We live in a world in which paranoia is a requirement. This factoid comes from a character in The Girl in the Spider’s Web, David Lagercrantz’s much-awaited 2015 addition to the late Stieg Larsson’s blockbuster Millennium series (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, et al). Read as above, one may confuse it as a quote from a contemporary Leftist philosopher who finds herself bemoaning Big Data and government-sanctioned snooping by agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA). Since Lagercrantz’s novel embeds the NSA’s machinations as an important plot element, focusing on the what-if-it-were-misused type of risk, the statement’s grudging ratification of paranoia fosters a few thoughts on the intentions behind it.
Lagercrantz is probably attempting a cheap shot at the culture of surveillance around us. He starts with a somewhat easy target, the American NSA. A first-time thriller writer, though, Lagercrantz is unable to lay bare the geopolitical complications of digital surveillance and its misuses. To say the least, this reader’s desire for an unmitigated denigration of America’s surveillance systems and their vulnerabilities and stupidities, at least a half-page monologue or something, remains unfulfilled at the end.
But it’s probably not fair to chastise Lagercrantz for that failure. It will always be tough for this genre to make nuanced, critical comments about the zeitgeist. What contemporary thrillers do easily is embodying the zeitgeist and the inherent logic that sustains and destroys its systems. The thriller’s inessential job, if we may call it that, is to distend and present the negative possibilities of this world as it is. All of this can go spectacularly wrong in such and such way (and what does that mean for us now): this usually is, and should be, the spine of a thriller’s message.
Stieg Larsson, whose death in 2004 set the scene for the grand revival of his characters, was a clever writer. From his very first book (Hollywood roped in David Fincher for the adaptation), he gave us a complex mix: combining fiery feminism, concerns about increasing fascism, so on, while giving us sadistic sex episodes on the sly.
Lagercrantz seems more nuanced on an ethical plane. Though he betrays a lack of concern with the plane wrongs: those which is already classified as immoral; he is definitely more interested in the inherent flaws of the good system, liberal capitalism, in how absolute liberty seems to require absolute surveillance. And what might that mean? And what might be the costs of that?
Of course, Lagercrantz himself might not be conscious of such artistic decisions; he may just be embodying the times that he finds himself in. Also, some might feel that he doesn’t articulate these very strains enough, not as much as a more seasoned thriller writer could. But that’s okay. Lagercrantz’s thriller makes a big essential question somewhat consumable. A deeper critical analysis is the job of the discerning reader.
(The writer is publishing his first novel in October 2016)