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A book review by Steven Wu
November 29, 2004
|Rating: 2 (of 10)|
The Gunslinger both enthralled and mystified me. The book is surreal, almost Zen-like in its sparseness and stubborn lack of plot. Roland, the gunslinger, relentlessly tracks a man in black through a featureless desert. He encounters a lonely desert dweller and his raven, Zoltan; then a curious, forelorn little town, where he kills everybody; then a boy, Jake, whom he abandons in the mountains. There are elegiac flashbacks to Roland's spare childhood, and his vicious coming of age at both the hands of his tragic father and his trainer, Cort. Roland catches up to the man in black in the end, of course. They have a baffling conversation. Roland sleeps. He wakes. Centuries have passed.
The Gunslinger is an intensely strange book. The characters are almost alien in their motivations and desires. The world Roland moves through is terrifyingly empty, filled only with the pettiest of human squabbles and empty of all hope. The people speak in koan, not dialogue. And the rules of time and space are flexible at best.
I loved it. Fortunately my college roommate did too, and had all the then-existing books in the series, up to Wizard and Glass. I read them all in the space of a couple of weeks. The second book, The Drawing of the Three, makes explicit the connections between our world and Roland's: in that book, Roland "draws" three people from three different times in "our" world through inter-dimensional doors, for a purpose that neither he nor they can fathom. In the third book, The Waste Lands, Roland and his "ka tet" (the name he gives to his band of travelers) travel across Roland's ruined world and encounter Blaine the Mono, an evil, sentient train (I kid you not). In the fourth book, Wizard and Glass, Roland and company travel on Blaine across the poisonous waste lands, while Roland recounts his doomed romance with Susannah, who still haunts him.
These three books mostly preserve the disquieting atmosphere and deep sense of history that made The Gunslinger so compelling. In fact, where this series really shines is in its descriptions of Roland's post-apocalyptic world. The atmosphere is terrific, evoking the kind of inhumanly distant far future that I love. (Cf. Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, which was entirely sustained by that kind of atmosphere.)
But the series slowly begins to deteriorate. Why does King begin The Drawing of the Three with a bizarre (albeit tense) extended horror sequence between Roland and a swarm of lobster-like creatures? Why does Odetta, one of the people drawn by Roland, speak in a painful, almost offensive parody of a black Southern accent? And what the hell is going on with Blaine the Mono--an evil, insane, ALL-CAPS-TALKING cross-country monorail who tortures his passengers by (I kid you not) demanding riddles? Blaine is the perfect encapsulation of the worst of King--it's the kind of King creation that must have seemed edgy and creepy to him, but comes off sounding just a little bit lame.
But things get worse. Oh man, do they get worse. Roland's story of Susannah in Wizard and Glass is, I submit, the last genuinely gripping piece of storytelling in the Dark Tower series. When, at the end of that book, Roland and his ka tet go traipsing into a re-creation of Oz (seriously), you realize that the series has gone seriously gonzo.
Sure, Wolves of the Calla begins promisingly enough: mysterious, green-cloaked monsters invade a small town and steal its children every few years. The problem is that the book is only partially focused on the Wolves. The rest of it is filled with King's increasingly mystical mumbo jumbo about multiverses and new realities and so on and so forth. And even the once promising plotline involving the Wolves is crippled when King explains everything away with (again, I kid you not) references to Harry Potter and the Fantastic Four.
But back to the mystical mumbo jumbo: by the fifth book, Song of Susannah, it becomes clear that the Dark Tower series isn't about Roland and his post-apocalyptic far future. It is, instead, about Stephen King, and more specifically about the Dark Tower series itself. That's right: the Dark Tower series isn't fiction, it's meta-fiction. And really, stomach-churningly bad meta-fiction at that. First of all, Stephen King writes himself and his life into the story--at one point Roland and Jake actually witness (and then participate in) King's real-life accident with a minivan. That would be all right by itself, except for a second problem: King is just too cute when writing about himself, e.g., "[S]uppose this man King becomes famous or critically acclaimed? I admit the chances are small, but suppose that did happen?" Oh, how droll. Third, King also grotesquely aggrandizes himself in the storyline. (I suppose spoilers follow.) Dark Tower fans know from the second book that all of reality is being held up by a series of beams that intersect in the center at the Dark Tower. Well, it turns out that one of those beams is none other than Stephen King himself. That's right: King and the stories he writes uphold the fabric of reality. It takes a special kind of hubris to write a 3,000-page epic that makes yourself the center of all existence.
And have I mentioned an extremely tasteless reference to 9/11, where King suggests that the terrorist attacks were just an attempt by his villains to destroy a fictional artifact of great value to them?
As the series turns painfully meta, the entire plotline goes to hell. The lengthy battle between the split personalities of Odetta (now known as Susannah) is pointless and often grotesque. Rather than generating real tension, King reels off chapters and chapters of strange dreams and bizarre monologues--filled with even more of that godawful accent. There is also an entire plotline centering around the difference between "dogan" and "hogan." And, most ludicrously, Roland attempts to save all of reality by drafting a legally binding holographic contract, perhaps the first time I have ever seen the word "holographic" used in its legal sense in a popular novel.
Suffice to say that by the time Roland finally reaches the Dark Tower, he has had to pass through chapter upon chapter of utter nonsense and pointless, maddening drivel. How surprising, then, that with the Dark Tower actually in sight King suddenly remembers how to tell a story. The field of roses is breathtaking. The final battle at the foot of the Dark Tower is thrilling (though it ends on what is essentially a bad pun). And the ending--despite occurring after a long rant by Stephen King about why the hell anybody wants to know what's in the Dark Tower--is almost shockingly good.
It's tragic that a series that began so promisingly had to go through such idiocy before ending on a (relative) high note. If you cut all the stupid stuff out of the Dark Tower series, the remaining material would be much leaner (two books at most) but much better. I know Stephen King is capable of great books; I've seen it. It's too bad he decided to throw in all of his worst stuff into what was supposed to be his masterpiece.
Steven Wu's Book Reviews