There was not – if I’m being honest – much thought behind my decision to suddenly drop
everything nothing and finally read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Not that I insist on putting too much thought into one’s choice of reading material. In fact, I would call myself a proponent of the spin-around-in-bookshop-and-point strategy of literary selection. But I had in fact made myself a post-dissertation reading list full of gems that I have been meaning to enjoy for years. (PS – I finished my dissertation. I’m a doctor. A book doctor.) On the list were many names (Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Zadie Smith, Somerset Maugham, Marlon James) but Stieg Larsson, certainly not. This absence was based on nothing other than the fact that, since I’d been living without him for this long, I could go on doing so. In fact, this is the only sound reason for not reading anything ever.
Because I began grad school when these three novels came out (and because, I’m just going to admit it, I don’t tend to read popular books) I missed them entirely. I did hear vaguely about the controversy involving Larsson’s partner, who was denied inheritance after his death. But mostly because this was the kind of thing that we people who lived together without getting married and took ourselves very seriously discussed in disgusted tones. Just another example of matrimony qua bourgeois conspiracy.
So besides the knowledge that the series revolved around one (or several) tattooed, pyromanaical female protagonist(s) who displayed violence toward the vesidae family of insects, I had no reason to pick them up off the thrift store shelf for two bucks a pop. I did not even read the back covers. And if I had any thoughts at all, which I doubt, they might have been the following: 1) These books clearly represent some kind of sweeping cultural phenomenon/franchise that I have missed entirely. 2) I mean, what else has ever come out of Sweden? Let’s see…Linnaeus’s taxonomy and…Pippi Longstocking…I like both of those things, so… 3) Judging by the bright covers and the comments plastered all over them, I’m pretty much guaranteed a good time here.
In the end, I was looking for entertainment. And Larsson definitely delivers. I have been sitting on my patio for the last week, completely unaware of the world around me, following the exploits of a phenomenally strange young woman and her journalist buddy as they dodge bullies, elude police officers, steal from the rich, publish the stories of the poor, and generally fight the good fight.
But more than mere escape, I have also been relearning a valuable skill that has been beaten out of me like a bad habit in the last few years – how to take pleasure in reading. How to get lost in a book. How to feel for and with a character.
I say “skill” because I think it actually is. It may seem like total absorption in compelling prose could be considered a skill the way falling off a chair could be considered a skill. But it takes more than that to enjoy reading. There is a reason that the vast majority of the population rarely spends any significant time with books. It takes quiet concentration, which is a difficult thing to generate. It takes time and attention – actually, it takes a combination of those two things functioning simultaneously. It takes practice. (And also, by the way, it is kind of hard to spontaneously fall off a chair. Really hard. If you’re already sitting in it, and it’s not too high, it’s damn near impossible. Let’s not discount the effort involved, is all I’m saying…)
I can’t mention the words “pleasure” and “reading” in the same sentence without thinking of Roland Barthes and his Le Plaisir du Texte (1973). This annoys me slightly because here I am, joyfully attempting to separate myself from literary theory, but I can’t help it. This kind of thing has been imprinted upon me and besides all of that, I do love Barthes. I always have. It is in this work that Barthes comes back to the idea of “readable” (lisible) and “writable” (scriptible) texts that he put forth in S/Z (1970). Except here, they directly correspond to pleasure and bliss (jouissance). In French, jouissance means bliss, but also orgasm…which, yes, giggle giggle, is dirty, but also implies delayed but intensified gratification, as opposed to immediate sensation.
If I wanted to massively oversimplify this (and I do! This is not an academic article! Let’s oversimplify for the sake of thinking some neat-o thoughts that we can actually wrap our heads around! Let’s take all of Barthes and put it in a ‘nutshell’ because we CAN! It will be fun!) I would say that the “readable” text, which gives pleasure, is a passive experience, wherein the reader is “pleased” or “pleasured” as it were, but “to no end” (intellectually/sexually). One is stimulated but not satisfied, is perhaps a way of saying it. Then the “writable” text, which produces bliss/orgasm is a multilayered phenomenon in which the reader is not a passive subject, but rather participating in the “writing” of the text itself. That is complicated to explain. The way I’ve understood it is that, with a “writable” text or a “writable” reading, the reader must forge connections in order to fully understand the impact of the work. And that impact may actually be something different than the author intended, because it has to do with what the reader brings to the situation of the read/written moment. (And you’ll have to forgive me at this point if it seems I’m exclusively drawing from the introductory portions of S/Z rather than engaging Plaisir more specifically…we work with what we know…)
I bring all this up because, in simple terms, what Barthes is getting at is a politely overintellectualized way to say that some books are “literature” – even “great literature” – and some books are not. But that is not quite true either. It is more so that some readings are literary and some are not. And that part is on us.
I wouldn’t say that the Millennium Trilogy qualifies as whatever complex things Barthes means by the “writable” text. I’d say there is a lot of pleasure here and very little bliss. And indeed, my own reading (sitting here on the patio with my sweet tea and fly swatter wearing a muumuu and sunglasses, having apparently forgotten to either shower or seek gainful employment) could not be qualified as literary by any means.
For all that, I don’t think that taking pleasure in reading is quite so shallow as Barthes seems to imagine. And I think that there is something interesting, specifically, about Barthes’ very sexual terms as applied to Larsson’s work.
One of the running themes throughout the three books is violence against women – sexual violence in particular. This takes some gruesome forms, but it also takes the form of silent reflections and subtle actions of men that devalue (but do not violate, per se) the women in their lives. In fact, this is perhaps the one characteristic of the book that makes it “not only” some kind of “escape” but also a social commentary (albeit a subtle one).
So when we’re thinking about passive and active roles of reading (readable/writable, pleasure/bliss), I wonder how important it is to consider the sexual roles that Larsson portrays throughout the books, and to consider whether they relate at all to the experience of reading. If we take this text to be one of passive pleasure, a readable text in which we have no participatory (“writerly”) role, is it possible to see this as a purposeful limitation of our experience? Instead of pure escape within the (exciting, stimulating, titillating) plot of the text, is it possible to consider that we become passive precisely because this is part of the experience that Larsson means to portray in the sexual dynamics of the various characters?
There is a kind of oppressive flatness to the book that I think is purposeful. All characters are flat. Even though Lisbeth Salander is a genius with a tortured past, she is entirely static. Mikael Blomkvist is a “good guy” and nothing more. But here’s the thing. To his credit, Larsson is aware of this flatness. Why else, in the second book, when you are just about to tear your hair out with the sheer boringness of Dag and Mia does he kill them off? (I’m not spoiling anything – it’s on the back cover.) Because he knows that they are better off dead. So I don’t think we’re dealing here with someone who simply wasn’t gifted enough to write character, I think he’s giving us two-dimensional shadows for a reason. And they may be flat, but they weave throughout the multiple layers of some rather stocky plot lines.
So here’s the thing, I keep thinking about that rather off-putting scene that serves as the prologue for the second book. A thirteen year old Lisbeth Salander is strapped down to what we later find out is a hospital bed, and surveyed lasciviously by a man who we later discover is Dr. Teleborian, the renowned child psychiatrist. There’s a real concentration on the flatness of her position, as opposed to the uprightness of the doctor. He tightens the straps that are holding her flat to the table, but he never lays a hand on her. He is mobile, while she is immobile. This is meant to be construed as a sexually sadistic relationship and a violation, but it is emphasized that his pleasure comes from the position of power, not from any physical contact.
I guess my point here is that it might be worth exploring whether this particular scene could in some way be a representation of the reader’s relationship to the character in the scene of the encounter with the pleasurable text. It makes me cringe, but is it possible to consider that we as readers might also be locked in a sadistically imbalanced torture scene? Are we, as pleasure readers, Dr. Teleborian, sadistically surveying the helplessness of the characters upon the flat plane of the page itself? One of the goals of Larsson’s books was to expose the hidden realm of violence against women in Sweden, a task that he presumed he could accomplish more powerfully as a writer of literature rather than as a journalist. But that begs the question: why? Well, because that is the thing about fiction – the reader holds a position. Fiction is not a closed universe the way non-fiction purports to be. And here, I wonder if he puts us in such an odious position in order to more forcibly bring about a confrontation with a violence that lies just below the surface of pleasure. We take pleasure in the text, and part of this pleasure is in the flatness of characters combined with the dimension-laden intricacy of plot.
So while it would seem possible to construct a clear analogy between the “doctor” and “patient” and the reader and character, there is one clear and important distinction. Dr. Teleborian is in a position of power. We, as the readers – and particularly the readers of pleasure – are not. Indeed, we are passive as well. I would say that, precisely because this is a “readable” rather than a “writable” text, in Barthes’ terms, we do feel the immobility of the flat character (for we cannot do or change anything about the text), while simultaneously experiencing the mobility of the work itself, in which we are capable of participating in various positions.
(This might all be a way of simply noticing off-hand that Larsson has employed the omniscient third-person narrator point of view. In which case, I need a tee-shirt that says “I spent five years getting a doctorate and all I got was this lousy basic knowledge of literary devices.”)
Is my point that pleasurable reading is necessarily sadistic reading? Of course not. I certainly could not live with that. (Although, I kind of think that may be where Barthes goes in Plaisir.) I think reading for pleasure (as opposed to bliss) is a wonderful thing. Let’s not all suddenly feel dirtier than we already do about our mass market paperbacks. My point is that, in this particular text, the author has perhaps mobilized certain aspects of such reading (particularly the subject/object relationship) in order to bring to light a pervasive violence that is not only represented within the book, but that then reaches beyond the text itself in order to signify the relationship between the reader and the read. Yet that dualistic relationship is then brought into question, necessarily and precisely because the text is not “writable”. In other words, we are exposed to the position of the sadist, while yet escaping that position.
Which is my argument – boom! you didn’t see that coming! – for reading the “readerly” text.