I just finished reading the third book of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy — it starts with the world-famous The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, then continues with The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. They’re good books: incredibly detailed procedural mysteries starring a charismatic middle-aged journalist and a brilliant girl hacker. Actually, they’re a bit too detailed for me — at one point I realized I’d just spent half a page reading about the brands and styles of apartment furnishings that a character purchased at IKEA. Seriously. And no, it was not even a little bit important to the story. So I skimmed a lot. But I guess some people like that, and there’s plenty of other stuff about these books that I like.
Larsson, the author, was apparently a feminist anti-racist journalist who did some pretty interesting work himself. He clearly had a lot of revenge fantasies against men who abuse women, and he liked creating powerful female characters, but those aren’t my favorite parts of these books. I do enjoy how he represents some subtleties of how abuse happens. For example, he shows quite clearly how disabled people (or people who have been designated disabled by the state) are vulnerable to abuse by those who are in charge of them. (Apparently the movie version is more graphic than the books, when it comes to rape scenes; I haven’t seen it.) But those aren’t my favorite parts either.
Mostly, I like how he represents S&M and open relationships.
I’ve said before that if I could get my dream representation of S&M in the media, then I’d want a couple who does S&M … and it ain’t no thing. This is true in the Millennium novels, and I love it. The characters have relationships, some of which are awesome and some of which aren’t. Some of them break up, some of them don’t. The author doesn’t bother being graphic, detailed, or generally concerned about the S&M. It’s not portrayed as a sign of dysfunction, anxiety, or self-esteem problems. It’s just something that the main characters do, and it’s not even a big deal.
Better yet: one of the characters is raped and later does consenting S&M with a consenting partner, and it’s still okay! Amazingly, we have an author who truly gets that consensual S&M is different from abuse! (As I pointed out in my piece on S&M and the psychiatric establishment, there are even people who use consenting S&M experiences to work through past abusive experiences. That doesn’t happen in any of the Millennium books, though; I just wanted to make a note of it.)
I’ve been thinking lately about how, for me, S&M isn’t something that I personally obsess over anymore. I mean, of course I think about it. I’ve got so many years of experience doing S&M, researching S&M and teaching about S&M that I have a kind of S&M-lens that fits over my vision at all times. I believe it’s really important that we think clearly about S&M, and I think that S&M theory is relevant to a lot more things than most people think. Yet it’s not a thing for me, you know? It’s just something I do. I remember that a few years ago, I knew some experienced S&Mers who told me that they felt this way, and I was like “huh?” Now I get it. And it’s awesome to see it portrayed.
And open relationships. Larsson never uses the term “polyamory,” but there’s an ongoing open relationship between the journalist character and a colleague, and I like that, too. I also like how Larsson doesn’t downplay the difficulties. Jealousy is a problem more than once, and it’s dealt with in a variety of messy ways. In my upcoming erotic romance Switch Seductress (I plan to release it next week!), I’ve been working to portray both functional polyamory and problems that can arise during polyamory. It’s not easy to do, especially when you’re aiming to be accessible to a general audience, and Larsson gets my heartfelt applause for trying.
The books made me think a lot about where I want my relationships to go. I’ve written before that ideally, I’d love to someday have a primary relationship with one person who I live with, raise kids with, et cetera. I’d also like to have secondary relationships with other people when that happens. In the Millennium books, the journalist has a relationship with killer sexual chemistry and extreme intimacy, which is nonetheless a secondary relationship: his partner is married to another man. I want that.
But one thing I’ve been wondering lately is: how much can I develop a relationship like that before I have a stable primary relationship in place? I’m not asking whether people in general can do this; I’m wondering about it for myself. This year a relationship fell apart with someone I care about a lot, mostly because he’s not primary relationship material — and yet he’d be fantastic secondary relationship material. In theory, there’s no reason not to date him, but it’s just that if I don’t have a primary relationship in place, I can’t seem to prevent myself from wanting to escalate the relationship I have with him. It’s difficult and painful territory; and I’m not sure what to do about it, except stay away from it for the foreseeable future.
How much does it even make sense to have a secondary relationship with someone I’d consider having a primary relationship with? But on the other hand, if a man isn’t primary relationship material, then why is he worth having a secondary relationship with? There are so many contextual factors shaping the answers to these questions, and personal factors too: how much chemistry do we have, how bonded do I feel, what’s going on in the rest of our lives.
I guess we’ll see how it goes. Stay tuned, folks, as always.
Final note: Larsson gets into sex trafficking a bit during the various plotlines, and so I’d be interested to know how sex worker activists would review the story. All I know about Sweden is that they have a particular set of laws around sex work that some feminists claim are awesome; but I also know that many actual sex worker feminists (and people who study sex work) believe the laws are harmful and bad. It’s one of those situations where certain feminists who are Utterly Appalled by certain types of sex have made legislation that affects the lives of women who are actually having those kinds of sex. And in these situations, the bogey of sex trafficking is often held up as a banner for why that legislation is necessary, even though the legislation is hurting women. So when I see super-dramatized representations of sex trafficking, especially set in Sweden, I kind of automatically feel skeptical. But maybe in this case, I’m jumping the gun. (If you’re interested in learning more about the complexities of the trafficking debate, then I can’t recommend this paper by Bridget Anderson and Julia O’Connell Davidson enough. It’s incredibly nuanced, detailed, and smart.)
Larsson died before these books were published, and apparently he planned more. That’s pretty clear from the sudden ending of the third, which left loose ends. I’ll also say that the first book, as is so often the case, is just generally better than the other two. Still, they’re all a fun read:
(Full disclosure: the above Amazon book links contain my referral code, so you’re kicking me a tiny commission if you buy through one of those links. If you don’t want to do that, then search for the books on your own.)