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Fit for the comics

Zac O? Yeah | Updated on January 23, 2018
Yawn! The strangely likeable misfit Lisbeth Salander has been turned into a total bore in this latest book.

Yawn! The strangely likeable misfit Lisbeth Salander has been turned into a total bore in this latest book.   -  Special Arrangement

The Girl in the Spider’s Web; David Lagercrantz (writing as Stieg Larsson); (Translated from Swedish by George Goulding) MacLehose Press; Fiction; ₹599

The Girl in the Spider’s Web; David Lagercrantz (writing as Stieg Larsson); (Translated from Swedish by George Goulding) MacLehose Press; Fiction; ₹599

The continuation of the Millennium Trilogy lampoons Stieg Larsson’s work by providing endless, blubbering pages devoid of action

The text on the cover promises that ‘the girl with the dragon tattoo is back’ and so out of curiosity I picked up a copy — only to find that the strangely likeable misfit Lisbeth Salander has been turned into a total bore.

My reasons for buying the novel were purely nostalgic: I wanted to reconnect with the interesting characters in Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millennium Trilogy’ — Mikael Blomkvist and his two love interests, Salander and Erika Berger. Reconnect we do. They’re all here, apparently doing the same things they did in the previous books.

But the scale of Larsson’s original books is conspicuously absent. He was a crime fiction lover keen on creating complex plots, whose threads ran in many directions, only to be tied up at the end in the most astonishing manner. Besides, there was an intense chemistry between Salander and Blomkvist throughout the three novels — The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. The pair often found themselves in jeopardy — with Salander even getting herself shot in the head and buried at one point, only to dig herself out from her grave. Even though Larsson died in 2004 — before the first title was published — the three books sold over 80 million copies and were made into several blockbuster movies.

The current author, David Lagercrantz, has cobbled together something that could pass off as a 15-page story in a comic magazine (Marvel comics are referred to as a model more than once in this new novel), but this hardly warrants our interest for 432 pages.

The few scenes that could have had us biting our nails, such as the assassination of a scientist in his villa on the outskirts of Stockholm, are so dull and hazily written that we barely hear the bullet exit the muzzle of the gun. Oh, maybe the killer used a silencer? That explains it. Subsequently Blomkvist and Salander, who have grown estranged, must team up once again — this time to fight a rogue computer crime mafia personified by a mysterious beauty queen, a deformed junkie-cum-hacker-cum-burglar, and a Russian ex-elite soldier-turned-mercenary who has trouble killing children. Not to forget the various American spies hovering in the background.

Unfortunately, too much of the story takes place in and around cyberspace and we’re treated to never-ending descriptions of computer security. Characters can spend page upon page sitting in front of a laptop. Then they have endless discussions about hacker attacks. Or advanced mathematics or artificial intelligence. Blunt, in-your-face dialogues are made to carry back-breaking info dumps. Flat cartoon figures shuffle about mechanically, like mindless robots. Whenever the story comes close to anything potentially dramatic, the author shies away from describing the action that thriller readers look for. At times the build-up to potential action leads to an irritating jump-cut to its aftermath, followed by lengthy explanations. The sharpness of Larsson’s no-nonsense prose is missing in this far-too-blubbering text.

Okay, so is there anything good about the book? Well, maybe. On page 235 there is a bit of stuff happening when Salander leaves her laptop for a trip out into the real world. Then around page 300 comes a twist — contrived, but fun in an Agatha Christie kind of way. The last 15 pages are entertainingly soap operatic, because the author finally seems to make up his mind that the book must end, so he quickly squeezes out whatever juice the story might have held. That’s about it.

To be fair, this isn’t the worst thriller I’ve ever read. But one expected more. This could have been an important book had it been written by someone of Larsson’s calibre — after all, cyber-surveillance has taken on a menacing nature these days when government agencies, especially in the US, spy on individuals and other governments around the planet.

At a modest estimate, The Girl in the Spider’s Web might sell, say, 20 million copies, which means that the author gets one of the fattest royalty cheques in publishing history. Considering that, he could have done a better job. Instead, he lampoons Larsson’s work.

Bottom line is — this is not a novel, it is a product manufactured to take advantage of Larsson’s global popularity, and a sad way to end the ‘Millennium Trilogy’. But it is likely to sell nevertheless: even before it was published, translation rights had been sold for some 45 languages. The current instalment is sufficiently open-ended to allow the ‘Millennium Trilogy’ to turn into an endless ghost-written soap opera disguised as a thriller series.

I suppose this kind of franchising in literature is inevitable when the publishing industry is in crisis and needs to cash in on whatever products and brands are available, but when a ‘thriller’ becomes as characterless as a burger meal, I start to have doubts.

Zac O’ Yeah is a Bengaluru-based author, travel writer, literary critic. His new novel Haria Hero for Hire was published this month

Published on October 30, 2015

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