As a rule, I’m not a huge fan of airplanes. They’re cramped, noisy, expensive, and (for those of us who fly coach, at least) have been designed with meticulous attention paid to maximizing physical discomfort. However, as a necessity of modern existence, I accept that there are no better alternatives. As a frequent flyer, I’ve become used to short flights. In most cases, they pass uneventfully and, while not particularly pleasant, aren’t necessarily unpleasant.
Fourteen hour plane rides, on the other hand, suck.
I wish there was a more tactful way to put it, but there’s not. Sitting in a single position, breathing tinned air, eating overheated artificial meals all while listening to the baby in front of you scream for hours just sucks. Big time.
In my experience, the only distraction which can ameliorate the misery of a trans-Pacific flight (other than a medically induced sleep – thank you Tylenol PM!) is a good book. In this vein, I’m nominating Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo as the official Best Airplane Read Ever. To the powers-that-be who hand out such awards, please take note.
My preference for airplane reads falls into what most people would consider genre fiction: Dan Brown, Dean Koontz, Michael Chrichton, John Grisham, and other similar authors. Many would disagree with me, but I don’t consider any of these writers to be untalented. Better than many of their more “literary” counterparts, these guys know how to tell a story. Their language might be clumsy, their characters may be two-dimensional, but they keep the pages turning. That’s important on an airplane because once the pages stop turning, there are a million unpleasant distractions which can pull the reader out of the book’s insulated bubble. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is a brilliant book, but the thirty page discursions into 18th century whaling methods are only going to give me time to think about how my legs are going numb because the guy in front of me has reclined his chair into my knees. Koontz’s satanic serial killer living in an abandoned amusement park will probably hold my attention a bit longer.
At the same time, I am a serious reader. I like my books to have some heft, physically and intellectually. I appreciate well-defined characters and thought-provoking themes. All too often, however, ‘serious’ literature is a bit too heavy to digest at 40,000 feet.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo pulls together the best of both literary worlds. In its essence, it’s a piece of genre fiction. It’s a murder mystery whodunnit that relies on many of the same devices which have made this particular genre so popular: a mysterious prologue, a mismatched pair of romantically involved protagonists, countless red herrings, grisly scenes of torture and murder, last-minute escapes. The chapters are short, the plot is meticulously detailed, and, as the mystery builds, the reader is swept along.
Where Larsson’s novel transcends its own genre is in its level of character development. The two protagonists, Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander are more than mere devices to move the story along – they come across as fully realized individuals with whom the reader can truly empathize. Salander in particular is one of the more interesting characters in contemporary fiction.
The language itself also transcends its label of genre fiction. One of the major drawbacks to picking up a Dan Brown or Dean Koontz thriller is the often abysmal prose. Just as weighty subject matter can be a distraction, so can horrible writing. Tired cliches, mixed metaphors, and lazy writing are the hallmarks of typical genre fiction. Personally, I can usually overlook this, especially if the story is engaging enough. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the prose stands well above its contemporaries. As it is a translation, credit is due to the translator, Reg Keeland. The language, while not beautiful by any means, serves the story well and, at times mirrors the bleak landscape of the story itself.
The themes it deals with – financial malfeasance, domestic abuse, rape, murder – are by no means trivial. It’s a dark book. Very dark. But the themes are dealt with in a very deft manner. The reader doesn’t feel as if they are being preached at. And, most importantly, they don’t detract from the story itself.
I’ve certainly read better books than The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But, I can’t think of a single book that is better suited to keeping a reader occupied as they hurtle through the air in an over-sized hollow bullet. I can’t say I read the entire fourteen hours on my way back to China. But, for the five or six hours in which I was chronicling the Vanger family history with Mikael Blomkvist and hacking into secure computer systems with Lisbeth Sanders, I was no longer crammed into seat 32J. And that’s exactly what you want from a good airplane read.