You may only read this site if you've purchased Our Kampf from Amazon or Powell's or me
• • •
"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show

"Who can really judge what's funny? If humor is a subjective medium, then can there be something that is really and truly hilarious? Me. This book."—Daniel Handler, author, Adverbs, and personal representative of Lemony Snicket

"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

March 22, 2012

A Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Meh

Finally, an angry reporter looks back at the past few years and tells it like it is: journalists have developed into a group of incompetent lackeys who were puffed up with self-importance and who had no record of thinking critically...time after time, without the least objection, so many financial reporters seemed content to regurgitate the statements issued by C.E.O.s and stock-market speculators – even when this information was plainly wrong or misleading. These reporters were thus either so naive and gullible that they ought to be packed off to other assignments, or they were people who quite consciously betrayed their journalistic function…

[T]he normal journalistic mandate to undertake critical investigations and objectively report findings to the readers appears not to apply. Instead the most successful rogue is applauded...all remaining trust in journalists as a corps of professionals is being compromised.

Except I fooled you! That's from (the novel) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It's the perspective of the main character, Mikael Blomkvist, and obviously Stieg Larsson's too.

Man, I wanted so badly to love The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The first thirty pages were incredibly exciting because the themes were so powerful and promising: that, even in nice social democratic Sweden, there's both (1) enormous financial and corporate corruption, including among the journalists who cover the business world, and (2) enormous brutality against women...and that both go almost completely unexamined even though they're sitting there in plain sight. There's also the implication of a subterranean psychological connection between the two forms of violence.

And then…meh. I could barely finish it. I thought the plot was preposterous and unimaginative, and the exciting themes were barely developed. It doesn't come anywhere close to (the novels) Red Dragon or Silence of the Lambs, which are both beautifully written and painfully insightful about life here on our Terror Planet.

This is heartbreaking to me, because with those themes, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo could have been a masterpiece. So somebody still needs to write a great, exciting, massively popular novel about the world we're living in:

Many journalists give paid speeches to businesses and business groups. And Wall Street, as it happens, is probably the top source of such engagements. Household names like Bank of America as well as obscure hedge funds, private-equity firms, and others in the financial world frequently hire journalists—including scribes who regularly cover Wall Street—to deliver speeches at events ranging from publicized conferences to small private dinners with select clients. Millions of dollars have flowed to journalists in speaking fees in recent years.

That part's not from a novel, it's from the Columbia Journalism Review. No word yet on which of America's CEOs are (hands on) serial killers.

(Thanks to Matt Stoller for pointing out the article about paying off journalists.)

–Jon Schwarz

Posted at March 22, 2012 07:13 PM

That novel was totally ridiculous. The girl-genius hero was the least plausible character imaginable.

For good thrillers with a political twist, Robert Harris' Fatherland and Archangel are fun and really well-written.

John LeCarre has continued to publish terrific page-turners and has become increasingly critical of the power structure and its brutality. The Mission Song and Our Kind of Terrorist are exciting, wrenching novels with keen moral insight.

Posted by: seth at March 22, 2012 11:02 PM

i thought u were reading The Old Man and the Sea, to see what it feels like to be a dictator- i mean, a populist president- or, crap, i forgot which is which

Posted by: frankenduf at March 23, 2012 09:00 AM

I thought that the film, at least the Swedish version, was a masterpiece. Implausible characters? Memorable characters often are "implausible."

At least in the world of fiction.

I may have met Ted Bundy, or someone like him, but I am pretty sure I have never met Hannibal Lector.

Posted by: Elise Mattu at March 24, 2012 01:09 PM

OT: As per Trayvon Martin: In Florida, Black people should carry guns too. Because if YOU ARE BLACK, in Florida, the police and authorities will NOT protect or help YOU.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at March 24, 2012 06:33 PM

Seth was right. Harris s very, very good.
His "The Ghost" is a great picture of Blair.

Posted by: Bill Jones at March 24, 2012 08:37 PM

here in sweden, the Larsson books are seen as cheap mass-market crime fiction, something with just enough sex and violence to be worth hauling along for the summer holiday or a boring commute. i have no idea why they're being treated like serious literature everywhere else - they're bound to disappoint if you come looking for piercing insights or skilful writing.

Posted by: A at March 24, 2012 09:31 PM

A Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Meh

And some dumbass doctors decided that Cheney was worthy of a heart transplant.

Posted by: Susan at March 24, 2012 10:10 PM

Susan: Scratch one chinese political prisoner. Two or three nights ago I was listening to the BBC talk about how China was moving away from parting out deathrow prisoners for organs. They're just now looking into an all volunteer program. It seems that the culture is for a buried whole situation which makes the problem uphill.
To be fair, The Cheneys claim to not know who the donor is.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at March 24, 2012 10:33 PM

To begin with it is an oddity that any work that contains such ideas gained popularity at all. If Larsen had centered on these themes directly thoughout, instead of just setting the stage with them I am certain the books would not have taken off.

In a pro forma way many Americans hold a bit of animus towards those holding economic power in large corporations but several lifetimes of propaganda has blunted this natural and very AAmerican sentiment so they don't want to look too long or closely at it. So better to make the story aabout a fight between a few lone individuals and strip away the broader context.

I think it's fair to say that of the hundreds of thousands of people who were foreclosed upon by the use of forged and false documents would agree that in the end they deserved it.

Posted by: rapierr at March 25, 2012 10:49 AM
To be fair, The Cheneys claim to not know who the donor is.

Or care.

Posted by: darrelplant at March 25, 2012 12:17 PM

I follow (well, point-and-laugh at) Megan McArdle's career and The Atlantic has an entire machinery in motion to support her lifestyle in exchange for her avid support of the rich. The Koch Foundation, the Aspen Institute, Pete Peterson's foundation, New America Foundation--they all keep her in Thermomixes and Victorian rowhouses so she can lie about Elizabeth Warren, "Obamacare," and anthing else that might threaten her ascent to wealth.

As for Cheney's heart--Snow White's stepmother the Queen should have had it so easy.

Posted by: Susan of Texas at March 25, 2012 01:48 PM


You know Stieg Larsson was not just a middle-mind novelist--that came years after he was a communist muck-raking reporter who was charged with giving the USSR access to Swedish intelligence? If you want the juicy meat from Larsson, try to find his earlier journalistic work.

"Girl with a Dragon Tattoo" is way less powerful than it even seems reading it, because--inasmuch as it's always exciting to the Anglo world to hear that social democratic Swedes are corrupt too--the book does little more than essentially dramatize every major social democratic state-sponsored public education campaign that dominated the past 20 years.

None of that expose or analysis cut to any bone. It was Larsson's smooth retirement coast as a writer. It rehashed the safe social democratic consensus construction of social problems--when Sweden had far bigger conservative threats to labor institutions that they were ignoring. Now recognize again, how the middlebrow, suburban, state-sponsored social democratic consensus is our idea of radical and raw.

Posted by: Bamse at March 25, 2012 04:09 PM

Well, if you want a preposterous, ridiculous, great, exciting, massively popular novel about the world we're living in (well, it was about the 1970s, but history, while it doesn't repeat, does stutter) check out Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! Trilogy, or his Schrödinger's Cat Trilogy. Sure there's sex and drugs and Hollywood and anarchy and quantum mechanics and conspiracy theories and absurdism -- I told you it's about the world we're living in. :-P

Posted by: tom allen at March 26, 2012 12:23 PM

He wrote plays, not novels, but perhaps Arthur Miller's remarks are nevertheless somewhat relevant. I shamelessly copy these remarks from a little-known blog whose author conceals his real identity.

Arthur Miller

To my mind the essential difference, and the precise difference, between tragedy and pathos is that tragedy brings us not only sadness, sympathy, identification and even fear; it also, unlike pathos, brings us knowledge or enlightenment.

As Aristotle said, the poet is greater than the historian because he presents not only things as they were, but foreshadows what they might have been. We forsake literature when we are content to chronicle disaster. Tragedy, therefore, is inseparable from a certain modest hope regarding the human animal. And it is the glimpse of this brighter possibility that raises sadness out of the pathetic toward the tragic...

The possibility of victory must be there in tragedy. Where pathos rules, where pathos is finally derived, a character has fought a battle he could not possibly have won. The pathetic is achieved when the protagonist is, by virtue of his witlessness, his insensitivity or the very air he gives off, incapable of grappling with a much superior force.

Pathos truly is the mode for the pessimist. But tragedy requires a nicer balance between what is possible and what is impossible.

-- From “The Tragedy of the Common Man”, and “The Name of Tragedy”; New York Herald-Tribune, 1949

Posted by: Freddy el Desfibradddor at March 26, 2012 06:06 PM

There have been about 500 police/detective/mystery novels written over the last 20 years about how corrupt and oligarchic and xenophobic and unfriendly the seemingly utopianic Nordic lands are. Henning Mankell, Ake Edwardson, Arnaldur Indridason, Asa Larsson, Karin Fossum, Jo Nesbo, etc. etc. The all-time classics of depression and pessimism by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo were written in what most liberals view as the most politically awesome society in world history, Sweden circa 1970.

Don't give up just because this author has ridiculous plot and characters.

Posted by: Cryptic Ned at March 27, 2012 10:33 PM

It's one thing to participate in a public culture in which denouncing capitalist elite corruption vigorously is the norm.

It's quite another thing to fetishize the denunciations from afar, as if such a culture of assiduous watchfulness and readiness to critique simply confirmed that that society was worse than or as corrupt as your own.

Posted by: Bamse Jr. at March 28, 2012 05:07 PM

Gotta disagree They ain't great literature but were very readable and absorbing. Also - the girl-genius was just as believable as Harry Potter and I don't see anyone getting on his case.

Posted by: Cay Borduin at March 28, 2012 08:05 PM

Because Harry Potter was set in an alternate world involving FUCKING WIZARDS.

Posted by: Nort at March 28, 2012 09:39 PM

Eh, lots of fiction involves superhuman abilities that wouldn't fly in the real world. They make the characters, you know, heroic. It's also common to temper this heroism with a tragic flaw. Holmes, though a genius, was a cocaine addict. The girl with the dragon tattoo is apparently involved in a very boring plot. Etc.

Posted by: saurabh at March 29, 2012 01:17 AM

Lisbeth Sander is a Mary Sue:

There is a reason there the trope category "Mary Sue" exists: because it's a very common gimmick in dime-store and DIY lit.

Posted by: Celarisse Ro K'nobe at March 29, 2012 03:25 PM