to a notoriously slow start, I was pondering whether I would have agreed to represent it if I had read it as a manuscript.
And, you know, if I were actually still an agent. Which I’m not. (Please, no more query letters!!).
And… honestly? I don’t know that I would have sent it out in its present form. That first chapter (note: the actual 1st chapter, not the prologue) is one of the slowest chapters I can recall reading in a book that’s extremely popular. It’s almost as if The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo became such a success precisely because everyone has at least a few friends urging them on with “No, I swear it gets better!!”
It does get better. And that banal, antiseptic chapter ends up serving useful purposes. But wow. Had this book not traveled its own unique path, for better or worse I can’t imagine it being published first in the United States with that chapter intact.
It’s About the Characters
Now, I’m writing this having read only about fifty pages, which I think may actually be a benefit for the purposes of writing this post. I don’t know what’s to come in the plot and I have only had the briefest of introductions to the characters.
But already I feel like I have a sense of what would have kept me reading as an agent had I made it past that first chapter.
And it’s simple: These are extremely interesting characters.
But it’s complicated: The reason these are interesting characters is difficult to pull off.
What makes these characters interesting is that they are seeming contradictions. Lisbeth has all the outward appearances of a surly, irresponsible youth, and yet she’s wildly competent at her job. Armansky is simultaneously attracted to, vaguely repulsed by, and paternal toward Lisbeth. Blomkvist is buttoned up and seemingly honest, and yet he lives a cavalier private life and he seems to have been improbably set up in a conspiracy.
(Again, I’ve only read 50 pages, none of this may turn out to be true. What’s important here are first impressions)
And why that’s difficult to pull off is that it’s rarely believable when characters behave in ways that appear inconsistent, especially when we don’t know them very well. When someone we know to be buttoned up is taken in for a scam, we’ll say, “Wait, that doesn’t seem right, I thought that guy was too cautious for that.” When someone who seems irresponsible and surly turns out to be wildly intelligent and competent, it feels like the author is trying to force something that can’t be real.
But I haven’t felt that way so far. These characters are immediately compelling because of the contradictions, not despite them.
And, circling back to the beginning of this blog post, I actually think this is a case where the cold, detached, clinical prose, the same prose that nearly bored me to tears in Chapter 1, works to Larsson’s benefit.
Precision has an oddly reassuring effect on the reader because it completely hides the hand of the author. There aren’t literary flourishes in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, there aren’t artful similes, there aren’t moments that remind you that there was an actual author who chose the words you’re reading. It’s just facts, rendered straightforwardly. (At least, it should be noted, as it’s translated)
So ultimately: It’s believable. The prose doesn’t leave room for questioning because it’s so authoritative and airtight. It’s not the only way to make contradictory characters believable, but Larsson uses it for all it’s worth.
Not only that, but when you can pull off making contradictions believable the reader is prompted to ask questions that pull them through the book – Why is Lisbeth so focused and driven? Why was Blomkvist blinded?
We want to know which of the contradictory qualities we’ve seen in the characters will win out, we want to know how the characters ended up that way, and it makes for an incredibly engaging reading experience.
That’s where I’m at now, at least. I have to say there may be some genius in that tortuous First Chapter and the banality of the prose and descriptions. I believe what this author tells me, and these characters are more interesting because of it.