Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Lying Stones of Marrakech: Penultimate Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould

Published in 2000, this collection of essays from Natural History Magazine is subtitled Penultimate Reflections in Natural History because the "millennial issue" of January 2001 was to carry the 300th in an unbroken series of Gould's monthly columns since 1973, which would be the last.  His "Preface" doesn't say why he was ending the series.  Like John Lennon at 30 observing that he had, "goddess willing, a good 40 years of productivity yet," Gould had good reason to expect ample years for more writing and research in Paleontology and Evolutionary Biology, unless he knew then that a swift malignant cancer would soon snuff out his light in 2002.

However it was, the brightness of Gould's searching brain here assays the very foundations of science (especially paleontolgy and "evolution")and its nemesis, Social Ideologies founded on distortions and prejudice.  He investigates the difference between questions which can or cannot be asked of science, the crucial difference between valid scientific methods and theories which are often demonstrated to be mistaken or misinterpreted, on the one hand, and fraudulent evidence, invalid methods and inappropriate topics like God's existence, whose religion is 'right,' and which human beings are 'more valuable' or 'more evolved' than others.  It is in his probing analysis of the devastating effects of the latter  that his light is most valuable.

Let us take Darwin's theory of "descent with modification" as a scientific thesis, and the fulminations of that "chief Victorian pundit of nearly everything "(as Gould calls him) Herbert Spencer, so-called philosopher when he should more rightly be called apologist to Capitalism "bloody in tooth and claw." Spencer took Darwin's findings and turned them on their heads: he devised the slogan "survival of the fittest" to mean that evolution is the history of Progress, and thus the struggle for existence is purification; Thomas Huxley called his theory the "gladiatorial" school of evolution. As many historians have noted, this theory should really be called "social Spencerism." 

Specifically, Spencer called for an end to all state-supported services--education, postal services, regulation of housing, even public sanitary systems.  He thought that any social intervention in suffering is counterproductive because it promotes the "vitiation of the race through the multiplication of its inferior samples."  Charities and philanthropists he calls "pauper's friends" who "defeat the sharp...spur to the lazy and so strong a bridle to the random." 

Does his program sound familiar in 2011?  Andrew Carnegie who had been troubled by a devout Christian conscience was vastly relieved that Spencer "reconciled God and capitalist society"; Carnegie had worried about the suffering of the poor, but now "I got rid of theology" and realized that "All is well since all grows better."  He acknowledged that "while it may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race" and concluded that we should welcome the "great inequality of environment, the concentration of wealth...in the hands of a few" because it was "essential for the future."

Gould studies the interweaving of such social ideology with political slogans such as those that justified the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire tragedy of 1911 when the horrifying spectacle of human beings leaping from the upperstories of the Trade Center buildings to escape fire in 2001 was prefigured in the deaths of all 50 young women who were forced to jump from the 8th through 10th floors of the Asch building because all safety exits had been blocked.  Another 110 women perished in the fire.

This fascinating and important lesson in the ideology we could call today neo-conservatism is only a fraction of the assets of this important book.  Highly, highly recommended.

View all my reviews

Monday, July 13, 2015

Not Like Other Girls by Rosa N. Carey; a review.


I happened to read Not Like Other Girls only because it was among some old books I brought home after my mother's death a few years ago.  It was in poor condition and missing any publication data, so I didn't know what period it represented. I was surprised as I read the first fifty pages or so to realize how firmly set it was in a past very far from my usual reading preferences. According to an internet search, it  was first published in 1884 and is one of the best-known of some forty novels by Rosa Nouchette Carey (1840-1909) a popular Victorian novelist. "Best-known", however, is a relative description: few contemporary readers know anything about Rosa Carey. And it takes a special interest to read something like this out of curiosity--to see, that is, what it meant to be a popular Victorian woman novelist.

Well, Victorian or no, I loved this book, despite the fact that my favorites are generally contemporary, postmodern, and--well--anything this book is not.  I have lately explored some older writing, for the sake of learning about historical values: George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Wilkie Collins, Balzac.  The essential difference among these five is that Balzac, Eliot, and Wharton saw social hierarchies as cruel and tragic; Collins and Carey accept a more stratified society as inevitable and natural, and see its dysfunctions as accidental and correctable.  

This is a representative Victorian story, reflecting genteel English characters whose lives are ruled by money and class, but Carey is surprisingly moderate, or sensible perhaps, in her views, and often amusingly critical of the rules governing women's propriety. The plot's dilemma is a problem of losing and attaining caste (and money, of course) but the characters are complex and caught between acceptance of how things are and a basic refusal to be ruled by 'society'  against their own needs. Since the author shows a partiality to the healthy and 'natural' impulses of youth, even in women, and moreover because in the end no one is shown to be particularly malicious or helpless, Not Like Other Girls belongs, I think, in the comic genre.  And this partly explains its appeal.  Besides, a woman who writes forty published novels in her life is not exactly a 'proper' Victorian gentlewoman. 

Carey is what I would call fatuously Victorian only in a susceptibility to mother-worship: although she sees and limns the faults in mothers in this book, she is surprisingly acquiescent to the idea that, although mothers may err, their children do worse when they resent it.  In the end, however, although she  may think the caste system harsh and unduly punitive, she also accepts its basic structure unquestionably. No one in this book will live happily ever after without servants and comfortable wealth.  They may threaten to, for the sake of love or for more practical reasons of necessity, but the book cannot end happily with Dick and Nan living without the blessing of Dick's hefty inheritance. Carey doesn't let herself imagine what would happen if needed money had not shown up.  

PLOT, CHARACTERS, DILEMMAS

Three daughters--Nan is twenty, Phillis is about nineteen, and Dulce eighteen--lead an idyllic life in an English country neighborhood with their widowed and semi-invalid mother who --Carey at one point confides to the reader--has "a weak nature" and is over-dependent on other people's opinions, especially those of men.  The author often indulges in these confidential remarks on personal foibles or sometimes on social manners, as if she is standing to one side with the reader smiling at unfortunate tendencies in her characters and their dilemmas.  While not defying convention, the author thus allows glimpses of different opinions on Victorian social rules;  in some ways Carey might be called a proto-feminist, but I get ahead of myself. 

What is "an idyllic life"?  First of all, it is a life without the drudgery of housework, cooking, cleaning, laundry.  It is a life without the demands of work at all.  The three daughters and their mother Mrs. Challoner have two female servants and adequate resources for festive, if not lavish, tennis and tea-parties with a circle of well-bred friends, male and female.  They are healthy and surprisingly free of neurosis, temper, selfishness, vanity or greed. Especially considering that their mother is so demanding and dependent, their generous care for her is hardly credible.  As I said, the sacredness of the mother figure is a concession to romanticism in Carey.   They gather with friends for long walks in open meadows and fields.  They play lawn tennis and a badminton-like game: "shuttlecocks and battledores." Nan, has long had an unspoken but assured relationship with the son of a wealthy businessman nearby, a credentialed member of this social class. Phillis is happily uninterested in such relationships herself, and Dulce seems almost a precocious child devoted to her mother.

     The book's opening paragraphs sketch the nature of things to come and set the tone of light-hearted, even impertinent, joking.
      Five-o'clock tea was a great institution in Oldfield.
      It was a form of refreshment to which the female inhabitants of that delightful place were strongly addicted.  In vain did Dr. Weatherby, the great authority in all that concerned the health of the neighborhood, lift up his voice against the mild feminine dram-drinking of these modern days, denouncing it in no measured terms: the ladies of Oldfield listened incredulously, and, softly quoting Cowper's lines as to the "cup that cheers and not inebriates," still presided over their dainty little tea-tables and vied with one another in the beauty of their china and the flavor of the highly-scented Pekoe.
I was at once lulled by Carey's sense of humor and the fine awareness of style in choice of words and structural rhythm.  After two short introductory sentences, almost intentionally affected, the third,"In vain did Dr. Weatherby," launches a light and comic flight in a parody of over-refinement.  Mellifluous but humorous.

     The Challoners are" middle class,", as are most of the characters in Oldfield:  their father was a baronet's son but, alas, a younger son, so the title and estate went to an elder and unpleasant brother with whom there is no current relationship.  Sir Francis was, Mrs. Challoner shudders, not a nice man.  Their father left his money invested but since the income is limited, the girls have cleverly learned to make their own dresses which are no less admired than those of their friends.  The other neighbors (of any status) are all significantly wealthier, but we are assured that the fresh gracefulness of the girls and their mother so distinguishes their company, that friends "flocked eagerly into the pleasant drawing-room where Mrs. Challoner sat tranquilly summer and winter to welcome her friends."   Although Carey does not specifically say so, it is also true that the three daughters, at least, are sensible and kind-hearted.  Not flawless paragons, just free of any particular meanness.
Two events expel the Challoners from this English Eden.  First, Dick's father, Mr. Mayne, decides that, as Dick is coming of age and finishing a degree at Oxford, it is time to put a stop to such easy intimacy as he observes between his son and Nancy Challoner.  He expresses the intention magisterially to Dick and at an all-day party before the Mayne family leaves for Switzerland for the summer, the patriarch makes his disapproval of Nan unpleasantly clear to her as well. He has his eye on a wealthy daughter-in-law. 

Then a solicitor visits Mrs. Challoner: the family's investments have failed. There is no more money. Mrs. Challoner receives the news with a melodrama, collapsing, sobbing, getting "one of her headaches," and needing both the maid and her youngest daughter to help her to her room. Nan and her only just younger sister Phillis, meanwhile, take stock.  They own a small country house near the coast so they can give up their leased home in Oldfield but they will not even have enough for food and a maid (!) (a necessity for their mother in their opinion) unless they make up their minds to earn money somehow.  The usual fate would be to hire out as governesses and let Dulce, the youngest, help her mother "let rooms" at their cottage.  Phillis, however, realistically points out that they are under-educated for teaching children; they don't have a firm knowledge of any languages, nor of music or mathematics.  Besides, above all, they want to keep the family together.

So they decide to use the one skill they have and to become dressmakers.  Which is considered non-genteel and will expel them from their caste--the word is explicit.  It will be disgraceful and scandalous in a way it is hard to understand today in the U.S.  Do we have comparable social shames? We have castes of course, but those of us in the great formless middle class don't even know how far out of "A-Society" we are, and we take the attitude that we don't care.  Among us prison, drugs, prostitution, alcoholism, homelessness and other disastrous marks of "low life" are the primary signs of social degradation. Most of us, however, would not "refuse to know" people in such conditions. It is hard to comprehend why it is so scandalous that girls without money would make dresses for a living.  Woody Allen's film Blue Jasmine is insightful about just this kind of falling out of society, but for the great middle class our lives don't seem burdensome just because we work to earn our livings. 

It is curious how we even pretend to understand Victorian attitudes toward class when we read historical stories like this.  For instance, Jane Austen's books are readily comprehensible as contemporary cinema. They should not be.  They are stories of ludicrous snobbery, of a Europe made rich from subduing, dominating and impoverishing the rest of the world by means very far from genteel and then doting on a newly acquired hypocritical 'elegance.' Balzac wrote devastating attacks on the French version, and Edith Wharton and Henry James have made it abundantly clear that American society was no exception  in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  I myself when an undergraduate idolized the Romantic poets.  I wanted to live like that, going to Italy for a month, stopping in France, then back to London.  I had absolutely zero understanding of why I too couldn't have a life of freedom and leisure in which to exercise aesthetic tastes and literary preferences.  True.  What a shock by age 25 or 26 to understand that it was either marriage or "a job" for me, and probably both. It's true that my relatively free and comfortable life is still cushioned by the spoils of 500 years of exploiting countries that had not the aggression or militance to resist when first invaded and subjugated by Europe's 'civilization.'   But I am not of that gentry which was such a 'natural' locale for literature until the twentieth century. 

There are dozens of interesting side-stories in this clever and amusing book.  A very young and raw "Oxford man" has been newly appointed parish minister, or 'vicar,' in the town the Challoners move to.  Archie disapproves strongly of the Challoner girls' decision to 'do business,' and he expresses himself firmly. And officiously. But he nevertheless learns to like them, and even falls in love a little bit.   Archie's overweening and immature self-importance make him first a comic figure, and at last an earnest and caring pastor. His older sister Mattie who comes to keep house for him is somewhat dowdy and fluttery and talkative and he had not wanted her, but another sister he likes better, so Archie is disgruntled with his mother and his whole family, who are in financial straits also.  He treats Mattie with disapproval and sharp remarks which hurt her feelings, but she musters on. Mattie will have her own appealing and surprising story in the mix as well.

Then Nan's beloved Dick, back from summer vacation, finds out where the girls are and comes to visit, chaperoned by his suspicious father. When the girls' occupation is revealed, a war of wills begins.  Dick will have Nan or none.  He will have Nan as a dressmaker or not.  Father will not have Nan even spoken of.  Dick insists.  Nan concedes in private that she will either marry Dick or no one.  Father threatens.  Nan concedes that she must not marry without paternal consent.  And --so it goes.  Beautifully, feelingly, but humorously written and Dick is revealed as a sturdy and courageous friend.

Viewed as nineteenth-century melodrama the situation is banal and would be tiresome, except Rosa Carey is a skillful writer.  Her characters feel real.  Their dialog, actions, hesitations, indecisions, bursts of temper and impatience ring true, although their social mores are perhaps almost laughably colored with incomprehensible rules and shibboleths.  Parental power over their grown children's lives seems peremptory and heartless to us today perhaps.  Nevertheless, Carey creates such individuated personalities with such unconventional characteristics and such piquant dialogs and understated comedy that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. 

Well, by the end, every impasse in the plot is eventually removed via a kind of deus ex machina.  A familiar deus, in fact, who arrives miraculously to solve the plot's problems. It is of course a rich, and generous, and aristocratic relative; nothing new in that. And the machina--i.e., that which allows this god to appear suddenly-- is British Colonialism*.  And when I realize how there is nothing new in that, either, I am reminded of Edward Said's powerful study of the interplay of the whole Colonial past of Europe with every feature of its arts: Culture and Imperialism.

THE COLONIES AS PLOT DEVICE

It is almost a cliché of English Victorian literature that instead of merely having a wealthy relative show up to save the day, that convenient hero is someone who has been far away, "making his fortune."  How did the Challoners not know they had a wealthy relative and one kindly disposed toward them?  Why, Harry Challoner has been in one of the British colonies where he "struck it rich."  Even more vividly, he has "made a killing."  We all know what that means and never think about it.  It means going "out there" somewhere and finding some precious valuable commodity that hasn't been claimed by anyone else yet.  Inconveniently, when we look more closely, we see that anyone who lives "out there" doesn't count as anyone.  In Australia the native population was considered so non-human that they were shot for sport, but in the literature the colonies are dangerous and rough for the Europeans who went so innocently and righteously forth to 'discover.'*  Or maybe what they 'find'  has been claimed, but by such inferior, almost inhuman nonentities that a man (inevitably European)  has a right to kill them and take what he wants. And to bring wealth "home."   After all, you risked a lot to go discover it. And they were just 'natives.'  That says it all.  How amusing it is to realize that many folk tales from Europe start with "the sons who go out to seek their fortune."  That didn't happen during feudalism.

(*I was stunned and dismayed when cinema director Tim Burton ended his Alice in Wonderland, a bittersweet and poignant coming-of-age fable for Alice, by constructing her as joining the male business of Colonialism to symbolize her emancipation from Victorian strictures on women.)  
  
Like nunneries in earlier literature as places of refuge, concealment, withdrawal and punishment for women, and like wars (the infamous Crusades, for instance) for men, the "colonies" are places for Victorian denouement: fled to, retired to, arrived from, lay concealed in, brought wealth from, disappeared into.  More, colonialism is the invisible source of inflowing wealth that creates this" genteel class" at home. In fact, Colonialism is the heart and soul of European art: poetry (Kubla Khan), painting (the Levirates), music (The Nutcracker, The Pearlfishers, Turandot, Aida), drama, ­(from The Tempest to Lawrence of Arabia) until at least the middle of the twentieth century.
So the Challoner mother and daughters are dumbfounded when a jolly red-haired giant shows up at their small cottage door.  Remember, the deceased father was a younger son of nobility and the plot made clear that there was no hope of help from that direction, the elder son being a ne'er-do-well, a scoundrel who spend all the wealth 'out there.'  But Harry, that baronet's son, has come into both the title and a fortune "out there."  And everything is resolved to everyone's satisfaction.  Minor characters as well as the Challoners all benefit equally.  Several surprising but logical turns are taken in the story and the last scene is free of a humorous undertone, as the 'main characters' finally come together. In other words, because jolly cousin Harry got rich in Australia, all ends happily.  In this England.  Maybe not for Australians.

NOTES   
             
1.  The title was tantalizing to me for I am conscientiously feminist and consciously idiosyncratic, let us say. In the 1950s as I grew up, the phrase "not like other girls" was loaded with ambiguity.  It could mean many things.  It could mean, lightly, a tomboy or a girl who liked sports or horses or other 'unmaidenly' diversions.  It could mean, tragically, someone mal-adapted to the point of social rejection or psychological breakdown.  It could mean, with a derogatory side-glance, a lesbian.  It could refer to someone who broke social conventions but by having a big heart and no fear earned warmth and respect from the very people who scorned her behavior (viz. Girl of the Golden West) . More commonly, however, it was a back-handed compliment, used by men to imply the inferiority of women generally but the exceptional quality of the 'girl' addressed.  The girl, of course, believed in her exceptional quality, not knowing that this was common and complicated flattery.  Why was it flattery?  It attributed the girl's attractiveness to her ability and willingness to distance herself from those 'other girls.'  Divide and conquer.  A hesitation to pursue something proposed by the man?  All he has to say is, "I thought you weren't like other girls."  And the pressure is on.
It was therefore fascinating that this book's main characters do such an unconventional and sensible thing as rejecting pretensions to class in order to stay together as a family.  The girls are brave in the face of ostracism and disapproval although they find working life more difficult than they'd imagined, and of course soon long for their freedom, exercise, fresh air, parties, friends, socializing, and Nan's courageous resignation of the impossibility of her liaison with beloved Dick turns to tortured longing.
Carey puts the authorial seal of approval on their bravery and sensibility but of course finds a solution for their 'suffering.'  It is interesting to compare the heroine of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, a more tragic book that also treats what happens when a young woman of 'society' becomes impoverished, especially a girl who fails to capitalize on her ability to fascinate and manipulate men, for it is an ability that requires pretense and being bored.  She is used to disingenuousness, but she longs for fun and sincerity.

2Colonialism may be not just the enabling device for sudden plot turns, it seems, but the enabling device for English literature in general since the rise of the novel in the late seventeenth century, or perhaps all literature related to the novel genre, which just coincidentally happened to arise at that point in history.   From Robinson Crusoe to Pamela or Moll Flanders.
The wealth brought home from colonies supplied the wherewithal for the creation of a new Europe.). It enriched for the first time many who began outside the aristocracy and thus arises a new privileged class which took political power over the next two or three stormy centuries, ousting the aristocracy (though never acquiring quite the "panache" of the titled). The very concept of a merchant class, of wealthy firms and manufacturers, of investments that fail or soar is derived from all those innocuous 'discoverers," "explorers," and 'conquistadors" which, although the names are given an innocent significance, are still important enough to teach to children in Eurocentric curricula. Magellan, who brought back (kidnapped) natives of South America, the survivors arriving in Europe seasick and homesick: frightened disheartened captives.  Vasco da Gama, who had his crew cut off the hands of men, women and children to fill a basket on his "voyages of exploration."  Cortez, Ponce de Leon, all the degradation, exploitation and genocide spread worldwide, to create also a "Third World." The slave trade, and in North American unimaginable eradication of the very language and cultures of the Americans Europe encountered. In the twentieth century that Third World would soon be called the "undeveloped world," as if those countries were poor because of their lack of 'our' civilization, and not poor because the First World had enslaved the people, brutalized them, stolen their wealth and their property.  Today we are advanced; we say they are "developing nations."  We should call their status "in recovery." And God forbid they should develop into "us." 
 It is sobering indeed to understand that for all non-Europeans (with the marginal exception of the Japanese) the year 1500 was at the beginning of an apocalypse, a tsunami we are still witnessing in the turmoil of the Middle East and the absolute degradation of the starving and refugees in much of Africa.
As a literary form, the novel itself derives from the same phenomenon. It arose in England as new middle class wealth began to consolidate after the century of the English Civil War, in late sixteen hundreds.  It depended for its existence on a leisured class with education, with leisure time to read for "diversion," and time to expend on the writing of something that would not repay the writer for all that labor. The early writers had independent income or they could not have spent their time writing and pontificating in coffee houses.  True, all societies in one way or another secure life support for those who draw or decorate or tell skilled stories, play music (fife and drum as it were at least) and dance and make ceremonies and rituals. Or for at least some of the 'artists,' as we call it,  since we are a fractured society and thus even the creators have to compete.
But the relationship of a novelist to society is of new devising in the 1700s, a creation of a wealthy, leisured self-conscious class. Early novels, interestingly, concerned themselves importantly with marrying "up" or "down," of increasing, or retaining, or losing status and wealth, and of male predatory piracy on female 'chastity.'  But then that was the great social upheaval: they were all busy establishing a completely new system of status and social identity.  Only one hundred years before (1600), it was considered virtuous to stay in the social position to which God had appointed you.  The Elizabethan "Great Chain of Being." But the possibility for Europeans to 'make a fortune' in the colonies changed all that.  The first unmistakable sign of the upheaval was the British Civil War (mid-1600s) when the monarchy was overthrown, a 'Commonwealth' declared, and the king of England beheaded.  Cromwell, the new leader, perhaps took his religious Puritanism too seriously and didn't adequately understand the financial changes necessary to accommodate the new merchant class;  he was overthrown and a new modified Monarchy was 'Restored':  thus the society and culture and period called the Restoration.  Reaction against the straight-laced Puritanism was expressed in an excessively materialist and frankly sexual culture.  Plots of theatrical comedies turned to legalistic trickery and marital infidelity:  all expressing an acquisitive viewpoint. But all that went a little overboard and the resulting pendulum return gave us Puritan and Sentimental and Adventurist novels.  The economic behavior of the nation was not to be examined from a morality point of view, so its private and social behavior, sexuality and status, were substituted as Christian virtues.  The Puritan worries about having and behaving.  Not about oppression or exploitation.  Coveting?  No longer a problem unless it's your neighbor's wife you covet, and even then, if you are caught, it's her problem.
What creates the self-consciousness of society in England (and Europe in general) and also gives rise to the writing of novels, to the career of being a writer, is a sense of domination and superiority among "the privileged," who now procure for themselves education (necessary to keep track of wealth), leisure time, and the sense of the"brave new world" that Shakespeare apostrophized.  And what provides those abstracts is unlimited aggression toward "others," who are named the backward and uncivilized.  What makes us civilized and them barbaric or savage is the fact of "us" going out there and ruling and using "them."
Can you imagine yourself in either role, discoverer or discovered?  Suppose I am a member of a small village and I hear the amazing news that we've been "discovered."  By strange aliens, humanoids, who "claim" our village for their king or gods or boss. And I'm supposed to leave my house and garden and move into barracks from which I will work in their fields of extraction of whatever they can "take home."  Or, on the other hand, imagine I am mountain climbing and come down in an area that has rich farms, so I "stake my claim" to the land and take away the produce and/or livestock as well as anything that strikes my eye: a beautiful stained glass window, some of their unique 'ceramics,' a couple of cute children, maybe.  I bring it all home and sell it for six million dollars and I'm set for life. When I am set for life, I suddenly apply to myself new maxims about "healthy, wealthy, and wise."  "If you're so damned smart, why aren't you rich?"  "Early to bed, early to rise."  "The early bird" (first one there gets it all). End of digression, but you see what I mean.  Unimaginable today, and yet we routinely read about it, see films about it, our children are taught about this being done by Europeans to people in all the other continents and the world's islands. We learn about it and honor the "explorers" and "pioneers."  So this naive book (we can't say anything is innocent any more) like how many Eurocentric novels, rests for its plot mechanisms and its very existence on Europe's aggressive invasions between 1500 and, say, 2000. Or 1950 perhaps, since resistance has arisen in the last sixty years.
I'll just mention that "the colonies" also play another role in Not Like Other Girls, in a subplot of great drama (perhaps overly so for here there is no nuance, no humorous undertone) in which a man thought dead returns from his ventures, this time in Africa.  All the conventions of brutality and savagery figure in the story of his "capture" by "a hostile tribe," although a woman, an "old negress. . . a poor degraded ill-used creature, half-witted and ugly" fed and nursed and protected him.  "They were a set of hideous brutes and the fetish they worshipped was cruelty."  He was saved and freed, but then fell in "with some Dutch traders who had come far into the interior in search of ivory tusks."  Get the picture?  And they all lived happily ever after.  (Not the brutes or the negress or the elephants, of course, but…as long as you "make a killing," that's all that matters.  I'm not bitter. )

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson; a Review.

*NOTE:I'M IN FORMATTING HELL: single-space, double-space, weird space!  Good luck.


The Girl Who Played With Fire is the second book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.  Like the first book (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), it is powerful, compelling, and suspenseful, with intriguing characters, and a world-view unusual in the long literary history of detectives vs crime.  Larsson’s criminals don’t so much threaten the social order as represent its ugly persona. Yes, of course, there is the scum of profiteers and thugs, sadistic hoodlums for hire, the familiar underworld of drug pushers, pimps, creeps and bullies.  But Larsson's books reflect what he had investigated and worked to expose as a journalist: the Swedish Extreme Right where misogyny, racism, and fascism fester together, a world very far from being subordinate or lower class.   In this book, he targets the cancerous undermining of democracy by careerists and self-appointed "guardians of the free world'' within government and public institutions.  
 Above all, his books are vitally feminist in their depiction of female resilience, intelligence and courage, as well as in their uncompromising attacks on misogyny in all its forms, from savage physical abuse to contempt for women at all levels.  The feminist pulse would surprise you if you merely look at the titles. All this stuff about "The Girl"?  In Swedish, however, Larsson called the first book  Män Som Hatar Kvinnor, or  Men Who Hate Women.  (See a perceptive article in New Statesman about the English titles as a paradigm for misogynistic exploitation: Laurie Penny, "Girls, Tattoos and Men Who Hate Women," 9/5/2010.) The Swedish title of this second book (Flickan som lekte med elden) is the only one of the trilogy legitimately translated as The Girl, for this book refers to Lisbeth Salander's childhood, especially the period after an attempt to kill her abusive father with a crude fire bomb when she was twelve years old. This becomes only one way she will "play with fire" throughout this novel.  It explains her status as a ward of the state, labelled violent and unstable,  and sets the scene for finding out why all records have disappeared that concern the abusive father, the attack, and her court-remanded institutionalization in a children's psychiatric hospital.  Salander's father survived the attack, and readers will meet him in this installment of the long story broken into three books. The Swedish title of the third book, by the way, does not repeat "the girl" trope, and makes the English title is even more strained and irrelevant as a marketing ploy, as "The Girl" suggests, at least to one critic, an 'alluring waif' (see my last paragraph below) with an immaturity which can be sold as a hint at eroticism. 
 When twelve-year-old Salander was hospitalized, she was subjected to treatment that might have broken even an adult: strapped immobile to a bed in a dark room alone—what was euphemistically called a "stimulus-free room"--the purpose of which was ostensibly to calm a child who was excessively violence-prone.  The Prologue begins with these words:
            She lay on her back fastened by leather straps to a narrow bed with a
            steel frame.  The harness was tight across her rib cage. Her hands were
            manacled to the sides of the bed.  She had long since given up trying to
            free herself.  She was awake, but her eyes were closed.  If she opened her
            eyes she would find herself in darkness.

Toward the end of the page we read, "It was her forty-third day of imprisonment."
The Prologue concludes: "It was her thirteenth birthday."  From then on, she refers to this period of her life only as the time of "All the Evil."
            Two characters who I wanted to know better figure briefly in the preliminary stages of the plot. They have collected evidence that sets the scene for main drama of the book.  The couple--journalist Dag Svensson and PhD student/ criminologist Mia Johansson--have prepared an expose of sex trafficking in Sweden which Millennium, the news magazine of Blomkvist and his editorial partner Erika Berger,  plans to publish.  Larsson himself, by the way,  published a similar real  journal,  Expo, which may account for the importance of publishing in the series. When the couple  are murdered, Lisbeth Salander is named as the suspect and a danger to the public. Blomkvist and the team on his investigative journal work both to exculpate Salander and to find the real killer/s.
            I don't think it's giving anything away to say that Lisbeth Salander ends up being wanted by the police and made notorious in the media. Even those with most faith in her are troubled by the evidence.  A police team assembled to catch her plays a major role in the novel. Two "good cops," including a woman whose patience is severely tested by macho prejudice, try to make sure Salander won't be killed as a dangerous public enemy before being captured. Two men on the team—one a macho sourpuss, and the other someone with an axe to grind —threaten and bully women named as Salander's associates and undermine the investigation.  An ambitious prosecutor trying to promote his career misdirects the investigation, thinking that he is working with sensitive government security agents.  Dragan Armansky, her former employer, allies with Blomkvist in efforts to exonerate Lisbeth, and even her stroke-damaged former guardian and friend Holger Palmgren comes back into the picture.  Her former hacker friend Plague helps Salander with a virtual raid on all relevant computers including that of the chief prosecutor.
            The book's core crime mystery, however, is deeper, more complex and far-reaching  than even this book alone can really work out; consequently, The Girl Who Played With Fire is not a very satisfactory stand-alone novel.  It is so utterly dependent on the next book for resolution that it invites speculation about the motivation for making the plot stretch over two books.
            The plot is complex, true, much more so it seems than that of the first book. For one thing, we are halfway through the book before the double murder occurs.  When it begins, a year has passed since Salander left Sweden to secure and spend her windfall from stealing the fortune of the crooked financier Wennerstrom, and to forget her disappointment in Blomkvist.  She is on Grenada, has travelled around the world, is fascinated with mathematics, is working on Fermat's unsolved Theorem proof, has a teen-aged boy as lover and friend, and kills an abusive husband in a hurricane. Whew! She finally returns to Stockholm, with no intention of ever seeing or speaking to Mikael Blomkvist who she has renamed in her mind Kalle F*ing Blomkvist. No wonder it takes half a book to get to the climactic turning point at which the fates of Blomkvist and Salander once more come together.  In retrospect, I wondered if her ex-pat adventures were partly "filler," either because Larsson planned a trilogy from the beginning, or the mystery material that carries over to the third book was too unwieldy to deal with in one volume.     
I did not enjoy this book as much as I did the first one.  Part of my delight in the first book was the thrill of discovering an exciting book with a world-view like mine.  One of my reading problems, I confess, is that when all of the characters are referred to by their last names, I lost track frequently of who was who: Svensson, Erikssen, Sandstrom, Johansson, Berger, Bjurman, ...and that doesn't even touch the police and multiple other characters.  There were fewer characters in the first book. Moreover, the fact that I don't have even a reasonable grasp of Swedish geography means that I didn't know where people were unless it was just "Stockholm."  "After Nykvarn he had gone to Lundin's house in Svavelsjo, only a hundred yards ...he told Lundin to get himself to Stallarholmen as fast as he could and start another fire."  What???
        This is certainly no criticism of the book, just a reading obstacle.  Sometimes I would get partway through a segment and realize that I was imagining the wrong characters in the wrong place.  And the street names:  "Bjorneborgsvagen!" "Annika was silent as she turned down the Hammarby industrial road and passed Sickla lock. She wound her way down side streets parallel to Nynasvagen until she could turn up Enskedevagen."
            Larsson creates some nightmarish characters here:  a maimed but still dangerous former Russian hitman and a 'blond giant' (and having just read 2666 I'm wondering about the coincidentally duplicated giant scary blond character).  Blomkvist turns up evidence of a much bigger crime than the double murder while pursuing his thesis that the real murderer of Svensson and Johansson would be somehow linked with human trafficking, and that the couple was killed to protect someone's identity.  A mystery name keeps coming up that will eventually link that murder to a massive conspiracy and cover-up within the government as well as disclosing enemies who threaten Salander's life even outside of the police investigation.   Of course she threatens right back: half the excitement of this book is her irrepressible instinct to fight back.  Her self-defense cannot be faulted, and I think this is the first book I ever read in which someone convincingly returns from the grave. 
I love Stieg Larsson. I lament that he did not write more and more often or survive.  Fifty years old!  Not fair.  So-o-o many others I would love to have seen go in his place.
         Now, some only indirectly related kvetching!  I am simmering a little—well, all right, I'm seething—because just before I finally found time to read this (after having loved Book One, as well as its American film version with Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig) I was browsing through an edition of New York Review of Books in which a male writer offered to explain why Fifty Shades of Grey  has had such popularity.  He also referred to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  And—let me be brief—he explains that we all really love pornography and books like Larsson's and Fifty Shades "pretend" that we are reading the book for other more prudish reasons.  Christopher Hitchens also calls Salander an alluring waif (or something like that, Vanity Fair).  And suggests that the brutality against women portrayed in Larsson's books is created as sub rosa pornography-- you know, those dirty Swedes.  Sometimes my brain just wants to lie down and give up when it discovers such intransigeant prejudices.  If you write about rape or about beating up a woman or killing a woman, you are writing something to be enjoyed as pornography???  Of course, in 2013, "Radio Lab," (NPR) aired a program touting a method which two (white male middle-class American) psychological professionals proposed for finding out if a person lies: "Ask if they fantasize about rape --doing it, or having it done to them.  If they say no, they are lying."  I wrote in protesting that this "fantasy" that is supposedly so universal is about desire, not sexualized hatred and violent power-craving.  But, you know, who am I to say?  Just kidding.