Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Dark Tower by Stephen King

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Ka is a wheel.”

This review contains lots of spoilers, like all my others. I doubt anyone here is planning to read this whole series, but I'll try to split my thoughts into spoiler and spoiler-free sections.

The Dark Tower is Stephen King's self-proclaimed opus. Starting with The Gunslinger, written in 1978 and ending with The Dark Tower, published in 2004, it spans nearly his entire writing career and expands outward from the seven books of the series into the Stephen King universe. Novels as diverse as It, Hearts in Atlantis, and The Stand have ties back to The Dark Tower, and it was this interconnectedness (along with some meta-narrative which I'll discuss later) that initially inspired me to pick up The Gunslinger and give the series a try.

The premise is simple: Roland Dechain,the last gunslinger of Eld, a town for whom time has “moved on,” is on an obsessive quest to reach The Dark Tower, the center of the whole world, a pillar to which everything else is tied. Even Roland himself is unsure of his exact motivation, except that it is the driving force of his life. He is willing to (and has) sacrificed friends, family, health, love, and peace for his quest. As the series progresses, Roland forms his ka-tet, a group of gunslingers, made up of Eddie, a former heroin addict from modern day New York, Susannah, a wealthy, black, double amputee from the 1930s, Jake, a 12 year-old boy from 80's era new York, and Oy, a billy-bumbler doglike creature from Midworld, Roland's own world.

Throughout its seven volumes, the series cycles through a number of genres: The minimalistic Western of The Gunslinger, the more familiar horror/thriller setting of The Wastelands and The Drawing of the Three, Romance in The Wizard and the Glass, Adventure in Wolves of the Calla, crap in Song of Susannah, and a mishmash of all of the above with some self-referential postmodern meta-fiction thrown in. Because of this and the sometimes long periods between books, the series is of varying quality, and the variance in style means that readers may love some (The Wizard and the Glass) while hating others (Song of Susannah). For me, it meant the highs were high, and the lows were particularly low.

This is where the spoilers begin.

The Dark Tower, the book this review actually focuses on, is the last in the series, published only a few months after Song of Susannah, the penultimate volume. Song of Susannah was a mess, a meandering, dull mishmash of the cast wandering around doing nothing, focused on the schizophrenic pyscho-babble of Susannah, easily the worst and most annoying member of the ka-tet. If Song of Susannah had been, say, book 3 instead of book 6, I'm not sure I would have completed the series. As it was, I put off The Dark Tower for several months, not relishing the thought of 1000 more pages of King demolishing the story I'd enjoyed up until the previous book.

In summation, for anyone who's morbidly curious but wants to stop reading, The Dark Tower is a massive improvement on Song of Susannah. Unfortunately, being better than Song is only half the battle. In spite of having an actual plot and quite a few well-done scenes, The Dark Tower falters by ending several plotlines (one of them dating back to The Stand) with incoherent, out-of-left-field whimpers. For example, Mordred, the long-prophesied bastard son of Susannah and Roland by way of a demonic artificial insemination, spends most of The Dark Tower stalking Roland and his party, only to attack them when he's nearly dead and be killed by, no kidding, Oy, the little dog-like creature in the ka-tet. Mordred might be the second weakest link in the entire book, since he's also King's agent to pull off another on the books major faux pas, the death of Martin, a villain King has used as the embodiment of evil throughout his universe for decades. He's dispatched rather ignominiously (but fairly grotesquely) by Mordred who is, as mentioned, killed by a glorified raccoon.

A lot of readers were upset when King wrote himself into Song of Susannah, and those readers won't find much to like in parts of this book either. King is back, this time with a much larger role. Full disclosure though, the meta narrative with King was the only bright point in Song of Susannah for me, and I think it works here as well. Since King has posited that the Dark Tower is the center of the universe in all of his books, even those that don't reference it, it makes perfect sense that Stephen King the author would appear in the series. For the most part, fictionalized King is a bit of a bumbler, and, except for a couple bits of false modesty (including a less-than-subtle dig at critics who see him as nothing more than a schlock peddler), his character fits right into the narrative.

However, although fictional King sits just fine with me, real-life King decides to pull an ill-conceived trick several times during the book, speaking in the first person directly to the reader (“Now, dear reader, you're probably wondering where this disembodied voice is coming from...”). It happens several times throughout The Dark Tower, and it's always sort of annoying. For the most part, I overlooked it, because a) the entire book reads like King is trying to turn his series into some sort of post-modern mobius strip and b) most of the digressions were very short and easy to skim. However, at the very end of the book, directly before (SPOILER!) Roland reaches the Tower, King takes several pages to tell the reader to stop reading. Yes, that's right. He writes that the point of the quest isn't the destination but the journey, which is true as far as it goes, but a journey has to be heading somewhere. Whether King actually expected readers to take his advice or not, the interlude is intensely condescending and slows the narrative to a stop right before the ultimate denouement.

Strangely, the ending itself isn't bad at all, and although it made a lot of readers angry (just check out the Amazon reviews), it's surprisingly moving and seems like a logical way for this epic journey to end. Given King's tendency to write good books with bad endings, I was pleasantly surprised.

So, if I had it to do over again, would I still read The Dark Tower? Probably. The first four books are probably among the best work King has done, and I even enjoyed Wolves of the Calla. Song of Susannah was a major misstep though, and The Dark Tower run so hot-and-cold that the book itself can't help but be seen as a disappointment. Still, there is some truth to what King says about the journey being the point, and I'm not disappointed in the series as a whole. I just don't know if I'd recommend it.


Carlton said...

I have a feeling I wouldn't like this series. Although...I have loved the two King books that I have read.

Nihil Novum said...

I think you'd like some of it. it's really bizarre but pretty interesting until the last two books--admittedly a pretty large caveat.

Nihil Novum said...

Also, you should read Pet Semetary (review coming soon!)