Saturday, July 10, 2010

Parsing Larsson

I'm reading Stieg Larsson's "The Girl Who Played with Fire," though I don't know why. It's the second in a trilogy, after "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

The prose in "Dragon" was pretty bad. But the story was fast-paced enough to distract me from the writing. Not so with "Fire." As the story drags on, I've started noticing sentences and passages I want to fix. (It's a copy editor thing. A disease, really.) I started dog-earing examples of problem sentences and paragraphs, figuring I'd analyze them here. But soon, it seemed that every other page was dog-eared with examples too bad to pass up. And I could feel my chest tightening: It's too much. The writing's too convoluted. I can't possibly fix all this. But I can't just let it go, either.

So, in the interest of maintaining healthy blood pressure, I decided that I didn't have to fix all Stieg's problem passages. I could just share some here (tinkering only if it didn't seriously affect my heart rate). So here's an example of Stieg prose (which is also an example of how often huge sales success goes hand in hand with bad writing).

Larsson wrote in Swedish, was translated into English, and then the manuscript presumably passed through the hands of an editor and copy editor. I'm not sure where the blame goes. That said, here's the passage from "The Girl Who Played with Fire."

Salander soon discovered that the person who had leaked the information to the media was Ekstrom himself. This was evident from an email in which he answered follow-up questions about both Salander's psychiatric report and the connection between her and Miriam Wu.

The third significant piece of information was the insight that Bublanski's team did not have a single lead as to where they should look for Salander. She read with interest a report on what measures had been taken and which addresses had been put under sporadic surveillance.

Note how the pivotal verb in three out of four of those sentences is "was." Here's one way that, I suspect, a lot of writers might have written it:

Salander skimmed Ekstrom's emails until she saw one with the subject line "Re: Psych report, Wu connection," addressed to a reporter at a local paper. She opened it. "No," the first line read, "Salander's doctors never used the word 'sociopath' in the report. But they did consider her violent. Re your other question: Miriam Wu admitted she and Salander played 'sex games,' as she called them."

So Ekstrom was the rotten son of a bitch who blabbed to the media.

Salander also found on Ekstrom's computer a list of the places police had been staking out to find her: her old apartment, Miriam's place, Mikhael's cabin. The condo wasn't on the list. They had no clue where she was hiding. Good.


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