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Fear of the Airport Bestsellers
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
In the late 70s, film director Stanley Kubrick decided that his next movie following Barry Lyndon would be in the horror genre, and he had his assistants gather source material for him to examine for the project. A roomful of chunky horror novels was placed before the director, who began reading the stories in order to judge their suitability for filming. Assistants for the legendary director reported that they could hear Kubrick render his opinion about the novel's worth in a very distinct manner — after a few minutes of reading, Kubrick would throw the book in disgust against the wall, and the attendant "thump" would tell the assistants that another story was being eliminated from consideration.
Eventually, the assistants noticed a cessation in the thumps coming from the adjacent room, as Kubrick found a book that engaged his interest for longer than a few minutes — Stephen King's haunted-hotel novel The Shining. Kubrick's cold, detached artistic sensibility probably responded to the novel's setting, a spooky, fallen-to-seed grand hotel on the edge of the Rocky Mountains during a typically brutal winter. The resulting film, featuring extended Steadicam sequences, some creepy Diane Arbus twins, and the definitive "crazy Jack" Nicholson performance, is considered one of Kubrick's lesser endeavors, though many of the images from the film (Nicholson's "Heere's Johnny!" at the door, the elevator of blood, etc) have achieved iconic status.
Though I've never cared for Kubrick much (I liked Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove, nothing else), I think he might have been onto something as a literary critic. Modern horror novels are notoriously badly-written, overheated dreck that nonetheless manage to clog up the bestseller lists. Tossing them into a wall after two minutes of reading shows a highly attuned critical intelligence. Though the mega-selling Stephen King novel used was probably marginally better than the others, Kubrick was wise to jettison much of the story and instead focus on a pet Kubrick theme — namely, the timelessness and re-occuring power of evil.
I employed Kubrick's unique critical method recently when reading a current mega-selling author's latest work. I was housesitting for a friend and before I went to sleep I skulked around the home, looking for something to read. I found Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol in hardcover, and, being the last person in the Western World who hadn't read The DaVinci Code I decided to give the sequel a look and see what I'd been missing. After ten pages, I found out. Seconds later the book went sailing through the air and straight into the bedroom door. Thump.
It's one of the signs of getting older, when you simply can't waste your time reading hacks. Dan Brown is not the worst of the mega-selling modern writers — that title certainly belongs to Stephenie Meyer — but the success of his novels (nearly 100 million sold) is further proof that the "Bestsellers" list is almost entirely bereft of literary merit. Occasionally, a heavy-hitter will sell juggernaut-loads of book — Cormac McCarthy's The Road comes to mind — but in general the list is dominated by thriller hacks like James Patterson and Daniel Baldacci and dopey romance writers like Nicholas Sparks (who once claimed to be as good a writer as Shakespeare.) A good rule of thumb for book buyers is, if it shows up at the airport, avoid at all costs.
I've been avoiding Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for months, ever since I saw two passengers reading the book on a recent trip to LA. I'd heard about the novel for quite a while, and of the peculiar nature of its publishing history — the author died before the book went to print, and the book's subsequent success led to a protracted legal battle with the writer's heirs. (The story of Stieg Larsson is eerily similar to the fate of Jonathan Larson, the composer of Rent, who died before the show became a worldwide sensation.) Stieg Larsson had two other manuscripts complete at the time of his death, and those books, too, became international successes.
I decided to take a chance on the late Swedish writer, and it's a relief to report that sometimes a quality work can muscle its way on to the bestseller lists. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo obeys the rules of the detective genre and succeeds as an intricately plotted page-turner, but Larsson obviously had greater ambitions than that. The Swedish title of the book is Men Who Hate Women, which ought to give you a pretty good idea about Larsson's perspective. Each chapter of the novel begins with a dismaying fact about violence against women in Sweden, and the central crimes in the story are appalling misogynistic. Lisbeth Salander, the title character with the tattoo, has to endure horrific abuse at the hands of a man who has power over her, and when she exacts her revenge you start to realize that Larsson is moving into Andrew Vacchs territory — the book becomes a vengeance fantasy. It's more uncomfortable than satisfying to read: while you root for Lisbeth to turn the tables on the bastard, you can't help but reflect that in real life retribution for evil doers is rarely so complete.
Like all detective novels, though, the story is secondary to the characters, and in Dragon Tattoo Larsson has created two vibrant and memorable detectives — Lisbeth, the punk computer hacker, and Mikael Blomkvist, a 40ish journalist who has recently been convicted in a libel suit. How the two disparate characters learn each other and work together is the great achievement of Dragon Tattoo. It's an oddball relationship that becomes surprisingly affecting, and Larsson shows a great deal of insight in his examinations of these two very difficult people. An unusual thing happens in Dragon Tattoo — long after the case has been solved, Larsson spends nearly 100 pages tying up the loose ends of the characters he's created. It's the longest denouement I've ever read in a detective story, and it's wholly warranted. It's the old show biz maxim that writers like Stieg Larsson know intuitively and hacks like Meyer, Patterson, Brown, will never get: always leave them wanting more.