Monday, May 6, 2013

Literary Analysis: Little Star by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2010)

Decided to step away from reviewing movies for a second in order to post the paper that I wrote for my Communications 2 class. We each had to pick a recently published (2006 or later) bestselling novel with more than 400 pages, read it, and write a literary analysis using the guidelines created by our professor, Dr. David Bradford. (If you're reading this, you were an awesome professor!) I kinda fudged the rules by picking a book that appeared on the Swedish bestseller list, but that still counts, doesn't it?

Here it is, the 3,000-word, nine-and-a-half-page paper that I got an A+ on. The only change is that I removed the works cited page and the MLA citations. Given that this is a literary analysis, I also spoil the entire novel in this paper, so if you're interested in reading it, I'll just post the final paragraph right here, detailing my thoughts on it.

"I would recommend Little Star for anybody interested in modern horror literature. If one is familiar with Stephen King’s slow-burn style, where he spends the first two hundred pages setting up characters and story before getting into the meat of the horror, then he or she will feel right at home with Little Star. Those looking for something more fast-paced might be turned off, but for those with patience, Little Star is very good both as a horror story and as a commentary on social media and celebrity culture."

A Literary Analysis of Little Star by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Full paper after the jump.

Written by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Little Star was published in 2010 in Sweden, and reached number 2 on the Swedish bestseller list. It was translated into English by Marlaine Delargy and published in the US in 2012 by St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Thomas Dunne Books.

Lindqvist is a Swedish author born in 1968. Having previously worked as a magician and a stand-up comedian, he began his writing career with the acclaimed bestselling novel Let the Right One In in 2004, which has been described as an “anti-Twilight” in its handling of a vampire romance. This was followed by Handling the Undead in 2005, Harbor in 2008, and Little Star in 2010. He also wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of Let the Right One In in 2008, which received critical acclaim and was remade in the United States in 2010 as Let Me In, and has written several short stories. Lindqvist is a huge fan of Morrissey and The Smiths, with the title of Let the Right One In taken from a Morrissey song and two of the characters in Harbor frequently quoting his lyrics.

For Little Star, Lindqvist wrote a dark version of the rebirth plot. It begins by foreshadowing a great tragedy at a pop music concert, then introduces, in her infancy, one of the characters who will orchestrate that tragedy, Theres Cederstrom. After spending the first third of the novel detailing her uniquely bizarre childhood before having her commit a horrific act out of childhood curiosity, the story switches to the exposition of another character, the other half of the duo responsible for the concert disaster, the comparatively normal Teresa Svensson.

Theres and Teresa meet through the reality show Idol, where Theres is a contestant and Teresa is a fan of hers. The two form a bond, and from here the story begins to march towards its conclusion at the concert. As Teresa’s nihilism develops from exposure to Theres’ almost inhuman nature, and as Theres’ devoted “fan club” starts to internalize these attitudes, the reader begins to see how the concert disaster will take shape. While a crisis briefly emerges as Teresa tries to let go of Theres and become a normal girl, her rejection and humiliation by her classmates drives her back into Theres’ arms.

The concert serves as the climax of the novel, with Teresa and the fan club going on a murderous rampage through the crowd with power drills and hammers, while Theres looks on from the stage, singing a cover of ABBA's "Thank You For the Music". There is no epiphany for Theres and Teresa; the conclusion has them walking into a group of wolves from the nearby zoo, waiting to be embraced into the pack that they had so idealized.

Little Star is told chiefly from a third-person perspective, with the exception of the prologue, which is in the first person plural. The narrator does not play a concrete role in the story except to tell the reader what is happening. The narrator is omniscient, knowing what the characters are thinking and what is going to transpire, as can be inferred from the following two passages.

The prologue takes place at the Sing Along at Skansen, a pop music concert at the Skansen zoo in Stockholm. From the first page, we are informed that the show and, presumably, the two protagonists’ journey into the world of reality TV stardom will end in disaster: “The orchestra strikes up with ‘Stockholm in My Heart’, and everyone joins in. Hands sway in the air, mobile phone cameras are raised. A wonderful feeling of togetherness. It will be another fifteen minutes until, with meticulous premeditation, the whole thing is torn to shreds. Let us sing along for the time being. We have a long way to go before we return here. Only when the journey has softened us up, when we are ready to think the unthinkable, will we be permitted to come back. So come on everyone! All together now!” Not only does the narrator know how the story will end, but he or she speaks directly to the reader with the term “we”. This is the only instance of first-person plural narration in the novel, coming right at the start.

A clearer, more representative example of third-person narration can be found on page 184: “Goran came and sat down next to her. Since he had stepped down from his managerial role and become an ordinary assistant again, the dark rings under his eyes had faded and he had become more available as a father. The problem was the nobody was interested in his availability anymore. Teresa couldn’t say exactly when it had happened, but at some point she had stopped talking to her father about anything important.” Here, the narrator demonstrates a knowledge of what, precisely, the characters are thinking in this passage, of what their lives are like, even though these things are never voiced by either Goran or Teresa.

Little Star has two protagonists, the teenage girls Theres Cederstrom and Teresa Svensson. While Teresa can properly be called a round character, Theres is comparatively flat. Her defining traits throughout the story are her amazing singing voice and her lack of “normal” human emotions, the result of an upbringing by her adoptive father Lennart Cederstrom, a (possibly mad) songwriter/record producer who raised her to become a musical prodigy. After her lack of emotion causes her to commit a horrifying act, Lennart’s son Jerry takes her under his wing and works overtime in a failed effort to teach her how to behave properly. He also gets her involved in an American Idol-esque singing competition, hoping to put her musical talent to some use.

Teresa Svensson, the rounder of the two protagonists, is the foil to Theres, having had a comparatively normal upbringing in a small town. She is an outcast at school, having become overweight as a result of teasing, and engages in internet trolling as a way to release her pent-up anger. She has a gloomy outlook on life, at one point fantasizing about all of her classmates getting thrown into a pit and buried alive, with nothing of value being lost. Her growth comes chiefly through her interactions with Theres, who she sees performing on Idol and then encounters on the internet. These interactions, in which Teresa writes poetry that she puts to music for Theres to sing, help to rebuild her confidence. She starts a pop duo with Theres, seeing her as “the wolf above all other wolves.”

Jerry Cederstrom, Lennart’s son, is a round character, yet most of his development comes in the form of backstory. Like Theres later on, Lennart raised Jerry (named after Jerry Lee Lewis) in the hopes that Jerry would become a popular musician, much as he and his wife Laila were at the time. However, Jerry’s musical dreams are dashed when, during what he hoped would be his big performance of “Space Oddity” for the class, the principal inadvertently humiliated him. Jerry lost interest in music and became a teen delinquent and drug dealer afterwards, and now makes money by suckering rich people into playing online poker against him.

Lennart and Laila Cederstrom, Jerry’s parents and Theres’ adoptive parents, are examples of, respectively, a flat and round character. A former pop duo in the ‘70s, Lennart is now a songwriter and producer, while Laila is mostly retired. After finding Theres in the woods while picking flowers, Lennart seeks to make her a popular musician like he and Laila had been, succeeding where he had failed with Jerry. Laila, meanwhile, tries to give Theres something resembling a normal upbringing, teaching her to read and write in her spare time. Much of Laila’s character growth comes after a failed suicide attempt causes her to develop a new appreciation for her life, even as she grows older, leading to her losing weight and playing music in the house. Lennart, meanwhile, is characterized almost entirely by his attempts to raise Theres to become a great singer. Even in the backstory, shades of this defining trait can be seen in his pushing Jerry into music, and his disappointment as to how that failed to pan out.

The last major character is Max Hansen, a round character who changes dramatically not long after his introduction. Max is a sleazy record producer who once had some success in the ‘80s, but is seen in the industry as the “last hope” for struggling musicians, and abuses the trust of his clients (often underage teen girls) in order to have sex with them, filming it and then masturbating to the footage. He is given a shock by Theres, who violently attacks him after he tries to do the same to her. His self-esteem broken, he resolves to use her not for sex, but as his ticket back to the big time.

Most of the other minor characters are flat. There is Paris, a black American stylist who works for Idol and is characterized by her role as Jerry’s girlfriend in the second half of the novel. Johannes is characterized chiefly by the fact that he is Teresa’s childhood friend, while Teresa’s parents, Goran and Maria, are static figures who exist largely in the background. Their main role is to wonder “where did we go wrong?” as Teresa grows increasingly attached to Theres. Miranda is characterized by her role as a fangirl of Theres’ after her song “Fly” becomes a viral web hit.

Little Star is set in Sweden. The first half of the novel, focusing on the childhoods of protagonists Theres and Teresa, takes place between the early 1990s and the early-mid 2000s, with flashbacks to events in the lives of characters like Lennart, Laila, and Jerry that take place in the 1970s and 1980s. The second half, meanwhile, is set in the years 2005-2007.

Theres’ story is initially set in the confines of the Cederstrom house where she is kept locked up, with brief interludes when Lennart and Laila leave the house for their own purposes. Teresa’s story, meanwhile, takes place in the small town of Osteryd, where she lives and goes to school. In the second half of the novel, as Theres and Teresa’s stories converge, more of the action takes place in Stockholm. Theres and Jerry move into an apartment in Stockholm after Theres kills Lennart and Laila, while Teresa makes frequent visits into the city as she becomes friend with Theres.

Thematically, Little Star is set in the music industry and the world of internet celebrity, especially in the second half of the novel. Most of the supporting characters, such as the former pop singers Lennart and Laila and the record producer Max Hansen, come from the music industry, while Theres’ “fan club” of cult-like followers who embrace her amoral attitude all found out about her after her song “Fly” became an overnight YouTube sensation a la “Call Me Maybe” in Sweden. Teresa’s introduction to Theres comes through the internet, motivated partly as a reaction to the snickering comments Teresa had read about Theres on Idol message boards.

Little Star starts out with the threat that it will end in a display of grisly violence, with “blood on the ground… covering the seats,” and from there sets out with a foreboding tone, the reader equipped with the knowledge that the book will end in tragedy. An almost mystical air is built around Theres, who, at least partly due to her upbringing, acts without knowledge of human emotion. With few explicit indications, the reader is led to believe that Theres is a wicked force that is not quite human, from her being dumped in the forest and left for dead by somebody who was speeding away from the scene to the fact that she seems to inhale the “essence” of the people she kills, described as a “lone thin curl of smoke” that cannot be seen but whose presence can be smelled and felt, as when Teresa, under Theres’ guidance, first kills a man.

The book’s style, likewise, can also be described as otherworldly. Even in the comparatively “normal” Teresa’s story, the characters and reader still feel a detachment from the world around them, most of it created by technology. Karl-Axel’s humiliating video of Teresa is spread online, and most of the bullying that comes her way as a result is in the form of lewd text messages. Max, meanwhile, films and then masturbates to his young female clients dancing and having sex with him, and can no longer get off to those videos after Theres gives him a sudden, very personal jolt that breaks him out of his detachment.

If Little Star can be said to have a theme, then it is the perils of being thrust into celebrity. The title of the novel is taken from Lilla stj√§rna, Sweden’s entry into the 1958 Eurovision Song Contest, and the story is about a teenage girl who already possessed some highly disturbing tendencies, and only grows more monstrous upon becoming a pop sensation. The adoration of her fans, particularly a cult-like group of girls who follow her everywhere, allows Theres to take a national platform to commit her horrors. Teresa, trying to come up with a reason for the massacre, is forced to settle on “because the tide of death is rising”, thinking that “if you’re going to do something magnificent then you might as well come up with a magnificent reason.” She, Theres, and the others commit their massacre at the Sing Along at Skansen to attack the superficial culture that had turned Theres into an overnight celebrity.

Teresa experiences firsthand how one can become famous for all the wrong reasons when, during a house party, a classmate records her drunkenly giving oral sex to a boy and then throwing up all over him. The video goes viral, and Teresa is inundated with lewd texts from classmates. After her brief falling-out with Theres that saw Teresa try to become a “normal” girl, this incident drives Teresa back to Theres, acting as her point of no return and setting up her grudge against fame culture and how it attacks people.

Another theme that runs through the novel is that of the relationship between the singer and the songwriter. Within their duo, it is Teresa who is the artistic driving force, writing the poetry that is adapted into music, while Theres merely sings the songs that Teresa wrote for her. The two girls’ relationship in other areas, most notably their heinous crimes, can also be examined in this light. Theres murders her parents early in the novel, but it is less out of malice than out of childhood curiosity, mistakenly believing that “love” is a physical thing that can be found in and pulled out of somebody’s brain. Teresa, on the other hand, holds genuine hatred for those around her, and is the one who writes the nihilistic note providing the official reason for her and Theres’ rampage at the end of the novel. In spite of Teresa’s imagining of Theres as the leader of the wolf pack, it can be inferred that Teresa, not Theres, was the real monster responsible for most of the book’s horrors, with Theres only serving as an inspiration for her and a means by which to carry out her malicious plan.

Late in Little Star, Teresa starts to identify with Urd, the goddess of fate in Norse mythology, taking it on as her alternate identity. This identity becomes her new anchor in life, marking the beginning of her rebirth into someone completely new, one who will decide the fates of countless people. This lends further credence to the idea that Teresa is the driving force of the mayhem wrought by her and Theres.

For that matter, rebirth is a major theme within the novel. A pivotal moment in the story comes when the girls are buried alive. While only lasting a few minutes, the burial has a strong psychological impact on the girls, the event marking the confirmation of their devotion to Theres. Teresa fully embraces her identity as Urd after her burial.

Death is represented in the story as a “lone thin curl of smoke” rising from a person’s skull, which is then inhaled and absorbed by whoever commits the murder. Teresa inhales this smoke when she kills the shopkeeper, and the girls all try to inhale the smoke from Max Hansen’s skull after Theres kills him, “almost kissing [his] lacerated skull in order to lap up the very last bit”. This smoke is invisible, but all can feel its presence; it can be argued that the smoke is the “soul” or “life force” of the victim. When Teresa tells the girls that “[w]e are the dead. We need life.”, she is foreshadowing the murder to come.

Wolves also play a symbolic role in the story. Teresa dreams about wolves, with images in her head of a pack leader implied to be Theres and her as a mere cub, and the girls come to identify as a wolf pack. At the very end of the novel, Theres and Teresa give themselves over to the wolves at the Skansen zoo, it being left an open question whether they will be accepted or eaten alive by the pack.

Little Star uses the philosophies of aesthetics and eclecticism. The second half of the book is about the image-focused world of celebrity and the music industry, with the two main characters both facing reactions from the world around them over their appearance and image. Theres, during her appearances on Idol, is criticized on fan message boards for coming off as a mannequin, a soulless cipher with no stage presence, and tries to attack her assigned stylist Paris for cutting her hair and trying to adjust her appearance. Teresa, meanwhile, gets bullied by her classmates for her weight. The story also incorporates themes from across horror literature, from Norse mythology, and from nature (in the form of the wolves) in order to unnerve readers.

I would recommend Little Star for anybody interested in modern horror literature. If one is familiar with Stephen King’s slow-burn style, where he spends the first two hundred pages setting up characters and story before getting into the meat of the horror, then he or she will feel right at home with Little Star. Those looking for something more fast-paced might be turned off, but for those with patience, Little Star is very good both as a horror story and as a commentary on social media and celebrity culture.


  1. Kevin,
    Still one of the best literary analysis I have ever received.
    Dr B

    1. Wow, thank you! If I may ask, are you using this paper as an example for this semester's class? You have my full permission if you wish to do so.