The Tedium Required of Heroism

So I finally finished Luftslottet som sprängdes, the last of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. That’s me—several years behind the curve on popular culture. The Swedish title translates literally to “Air castles that get exploded,” not “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” which is the title it was published under in English translation. That, apparently, is not the only thing different about these two versions of the same book. The Swedish version I just slogged through is some 704 pages long, compared to the 563-page edition published in English (and the Swedish had smaller type, too).

I can guess what is missing. After all, this book is a bit of a slog. Larsson carries his reader step by step by tedious and torturous step through the stages of a newspaper investigation into state-sponsored criminality, the recovery process for a woman recently shot in the head, a police murder investigation, a police internal investigation, the trials and travails of changing a work culture at a large daily newspaper, preparing for a trial, the testimony at said trial, and more. Our story’s main hero, Mikael Blomkvist, is sitting on a story that could rock the whole of Sweden—namely, the existence of a secret organization within the county’s Säkerhetspolis (literally, “security police,” or Sweden’s equivalent to an FBI/CIA hybrid), but the nature of the story requires that he build his case irrefutably, brick by brick. He is joined in this venture by folks from Milton Security, the former employer of Lisbeth Salander, who has been arrested for attempted murder and other crimes but who is also the target of Säpo intrigue, given that her father, a former Russian spy, was the nucleus around which this Säpo cult organized itself. Blomkvist’s quest to expose this long-lasting conspiracy is also part of his quest to help free Lisbeth. In this, he eventually joins certain members of Säpo, who are disgusted to learn that members of their own have essentially been freelancing on the state’s dime to nefarious and unconstitutional ends. There are numerous pages dealing with the minutiae of sourcing information, how the crew of Millennium changes their habits in order to avoid sharing information over phone lines they know are tapped, how Säpo loyalists set up surveillance over members of the supposed “section” within their own ranks, and more.

It is honestly a brutally tedious read. I am not at all surprised that it was edited for American release. Only the last 200 pages or so constitute anything at all close to the page-turner we expect of summer reading lists. At times, I found myself drowning so deeply in all this apparently extraneous material that I was flipping forward to see if anything, anything, at all would be happening soon. Reading the original is a literary endurance test right up there with Moby Dick.

But I think that this is the point. After all, Stieg Larsson was, himself, a journalist, the head editor of Expo and a specialist on right-wing movements in Sweden. He knew first-hand just how much work one could devote to a story and how so very careful one had to be, lest years of work be undone by a single undocumented assertion. Moreover, as I tried to drive home to my students this spring in my “Race and Public Policy” class at the University of Arkansas Clinton School for Public Service, the civil rights movement, despite how it is presented in popular culture and in the classrooms, consisted of more than just marches. There were, in addition to marchers and preachers, lawyers working hard to advance the cause through the court system. There were literary figures and music legends offering their artistic gifts, their lyrical dreams of, or demands for, freedom. There were journalists working hard to expose the brutal realities of racial segregation and the violence inherent in the Jim Crow system. There were even academics and historians like John Hope Franklin, who offered African Americans a history of their own, and the Arkansas-born and Yale-based C. Vann Woodward, author of The Strange Career of Jim Crow, which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “the bible of the civil rights movement.” Why? Because Woodward demonstrated clearly and succinctly that segregationist legislation was not based upon some longstanding tradition of racial separation but rather was an innovation developed in the late nineteenth-century in response to the success of African Americans, politically and economically. Social change did not occur because a few people took to the streets and awoke the conscience of America. It happened because a committed group of people attacked the system of white supremacy in a patient and often coordinated fashion along a number of fronts over several decades, each person doing their part.

(And the toilets. Don’t forget about the toilets. You don’t march thousands of people from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, without making some plans for toilet facilities along the way. You don’t gather hundreds of thousands of people on the National Mall in Washington DC without making some plan for potties. Because if the guy in charge of toilets falls down on the job, guess what? The headlines the following day aren’t about that wonderful “I have a dream” speech but, instead, say something like, “Savage Negroes Defile National Mall with Their Excretions.” And you want to avoid that. Whoever made plans for toilets that day was the unsung hero of the civil rights movement.)

The point is that heroic work is often a slog. Heroic work is often tedious. Our culture, the culture which cut some 150 pages from Luftslottet som sprängdes, would have us believe otherwise. “Get this to the media!” cries the Hollywood secret agent before a sniper takes him out, leaving a plucky and pure-hearted heroine alone as she tries to get back to the states with this secret flash drive, all the while avoiding the corporate terrorist ninjas coming after her, until she can finally hand the data over to a young and determined journalist and expose this conspiracy to all the world. Because all you have to do is expose the bad guys, and everything gets fixed, right? Even American subcultures are not immune to this belief. What are the God’s Not Dead movies but a manifestation of faith in the idea that all you have to do is shout the truth in order to change lives? A movie like Spotlight rather expertly showed that it can take years to dig out a story and get it solid enough to publish, but by ending with the very day the first story went to press, it unfortunately reinforces the idea that getting the truth out there is the main thing. The follow-up stories, the lawsuits, the cultural advocacy, the personal counseling of those abused by priests, the ongoing need to struggle against an organization that constitutes basically an international pedophile ring but which has the backing of major political and financial figures—all of that is acknowledged, but the structure of the story nonetheless reinforces that idea that all that is needed is the exposure of truth to change the world.

Instead, as Larsson really drives home, doing good work is often tedium. It often entails an obsessive concern for details. It depends upon the minutiae. It can only bear fruit if the attack on evil is carried out on many different fronts, some of which would seem unrelated to the mission at hand but are nonetheless vital to success. Doing good work is a chore. It can be boring. It doesn’t necessarily make for an exciting story, or even just a story. It often involves paperwork. It always involves repeating oneself again and again. Changing society is never easy, and often people who disagree on the means, in the end, thanks to their different tactics, contribute to that little step forward that we all take, even if these antagonistic groups don’t acknowledge that. This, I believe, is what Larsson was trying to point out with his characters’ endless attention to detail. And the end point is never that, because there is always some follow-up action to take.

Real heroic work doesn’t exactly make for a great movie. Your tedious part may not necessarily fill the grandkids’ eyes with wonder (“I filed legal briefs on behalf of SNCC!”). But it is crucial. It is vital. In other words, fuck Joseph Campbell and his “hero’s journey.” When Luke Skywalker can successfully order enough port-a-potties for a quarter of a million people, then he’ll be a hero in my book.

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One comment

  1. Your comment about the National Mall couldn’t have had better timing, as thousands of atheists will be gathering in that same place this Saturday. I’ll have to remember to thank whoever it was that arranged for the porta-johns for the event.

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