Friday, November 5, 2010

Katia Lief

Born in France to American parents, Katia Lief moved to the United States as a baby and was raised in Massachusetts and New York. She teaches fiction writing as a part-time faculty member at the New School in Manhattan and lives in Brooklyn.

Lief's latest novels are You Are Next and Next Time You See Me.

A few days ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
The Stieg Larsson trilogy: Unfinished, imperfect, and hard not to read

This past summer my friend and neighbor was drawn into the global excitement over Stieg Larsson’s trilogy and made sure I also read it by loaning me her copies as soon as she was done. Her enthusiasm was infectious so I started in right away. As a teacher of fiction writing, I can’t help but read analytically; and as a crime novelist whose work covers terrain similar to Larsson’s, I was eager to see what all the fuss was about. I quickly found myself careening between admiration and incredulity.

First of all, to Larsson’s immense credit, he did it: he wrote his books as an unknown novelist, unchallenged by deadlines or critics, and succeeded wildly. I applaud him further for having made his undeniable conquest of the literary universe with uneven, imperfect novels, a feat akin to Forrest Gump triumphing at everything he does despite obvious deficiencies; Gump succeeds because what he lacks in intellect he makes up for in heart. As I nitpick through Larsson’s novels, keep in mind that I mourn the passing of a fellow novelist whose life ended in the process of blossoming into a thriller author who was just starting to master his craft. Had he lived, with his bank account filled to overloading, his goals would have become all about bringing his craft up to par with his art—Larsson’s real art being the ability to create unforgettable, flawed characters and make you love them.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a rickety novel turbo-charged with rich characters you can’t get enough of. The novel succeeds because of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, despite serious structural problems in the story-telling. Larsson takes an exceedingly long time to establish the story, dragging us through long-winded backstory before getting to the point, and it takes so long for Salander to become an important part of the story that the real mystery at first is ‘Why is this book called The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and not The Reporter Sidetracked to the Remote Countryside to Solve a Crime for Big Pay Even Though He’d Rather be Back in Stockholm?’ But who cares? Blomkvist is just so likeable, and it’s such a treat to read about village life in the Swedish countryside that it’s easy to overlook the growing realization that this purported thriller is not actually a thriller at all. Then, three quarters of the way into what amounts to a charming, tepid mystery, the plot cartwheels awkwardly into the secret life of a serial-killer-but-who-knew and voila thrills and chills revealed, only it is done with such a heavy hand that it feels more silly than scary. As a reader, I would have preferred not to be subjected to the cartoony serial killer twist. As a thriller author, I cringed.

The Girl Who Played with Fire upped the ante and showed that Larsson had really pulled his game together. Apparently he was a fast learner, and after only one practice novel (yes, that one, the major international bestseller turned into two movies), the sequel proved to be not only another massive commercial success but also a truly good thriller and a well put-together novel. Character and plot weave tightly and quickly and before you know it, the story is aloft and soaring. That was a good read. As a writer, I was impressed. As a teacher, I admired the leaps and bounds of his growth. I was convinced that, had he lived, he would have pulled the rabbit out of the bag after all and not just made a ton of money but also become a genuinely good novelist.

It was a beautiful thought that didn’t last long, though. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest sunk my new enthusiasm by following the characters from coffee klatch to coffee klatch as they discussed what had happened in book two, revisiting a perfectly resolved plot and pulling apart its pieces in an earnest but clumsy attempt to build a new story from used material. For me, Larsson’s third novel barely got off the ground. I had trouble finishing it and would have stopped reading if I hadn’t become so deeply involved in the fictional lives of Blomkvist and Salander.

Perhaps, taking the long view, the trilogy’s greatest achievement is in restoring the importance of character to the thriller genre. On balance, Stieg Larsson’s novels are good, but his characters are great. He created two imperfect, unforgettable, lovable characters who danced to their own songs and powered his stories forward regardless of his uneven abilities as a novelist. He also imbued his work with humanism and feminism, which you don’t see enough of in commercial literature—and I loved that, too.
Read an excerpt from Next Time You See Me and view the trailer, and read an excerpt from You Are Next and view the trailer.

Visit Katia Lief's website.

--Marshal Zeringue