Review: Malin Persson Giolito’s “Quicksand”

Ever since Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), published in English translations between 2005 and 2007, I’ve dipped into the Scandinavian crime fiction scene with morbid curiosity. Are these violent novels accurate pictures of life in the countries themselves? Can guns be acquired as easily as candy in the Nordic countries, just as they can in the United States? Are the people in these countries as obsessed about their firearms as many Americans are? Naively, perhaps, I’ve always regarded the Scandinavian countries as safer than the United States, more sanely run by people who have a genuine concern for someone beside themselves. I confess that I may have a romanticized image of the well being of people in these countries and hope that the violence in the wave of Scandinavian crime fiction is pure fantasy and not the outgrowth of unadulterated fear.

That said, it’s hard to top the violence in the two-page opening sequence (“The Classroom”) of Malin Persson Giolito’s novel, Quicksand. The first-person narrator describes the five bodies that surround her in a classroom, after a violent shoot-out: a teenager from Uganda, another from India, the homeroom teacher, a girl named Amanda—who is presumably the narrator’s best friend—and, finally, a boy named Sebastian, who happens to be “the son of the richest man in Sweden” and also the narrator’s boyfriend. Blood is everywhere. The room “smells like rotten eggs. The air is hazy and gray with gunpowder smoke. Everyone has been shot but me. I haven’t got even as much as a bruise.” Her name is Maja Norberg and she’s eighteen, though later during her trial when she is charged with killing two of the victims, she will be described as looking older than that, in part because of her developed breasts.

As the trial (and the novel) drags on, the charges against Maja are murder, incitement to murder, plus being an “accessory to murder and attempted murder.”  Media accounts of the mass murders have created stereotypes of the couple: “Maja and Sebastian were a young couple with lots of problems: with drugs and alcohol, with school and each other, with their parental relationships and with their friends.”  During the lengthy trial, “The prosecutor [tries] to show that Maja’s search for affirmation knew no bounds, that she felt unreasonable hatred for the people around her and Sebastian, that she wanted revenge, that Sebastian was weak, that she felt threatened and challenged and that Maja was the only steady point in his existence, that he sought affirmation from her.” A number of those assumptions may be true, even though they border on pop psychology. But why, I ask you, does it have to take 500 pages (well, 498 to be exact) to resolve the issue that we know will be inevitable? Maja won’t be found guilty of the murders, the trial will exonerate her, and justice will prevail. Such a long slog to get there.

And that is my major problem with crime novels. They’re puffed up, overly written as if the writers are being paid for each word. (Perhaps they are). Worse, in Maja’s case, we’ve got an insufferable voice we have to listen to for all those pages. She’s sarcastic, irreverent, and lame. I borrow that last word from Maja’s initial observation of her trial: “The whole show was lame.” Is this Holden Caulfield reincarnated into the voice of an eighteen-year-old rich Swedish girl? Or is the intent of the writer pure titillation? There are scene after scene of Sebastian’s parties, where almost everyone is stoned out, and there’s plenty of sex. In fact, Maja confesses that Sebastian first made a pass at her when they were five years old. In pre-school, he kissed her; he touched her for a week and then moved on to other girls for the next thirteen years. “Did I miss it for all those years in between, when he played with others, dated others, was a grade ahead of me and I knew who he was but not the other way around? Yes, I did.”

No wonder she can’t keep her hands off the guy when Sebastian finally shows interest in her again. They can get high as often as they want, jet-set around the world or ride on Sebastian’s father’s thousand-foot yacht (well, it’s a little shorter than that). And there’s endless sex, with no restrictions coming from their families.

Pure pleasure, until Sebastian flips out all because of his repeated abuse from his insensitive and callow father. But that’s enough of the story, in spite of what I agree are numerous surprises in plotting.

For me, Stieg Larsson remains the genius, the pro, because of his extraordinary characters in the Millennium trilogy. They have depth; they’re multi-faceted.  As I wrote in CounterPunch years ago, there’s a Dickensian quality to them that makes you care for them, agonize about dilemmas, and cheer them on when they finally eradicate the forces of evil. (Dickens does that also.) So, although Malin Persson Giolito’s Quicksand will mostly keep you turning the pages, by the time you get to the end of the novel, you can only bemoan once again Stieg Larsson’s premature death.

Malin Persson Giolito: Quicksand
Trans. by Rachel Willson-Broyles
Other Press, 498 pp., $25.95


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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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