Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

This is the second novel from the author of Time Traveller's Wife and has been getting excellent reviews. It's not quite the emotionally engaging success that TTW is, but it is creepily compelling.

Set in and around Highgate Cemetery in London, it is the story of two sets of twins: Edie and Elspeth, and Edie's daughters Julia and Valentina. Something happened between Edie and Elspeth, and for over 20 years they haven't been in contact. Edie and her family live in Chicago, while Elspeth lives in London overlooking the cemetery. At the start of the novel, Elspeth is dying and arranges for her nieces to inherit her estate, with the condition they live in the flat for a year before they can sell it.

The other residents of the apartment building are Robert, Elspeth's lover, who lives in the flat below and works at the cemetery while writing his history thesis on it. Upstairs are Martin and Marijke: Martin has OCD, and his obsessions have finally driven Marijke away after 25 years.

The book is a meditation on identity, the meaning of "home" and the role of relationships to identity. Once Elspeth dies, she becomes a ghost and ends up haunting her flat. What does it mean to be "Elspeth" without her body? Robert is devastated by her death, but what does it mean to him to have her back in ghost form? They are, as he says, "betwixt and between." He wants to come to her, but she doesn't want him to die. Even if he did, they might end up haunting their own flats and never be able to reach each other.

Martin has identity issues--he has a rational brain that understands the pointlessness of his OCD compulsions, yet he can't overcome them with logic. He can take medications, but the side effects rob him of different parts of his identity and so he chooses not to take them. Marijke cannot bear to be robbed of her identity by Martin's compulsions, and she ends up leaving him to return home to Amsterdam, even while remaining in love with him. For Martin, is the flat still "home" without his wife?

Julia and Valentina have their own struggle with identity. Valentina is the weaker and more compliant of the two, but she wants to have her own life and identity separate from her sister. Julia can't imagine ever being apart. Valentina has also fallen in love with Robert, and Julia resents the time she spends with him, resenting the way Robert comes between them. Robert has started to heal from his grief, and starts to consider the possibility of a life with Valentina, when Elspeth makes her presence known.

Niffenegger posits that a ghost starts out as weak as a newborn, and Elspeth has had to train to have any effect in the physical world. The revelation comes as she discovers she can write in the dust on a piano. Robert and the twins develop a home-made Ouija board, and Robert spends hours "talking" to Elspeth through automatic writing as well. As time passes, Valentina begins to be able to see Elspeth and the two of them spend hours together as well.

Matters come to a climax after Elspeth accidentally catches the soul of a kitten while playing with it, but manages to put it back into the cat's body, literally resurrecting it. Valentina sees this as a way to escape her sister--apparently she's completely incapable of simply enrolling in design school without Julia's permission so she creates an elaborate scheme to free herself from her sister. She convinces Elspeth to pull her soul out of her body, and then has Robert steal the corpse from the mausoleum so Elspeth can put her soul back in. Julia will be convinced Valentina is dead, so V can go off and live a non-twin life.

It is a stupid plan, of course, but Elspeth is convinced that Valentina is desperate enough to kill herself to escape Julia, and this way there is a chance that V won't die. This is how she forces Robert to participate--because either way, he will be guilty of V's death.


Of course, it works, sort of, but in all the wrong ways. Elspeth is able to grasp V's soul and pull it out of the girl's body. Robert is able to pull strings with people he knows so Valentina's body is not embalmed, so that it is kept cold, and she is buried in the family mausoleum in Highgate. Robert is able to bring the corpse back to the flat and Elspeth tries to put the soul back in, but V is far too weak, and her soul doesn't go back inside, so Elspeth takes the body instead. Robert is again trapped between the two women--the soul of the woman he first loved, the body of the second one. Elspeth has come back to him, because he could not come to her. Valentina is trapped in the flat as a ghost, now more dependent on Julia than ever before. Julia is heartbroken, but is aware of V's presence in a way she never felt Elspeth's.

In the end, Robert and Elspeth leave London to avoid Julia seeing them. They have a son, although Robert has become distracted, and soon after his son's birth he finishes the enormous thesis and escapes. Elspeth eventually comes to realize he will never return.

Julia learns to see Valentina, and helps her to escape as well. Valentina climbs into Julia's mouth, and Julia carries her to the cemetary, where Valentina meets other ghosts, learns to fly on crows, and finds to her surprise that she is happy.

Martin takes small steps in overcoming his OCD, and at the end of the book is able to travel to Amsterdam, back to Marijke. He escapes his condition, his apartment, his old life in favor of a new one with his wife. Their son Theo comes to the flat, and Julia is probably going to fall in love with him.

There are some interesting parallels--Elspeth must wait for Robert, but she gets impatient and comes to him and so drives him away. Marijke waits for Martin, and by waiting they come together in what promises to be a happy way. Valentina is trapped in her life with Julia, and by dying she becomes free. Elspeth is free in life, but trapped in death. Elspeth and Edie are twins who regretted their separation, Valentina and Julia are twins who should have been more individual.

The great secret of the Noblin twins is finally revealed as well. Edie and Elspeth switched names over Edie's determination to test her fiance's love. (Like "The Marriage of Figaro" or "Two Gentlemen of Verona" perhaps.) Edie was engaged to James, but insisted she and her sister switch identities to see if James could tell. He could, but went along with the scheme. He fell in love with the "other" sister and broke his engagement to one and married the "other." So they remained switched their entire lives. The woman who lived in London and died of leukemia was actually named "Edwina" but for her sister's sake took "Elspeth" as her name. However, the London woman had slept with James once, possibly to spite her sister, and ended up pregnant. Thus the twins Julia and Valentina were actually the daughters of the London Elspeth, not the Chicago Edie. More playing with identity--which only created misery and loneliness.

The specter of death infuses the book--the main characters all live adjacent to the cemetary, Robert works there and writes about it, Elspeth is buried there, Julia and Valentina are grave owners. Various characters muse on the difference between historical graves and the burial of people they know.

The title refers to William Blake's famous poem "The Tyger."

There is some wonderful writing, and some eerie ghost-story-ness to this book, but it feels to me that Niffenegger hadn't quite gotten enough time with it to fully finish what it was meant to be. The scenes around Valentina's death and funeral feel out of touch--the grief is not fully rendered, but only sketched. Robert's abandonment of reincarnated Elspeth and his son is tossed in and seen at a remove. We have spend a great deal of the book inside Robert's head: it's just odd to have no insight into his thoughts about Elspeth's return or why he had to leave.

Julia is rather sketchy as well--she is bossy and orders Valentina around, and yet she is the one afraid to live life without her twin. Julia is the one who abandons college, but we never know why. Julia is the one who expects V to sleep in the same bed, wear the same clothing, do everything together--what is she afraid of if V goes to school without her?

Why are Elspeth and Robert so certain Valentina will kill herself if she doesn't escape Julia immediately? Why do they think participating in V's death and possible resurrection is the right thing to do? Was Elspeth as selfless as she claimed to be, or did she suspect that she would be able to inhabit V's body because V would be too weak?

The bones of a great novel are all there, but the body is a bit gaunt. Still, it's a fascinating read and worth the time.

ETA: I just read the NYT review, and there are two things I wish I had come up with myself: 1) that when pronounced with an English accent, "symmetry" and "cemetary" sound an awful lot alike, and 2) that the novel is concerned with "obsession" as much as anything else. I totally agree--the characters are engaged in a struggle to balance obsession with love, as well as identity.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The Girl Who Played With Fire, by Steig Larsson

This is the sequel to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I hated. So, why did I read the sequel? I don't know. I just did. And I am glad that it was an improvement in every way over its predecessor.

This book starts off rather slowly, with a lot of daily life of the eponymous heroine, Lisbeth Salander. When last we saw her, she had used her computer hacking skills to steal several billion kroner from a corrupt financier. When this book opens, Salander has used the money to travel, island hopping through the Caribbean. She has had some elective surgery in Italy, getting breast implants to look more womanly, and less like a 12 year old boy. She has also had her most visible tattoo--a wasp on her neck--removed. She has pulled out a couple of piercings as well. Could she be maturing?

We see her studying what can only be called "Extreme Maths," and puzzling over Fermat's Theorem, while covertly tracking the man from the next hotel room, who seems to be beating his wife. Salander has Definite Views on such behavior, and tries to figure out what is going on--she is tired of being kept awake by the sounds from their room. During a hurricane, she stops the man from killing his wife, saves the woman's life, and watches without much emotion as the man is swept away by the hurricane.

But none of this has anything to do with the plot of the book. It's just the kind of thing that happens to Salander. After this episode, she decides to go home to Sweden, where she continues to live as invisible a life as she can.

Meanwhile, Mikael Blomkvist is still a celebrity journalist, the expose of the corrupt financier that ended the last book has made him a star, restored his reputation, and made his little issues driven magazine a Major Player in journalism. Now, two years later, he is approached by a free-lance journalist who is working with his doctoral candidate girlfriend to document the sex slave trade in Sweden. This is just up the alley of the monthly magazine Millenium, and Blomkvist and co. are planning to publish the book, as well as simultaneously release a themed issue of the magazine at the same time.

Suddenly, the free-lancer and his girlfriend are found dead in their apartment, shot execution style. Not long afterwards, Salander's guardian (a real slimebag she put in his place in the last book) is also found dead, shot slightly before the journalist. Salander's prints are found on the gun used in all three deaths, and on a broken coffee cup in the journalist's apartment. The police decide she is their suspect, and the concentrate all their efforts on finding her.

All the details of Salander's trouble life are plastered over the media. Some things are true, some are invented, most are twisted to be as salacious as possible. At one point, she is characterized as a psychotic serial killer from a Satan-worshipping lesbian sex cult. Spin can be such a nasty weapon.

Because that is not the Salander we have come to know over the course of these two books. And a few people who actually know Salander don't believe the stories they are reading. None of them--for example Blomkvist, or her former employer Dragan Armensky--knew she had been declared incompetent or was under a guardianship, but still they could not quite believe the story as told by the police. And they undertake their own investigations.

The novel then documents the search for Salander, and the differing motives of all those looking for her. The prosecuting attorney is using the salacious details of the story to build up his own newsworthiness, planning to use the trial of Lisbeth Salander to gain political power of his own. Som eof the police involvwed are corrupt, or blatantly sexist and obssessed wtih any deviancy. Armansky has two employees assisting the police, one of who bears a grudge against Salander for discovering that he stole copies of compromising photos from a celebrity client and then sold them to a magazine. She warned him that she would be watching him, and he hated her for it, so he was willing to do anything to pin these three murders on her.

Blomkvist is convined that the murders have to do with the expose on sex=trafficking Millenium was going to publish. The police seem to be unable to consider anything other than Salander's guilt. Salander herself is absent for much of the middle third of the novel ans everyone else tries to figure out what is going on. Occasionally the mysterious name "Zala" bobs up, but no one can find who this is and what connection he has to these murders.

In the end, The Girl Who Played with Fire comes down to a battle between those who respect and trust Salander, and those who hate her obsessively. Those who hate her tend to be men who have run afoul of her strict moral code and have been caught at it, and forced to bend to her will. It is a strikingly sexist villiany that provides the engine of this plot. Nearly all the Bad Guys are men who think women should do as they tell them to do, and that a woman who resists a man's orders must be broken into submission. For them, Salander is their worst nightmare.

Salander isn't the only woman proving herself in what is mostly a man's world. Salander's friend Miriam Wu is a kick-boxer and fully emancipated woman who gets mixed up in the violence because of her friendship with Salander. Sonia Modig is the only woman on the police team searching for Salander, and she outs both the men who cannot understand women except in reference to their own obsessions and hatreds. Ericka Berger is the Editor in Chief of Millenium and is poised to become the editor of one of the largest newspapers in the country. Even one of the murder victims, the woman who was writing a thesis on sex-trafficking, was the one who had done the research and thinking about the issue, which her free-lance journalist boyfriend depended on for his book and for the Millenium articles.

So unlike Dragon Tattoo, this book is much less cruel to women, presenting a much more balanced view of gender relationships. Sure, some men are still cavemen about relating to women, but not all of them are. Not all of the women are merely victims either. Salander is unusually forthright in her defense of herself and her gender, but she is no longer the only one who is able to withstand men's attempts to define her.

The book isn't entirely free of the defects of the first one. There is still a lot of awkward detail: Salander goes to Ikea to buy furniture for her new apartment, and we get what amounts to a sales receipt of everything she purchased. Does the fact that she bought "a Hemnes bed" really tell us anything that a more general description wouldn't have done better? Maybe that is a Swedish thing, where simply listing the name of the Ikea product creates instant recognition. But later we see how Miriam furnished her apartment, and in that case we get a description of what it actually looked like, not just a list of the items in the room.

One of my big quibbles with Dragon Tattoo is that some of the most obvious clues were entirely overlooked until the very end of the book--surely someone would have thought to look at who benefited financially by the victim's death, for example. Such glaring inadequacies were kept to a minimum in Played with Fire. Sure, someone should have thought to talk to Slander's previous guardian when the most recent one turned up dead, but there is a pretty good case that the police were simply too pressed by time and political exigencies to do so right away. Blomkvist does eventually, and not too unbelievably late in the proceedings either.

Okay, kind of late, but he wasn't totally wasting his time before that, and by the time he did find her old guardian, he was in possession of facts that made the guardian's story understandable.


It turns out that the mysterious Zala was a defecting member of the GRU, the military secret police in the Soviet Union. He had a gold mine of information and was incredibly valuable to the Swedish secret police for decades. However, the cost of keeping access to his information was that the Sapo had to clean up after his boozing and whoring ways. As used here, "clean up" is a phrase that actually means to "cover up."

Of course, Zala was Salander's father. He got her mother pregnant, and returned periodically to her, frequently beating her in the process. The last time happened when Salander was 12, and Zala beat her mother so badly that he caused brain injury and she never recovered. Salander tried to protect her mother by attacking Zala in his car, pouring a milk carton of gasoline into the car and tossing in a lighted match.

Zala was seriously injured in the explosion, but because of his special status, the result was that Salander was taken away and locked up in a children's psychiatric ward for 2-3 years. There, her "treatment" consisted of being strapped to a bed in a sensory deprivation room. This was presented as "care," but Salander experienced it as torture, and she learned to hate and distrust authorities. She refused to speak to any doctors or psychiatrists, and so was labelled a "mentally ill" but with no specific diagnosis, because she refused to co-operate.

The murders all go back to Zala. Her former guardian--the one who beat and raped her in the last book--had become obsessed with her and wanted to destroy her. He was also part of the Swedish Security Police (Sapo, kind of like the Swedish CIA) who had helped Zala defect. He asked Zala for help to get out from under Salander's control--Zala hated Salander as much as he did after all. But the journalist came to interview the guardian about Zala, and that meant that Zala had to kill all three of them to keep his identity secret. All three were executed by one of Zala's henchmen. It was just bad luck that Salander's fingerprints turned up at all.

Probably the weakest part of the book is the very end, an extended chase with an appalling amount of violence that somehow doesn't actually stop anybody. Salander tracks down her father's secluded hide-out, and goes after him. He is waiting for her--having spotted her on the infra-red security cameras. She managed to evade his thug, but he shoots her three times with a Browning--once in the hip, once below her shoulder blade, and once in the back of the head. She falls to the ground, and he dumps her into a shallow grave.

Weirdly, she wakes up, and manages to scratch her way to the surface. She ends up confronting Zala again in a woodshed, where she manages to hit him in the face and the leg with an axe, which weirdly doesn't kill him either. She leaves him locked in the woodshed, and again evades the thug, this time by being so frightening that he takes her for a monster from hell and runs away. He is then spotted by Blomkvist and tied up.

Salander checks her injuries, and touches her own brain through her head wound. She tries to stay awake, but goes unconscious with a gun in her hand. Blomkvist finds her and calls for an ambulance. And the book ends.

So--weird. But what Larsson has done much better this time is to paint how difficult it is to be a person out of power. If, like Salander, you don't have any social position or power, you can be ruined at the whim of others. As the police start discussing Salander's past, she looks like someone who should not be allowed into general society. As you see the world from her perspective, however, you realize that she is doing what she can to protect herself from the abuses of those who do have power. She refuses to be a victim, and by so refusing, she gets marginalized. It is easy for the police to believe that she is a triple murderer, because her record looks so bad when read with the idea that she might be a criminal.

The "reality" is that her record looks so bad because she is a victim who refuses to lie down. Really, how many standard deviations is she from the rest of the population? She tried to protect her mother from a violent abuser, and ended up in a psychiatric ward because the abuser was a national security secret. As long as she was alive, she was a threat to national security and so she had to be neutralized. The game was rigged against her from the start--and she had no way to know it. So as a 12 year old, she was locked away, and deliberately controlled in the interest of keeping Zala happy and producing intelligence.

I still find the amount of physical damage these characters experience to be excessive--especially at the end. I don't understand why anybody finds Mikael Blomkvist attractive, although at least three women seem to find him irresistible--women I otherwise admire. But Lisbeth Salander remains a compelling character, and if the third book in the series also has her as the focus, then I will even have more tolerance for the misleading nature of the title of Dragon Tattoo.

As a final note--I read this book electronically. Both Amazon and Barnes & Nobel have free e-book apps for the iPod Touch, and I read this one on my iPod. While the screen is much smaller than a book page, the experience was quite pleasant. I took my iPod on a weekend trip to North Carolina, and except for a short time during take-off and landing when all electronics had to be turned off, it was an excellent way to take a novel on a trip. The iPod couldn't be more portable, and so my carry on bag was much lighter than it would have been if I had packed the two physical novels I had loaded onto the iPod. My next experiment with an e-book on iPod is Audrey Neufenegger's follow up to her amazing The Time Traveler's Wife. The new book, Her Fearful Symmetry has been getting excellent reviews, and is the next book up.