You've seen her on the subway. Stalking the streets late at night. She doesn't meet your eye, nor does she want to. Anyone who has ever lived in a city knows her, likely disregards her. But somehow you've come to need this skulking stranger, to know her as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
The girl is Lisbeth Salander, the central character in the outrageously popular Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson, whose third instalment, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest , was published last week. It's 2,000 pages of crime thriller, chopped into three blocks, full of intricate plotting. The trilogy takes aim at corporate and institutional crimes, all written before the economic collapse of Wall Street, yet vibrant with distress at the rise of the superpowerful and supercorrupt.
All that would be well and good. The books might not have done more than a mere few million in sales. But for the reader, the sell is Salander, and only Salander. The world is mesmerized by her.
Unlike the larger-than-life aggressively sexual heroines of Hollywood (think Angelina Jolie or Rose McGowan), she's a weirdo, a queer, covered in piercings, often mistaken for a teenager. Nevertheless, the fan base is phenomenal, from tea-sipping grandmas to guys whose last book was Harry Potter.
One acquaintance is so devoted to the series she smuggled the third book back from Britain before its release. What resonates for her is how foes underestimate Salander. "For anyone who has ever been judged by the outside, to see this person who is not what they appear to be, but has this incredible power and skill," is very life-affirming, she said.
In a society that prizes the superficial, Salander's power is secret, hidden. Outwardly, she's short, razor-thin, Gothic punk, socially awkward, her manner suggestive of Asperger's syndrome. But mess with her, you'll find she's a boxing, motorcycle-riding, Taser-wielding terror, as indifferent to pain in physical confrontation as she is to people. What's more, she's supercompetent: a computer hacker, unmatched in her skill at uncovering information, with a fierce intelligence and a photographic memory.
This is key to her appeal: She is a fantasy figure who can do as she pleases. Salander breaks into homes and offices as easily as desktops and hard drives, finding critical information about enemies that puts them at her mercy. She can cold-clock organized-crime thugs. She will steal hundreds and thousands of kroner, but only from those who are corrupt themselves.
Like a comic-book hero such as Batman or Wolverine she is dark, damaged. A type of sullen, living computer herself, she has the exact emotional core to seek her brand of justice. A personal trauma drives her obsessive pursuits. It's what compels her to act against what she feels wrong, often with astounding violence. Rapists get strung up by homemade nooses or scarred with a tattoo-gun. It's pop culture, it's fantasy, and it's acting out unspoken desires.
The sadism flips both ways. Salander is also the victim. A relative orphan, abandoned and cruelly treated by a corrupt state, she attracts sexual predators, and is assaulted in graphic detail. Some readers find this uncomfortable, a fetishizing of the idea of a victim. Others are in thrall to the tension. This gives her licence to do evil things in return. She's a moral compass, making the black and white calls needed to punish the guilty when no one else can.
For Salander, the political is intensely personal, her abuse literally the result of the system, as revealed in The Girl Who Played with Fire. Salander strikes back against all levels, her creed: "no innocence, just different degrees of responsibility." It's a rejection of state authority, the same that drags countries into wars and sinks the savings of millions. She's like Jason Bourne, the amnesiac super-spy created by a government that rejects him. These days we can't afford heroes to be too well connected. There's more power in being an outsider. It hooks into a universal need for the redress of monumental injustice, the rise of the underdog.
You could say this pint-sized death-pixie on wheels embodies the "female asskicker," an archetype of the angry woman that runs through culture from ancient Greece through to Veronica Mars and Xena, the Warrior Princess. Civilization let men run the world, run the war, run the state. When world balance gets out of whack, we demand consequences. The Furies call to make them pay the price.
Salander is a Fury who wields a mean USB key, a Robin Hood for the times, giving readers the fantasy hope that there is someone, who may seem a little like them, that can fix a broken world.
Ian Daffern is a writer and film producer in Toronto.