Monday, August 16, 2010

The Dark Tower, At Long Last

I have a confession to make. Throughout my five-month pilgrimage to the Dark Tower, I've been using phrases like "I'm not really a Stephen King fan, but…" It's been disingenuous. Prior to the Dark Tower, I'd read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, watched Carrie and part of The Shining on TV… and that's about it. I think the issue is that I'm not a horror fan—and before I dig myself into another hole, it's not that I've even read that much horror. The most fair and accurate thing I can say is that I don't really like the idea of horror. And that much abstraction is a poor vantage to judge Stephen King from.

In my defense, "this is the Stephen King that you should read even if you're not a Stephen King fan" was only part of the reason I decided to read the Dark Tower books. Another important part was recommendation from friends. But probably the biggest was its major influence on Lost. I commented on that before, in a few of Season 6's "Lost Speculations and Observations" posts, but that was before I'd read the entire series.

(For Lost fans, there is a huge Dark Tower influence on the show. Certain numbers with an unexplained cosmic significance repeatedly show up. There is a superposition of related but non-identical worlds. The iconic setting manipulates time and space unpredictably. And there's a villain known as the Man in Black who is thousands of years old, wields mysterious magic including the ability to not-quite-resurrect people, takes the identity and form of other people, and possesses the singular ambition to rule the iconic setting.)

The Dark Tower is a seven-book behemoth of a series that is ultimately best categorized as epic fantasy, although some critics, reviewers, and publishers seem to take issue with that. It's told through a Western lens, but that does not make it a Western. It's written by a prolific horror writer, but that does not make it horror. There are robots and other bits of futuristic technology, but that only sort of makes it science fiction.

Aside from its genre, the other important thing to remember about the Dark Tower is that Stephen King considers it the most important thing he's written. He sees it as both his magnum opus and a linchpin that unites all the rest of his works. Furthermore, he actually inserts himself as a character into the last third of the series.

Therefore, "Stephen King for people who aren't Stephen King fans" though it may be, the Dark Tower series is sure to be better appreciated by actual Stephen King fans. I enjoyed the fallen-priest-seeking-redemption character of Pere Callahan, but reading about him in the Dark Tower context would surely be more rewarding to someone who had already read Salem's Lot. Similarly, the gleeful evil of Randall Flagg/The Man in Black was creepy enough to me, but the fan who had already read The Stand probably got even more out of his appearances.

Callahan, Flagg, and a few other touchstone references to other books show that the "linchpin" nature of the Dark Tower is primarily one of setting and character rather than style or tone; despite the handful of horror scenes that crop up throughout, the Dark Tower is decidedly not horror. Yet, King's strengths and weaknesses apparently carry through all of his works. Friends I've talked to who have read more King than I have, whether they liked his books or not, overwhelmingly agreed that he crafts some fascinating settings and compelling plots, but that his language and writing style are subpar.

My own thought throughout reading the books was that Stephen King is an incredible storyteller, but an underwhelming author. I found myself caring deeply about what was happening, excited about what was going to happen next, and often disappointed with how "next" ended up happening. King has such a strong idea of where he wants the story to go (and don't get me wrong, it's nearly always a great place) that he has no qualms getting the story there by any means necessary.

There are two devices that King uses repeated to accomplish that. The first, and more believable, is the motif of the physical constants of the universe breaking down. If we accept as part of the setting that there are six metaphysical "beams" that support reality and are subtly observable in each world—and we should because it's fantasy—then it's just as easy to believe that the gradual breaking of these beams is causing reality to skew a little. From there, it's not much of a stretch to allow King to fudge directions, time spans, and distances just a bit. Where it might be construed as a careless continuity error in any other setting, west suddenly becoming north in the Dark Tower actually makes some twisted amount of sense.

The second, less creative, and more egregiously abused device is the theme that fate directs some of our actions without us knowing how. King expresses this as "ka," which (as any Scrabble aficionado knows) is a two-letter word to describe an indwelling vital force in Egyptian myth, similar to the concept of the soul in Judeo-Christian teaching. There's nothing particularly Egyptian about King's ka, but "indwelling" is putting it mildly.

Ka quickly becomes King's go-to deus ex machina, his perpetual trump card if something needs to happen but can't reasonably. A character is faced with a crossroads he's never seen before and has no legitimate means of picking the correct path? Ka comes to the rescue. A character needs a particular password to gain access to a building, or an item to survive the travel from city to city, but it would be ludicrous for the character to have it? Ka gives it to him.

To his credit, King tries very hard to integrate ka into the setting. Unfortunately, he only gets about halfway there. His characters believe in it so intensely that we believe that they believe that ka is guiding their actions. But it's overused to the point that in a few extreme cases, it becomes easy to wonder if the characters are actually responsible for doing any of this themselves, or if ka could pretty much just replace the entire story?

Another unfortunate side effect of ka is its effective removal of the emotion of surprise from all of the characters. Not only do impossible things happen because ka wills them, but the characters are so used to this that the most bizarre coincidence or lucky turn of events barely registers to them. And, presumably as part of his effort to permeate his setting with ka, King points out how little the characters are surprised every time this happens.

It's one of several stylistic quirks that Stephen King has, most of which detract from the story. King displays a Palahniuk-esque (or, given when their books were written, maybe it's more accurate to say that Palahniuk has a King-esque) penchant for repeating words and phrases into oblivion. You know it from Fight Club—"I am [person]'s [unusual noun]."—or from Choke—"[descriptive noun] isn't the right word, but it's the word that comes to mind."

Yes, Stephen King, I'm aware that Andy the Messenger Robot has Many Other Functions. I get it, Susannah thinks that hot chocolate "mit schlag" is "the good kind." And there was a point in the second or third book that if I read the phrase "Great Sage and Eminent Junkie" one more time to describe Eddie's brother Henry, I would have thrown the book across the room in rage. When Palahniuk does it, it comes across as smug and postmodern. When King does it, it comes across as tiresome and repetitive. Either way, it's irritating and adds absolutely nothing to the story other than the author's (misguided) attempt at cuteness.

Perhaps King's worst stylistic blunder is his clumsy metafiction, when he not only inserts himself into the story, but uses his fictional Stephen King to expound on the nature of literary devices, including his frequent use of the deus ex machina. In the Afterword to the seventh book, King describes that he does not like the term "metafiction." But whatever he chooses to call it, it's undoubtedly there, and it threatens to strip some of the realism from the setting.

I get why he did it, and in fact there are plenty of reasons. It's King's most important work, and he wants to express that he really feels a personal connection to the story he's telling. It's part of the theme that literature is more than words on a page; it is a method of connection to another existence. And it makes the point that the conflict against the Crimson King is actually one that spans all universes, not just Roland's. At its best, King's ploy works: it makes us feel more connected to the story, and it adds a sense of both urgency and wonder as we start to comprehend what this might feel like if it really did play out in our reality.

But at its worse, it's frustratingly meta. Granted, I've never been big on the meta/"tear down the fourth wall" idea. It's easier, more sincere, and (most importantly) funnier just to tell a funny joke than to try and make a joke about the expectation about a joke being funny. The instant that characters in a movie begin to suspect that they're in a movie, the movie loses about three notches of credibility. (It's the only part where M. Night Shyamalan's otherwise tragically underrated Lady in the Water actually lives down to its reputation.) It's likely that a bigger fan of this style would appreciate the fictionalized Stephen King more than I did.

I could go on about the weaknesses of the Dark Tower—how Stephen King could really use a lesson in "show, don't tell;" how a handful of scenes felt wholly unnecessary; how until the fifth book, King apparently did not know that sometimes instead of "which," it's appropriate to use "that". But that wouldn't be doing justice to the many strengths of the series.

First, it's worth mentioning that King does do one literary thing very well, and that's pacing. In sharp contrast to the middle-late Wheel of Time books, for instance, I never felt like 700 or 800 pages of any given Dark Tower book ground to a halt. Nor did I often think that things were happening too quickly, and that I would have liked a little more exposition. I could sit down for a reasonable amount of time and make some reasonable amount of progress—after reading a few chapters, there's neither a feeling of lack of progress nor one of having rushed through.

Where the Dark Tower really shines, though, is in its imaginative setting. Not many storytellers dare to use "the entire universe" as a setting, but King one-ups them all by using every universe for his setting. In the Dark Tower, there are an infinite number of worlds arranged on a continuum. Starting from the Earth that we know, some are very subtly different, like ones where the suburbs of New York City are rearranged slightly, or where somebody besides Alexander Hamilton is portrayed on the ten-dollar bill. Some are more drastically different, like ones where the most popular Japanese imports are not Toyota cars and Sony cameras but Takuros and Shinnaros. And others, like Roland's Mid-World, bear only fleeting resemblance to our own… but even there, "Hey Jude" remains a popular song.

There are numerous ways to get between these different worlds, of course, and they all rely on magic, technology, or some combination of both. Plenty of settings have pitched the "magic versus technology" conflict before, but King is a rare author who leaves his imprint on it. Firmly rejecting the Clarke doctrine that "sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," King asserts that technology was mankind's coping mechanism for the recession of magic from the world—and that it makes a poor substitute.

As a person of faith, it's easy to interpret things like that as King's affirmation of a higher power in his universe. In fact, as the series grows closer to the Dark Tower, the story becomes more overtly religious, with increasing references to both God and Gan (the Mid-World term for the higher power). The Crimson King, the overall antagonist of the series, is suggested to be a manifestation of Satan, and as the conflict develops, it becomes an increasingly dualistic struggle of White versus Red. And when Roland reaches the Dark Tower itself, he comes to believe that it is a worldly manifestation of Gan. The idea of faith and belief is one of several fascinating angles that the Dark Tower could be analyzed from, and one that would undoubtedly yield many different opinions depending on the analyst.

Sprinkled throughout this imaginative setting are a handful of incredibly executed scenes. In some, King uses shockingly beautiful language, the sort of imagery that reminds you that even if you disagree with some of his stylistic decisions, Stephen King is still a much better writer than you are. In particular, Jake's discovery of the rose that represents the Dark Tower (and therefore Gan) in his own world (book 3), Roland's funeral ritual he performs for Jake (book 7), and the denouement of Roland's ultimate arrival at the Tower (book 7) struck me as powerfully emotional.

There are even more scenes that are especially salient just because they're iconic and masterful storytelling. Roland's fight against Cort using David the raven as his weapon (book 1), bringing Jake through the portal to Mid-World and fighting both the doorkeeper and the incubus (book 3), the bar fight between Roland's people and Eldred Jonas's (book 4), Roland dancing the commala (book 5), and the battle at the Dixie Pig (books 6 and 7) are the ones that jump out at me. King's writing here is so descriptive and the situations are so relatable (albeit most of them in a strange, "I've seen this in a movie" sort of way) that there is no doubt in what's happening.

So, between King's shaky and inconsistent writing style and his natural gift as a storyteller, there's a pretty obvious way to make the Dark Tower one of the greatest artistic works of our generation: make it into movies. Any director would have a field day with such an expansive setting, and it would be trivially easy to be able to translate King's most important and well defined scenes to film. The concept of Stephen-King-as-better-screenwriter-than-author is nothing new; see Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption.

The bad news is that the Lost trifecta of JJ Abrams, Carlton Cuse, and Damon Lindelof are reportedly not going to have anything to do with the movie after all, but the good news is that it still looks like it's going to happen. Until then, read the books. It's worth putting up with a little Stephen King to be able to experience the brilliance of Stephen King.

Finally, it seems like no Dark Tower discussion is complete without some qualitative ranking of the books. Against my better judgment, ranked from best to worst:

  1. The Gunslinger, book 1. Chalk it up to primacy if you like, but there's no doubt that the first book is the best. The story is tight, the main characters are compelling, the supporting characters are memorable, we get coherent resolutions to both the main plot and the flashback story, and the book stands on its own as a brilliant novel while also integrating smoothly into the rest of the series.
  2. Song of Susannah, book 6. I feel like if I get flack for any of my placements, it's going to be this one. The standout part of Song for me was the character of Mia, who develops more organically and exhibits a more complex personality than any supporting character has any right to. The book also took some of Wolves of the Calla's more creative inventions and made them make sense with the rest of the books.
  3. Wizard and Glass, book 4. This is the "Across the Sea" of the Dark Tower, the hefty expository back story that some fans loved and some hated. Aside from The Gunslinger, it's probably the only book that makes sense on its own as a novel, and like The Gunslinger, it features excellent characterization and memorable villains.
  4. The Dark Tower, book 7. It was long, and it probably could have jettisoned the entire Dandelo subplot without really losing too much. However, the ending scene, where Roland reaches the Tower and begins to comprehend the truly important parts of his humanity, makes the length of not only this book, but of the entire series, worth it.
  5. The Drawing of the Three, book 2. Drawing was an odd installment, because it didn't have an overarching story or villain or objective; instead, it read like three loosely connected novellas. Still, it provided the first and only time I found Eddie interesting in the series, as we see his transition from addict to gunslinger.
  6. The Waste Lands, book 3. There was relatively little involvement here from any of the forces of the Crimson King, and the book suffers for it. In places, it reads more like Roland's Travelogue than anything to do with the Dark Tower. My favorite part of the book, heretically enough, was the cliffhanger ending that formally unites Roland, Jake, Eddie, Susannah, and Oy as ka-tet.
  7. Wolves of the Calla, book 5. Don't get me wrong—Wolves had plenty of things going for it, especially as you read books 6 and 7 and they started to make sense. Reading Wolves on its own, though, was like being dumped into a completely new series, with people, locations, and concepts we'd never encountered before—and the characters just accepting all of it like they were there all along and not just pulled from thin air.

Currently listening: "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!", the Beatles

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