11.14.2012

King's Highway pt. 48: The Dark Tower (2 of 2)

THE DARK TOWER (REPRODUCTION, REVELATION, REDEMPTION, RESUMPTION) PT. 7
I avoided external reviews of The Dark Tower VII until I finished it for myself. Now that I have, here's a couple:

As per usual, Kev's review is as comprehensive as they come. I'll just link to it rather than quote it, as I wouldn't know where to start or stop if I did. 

The New York Times review (also as per usual) is more merciless: "As for Roland and his ka-tet, they continue their reality-bending trip in this new book, but it's harder to care about them... The fictional King also returns, and we learn how this series was the one story he had no control over, the one he could write only when the voices in his head were speaking to him. In the end, King doesn't have the writerly finesse for these sorts of games, and the voices let him down... (they) throw up their hands: 'Some moments are beyond imagination.' That's the sound of a writer shouting 'mercy.'... If we've learned anything about King by the close of this series, it's that he's terrified of endings."

I both agree and disagree with that. In the "disagree" column, 1) Unless one is determined to reach that conclusion in spite of the abundance of evidence to the contrary, King's "writerly finesse" is self-evident, and 2) I do not think that is at all what I learned at the close of pt. 7. In the "agree," 1) while I found it perfectly-easy to care about the characters, I did have trouble caring about the obstacles put in their path, and 2) the kind of "meta" (a word, King tells us in the Author's Afterword, he truly hates, but hey, if the shoe fits, dude) attempted here and in Song of Susannah ultimately proves too much weight for the support structure. 

The formula for "Beam Load," appropriately enough. Since I'm instantly out of my depth re: engineering, I'll just link to the site and let the Brainiacs in China figure it out...
A few tugs, and the whole thing unravels like Picard's command-career in "Tapestry." (If that reference is lost on you, don't worry about it, but trust me: it's awesome. Actually, the themes explored in that episode apply to many aspects of King's meta-appearance in the Dark Tower. A blog for another day!) 

This is the danger one runs when inserting one's self into the story as King chose to do here. And I'm not sure if he ran fast enough to stay ahead of it.

This is not, however, to say that this end to The Dark Tower saga is a failure - far from it. Read on, Macduff.

(As I did in pt. 1, I'll skip the plot summary and just jump right in.)

ULTIMATE SPOILER

Let's get this out of the way:

Each book of the DT series has a sub-title, one that starts with "R" and encapsulates a certain spirit of the story-in-question. Wizard and Glass is sub-titled REGARD, Wolves of the Calla is subtitled RESISTANCE and so on. 

Look at the sub-title of volume 1, The Gunslinger, again. I'll wait. 

Now, look again at the sub-title of this last chapter (as captioned, above).

Oy Vey, O Discordia! 

The story ends by returning to the very first line of the series (i.e. The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed) albeit with one crucial altered detail: instead of having left the Horn of Gilead on the battlefield at Jericho Hill, with his deceased friends, Roland picked it up and now has it with him as he re-joins his endless quest for the Tower. Says Sai King: "With us wretched humans, I think the wheel of Ka has to turn many times, with only small changes accreting, before changes for the better finally occur."

Very Hindu / Buddhist way of looking at things. (Incidentally, Gan, the Mid-World/All-World term for "God," is alleged (by King) to be the creative force in Hindu Mythology. It very well may be, but in true Hindu fashion - I freely admit my ignorance on this topic, but to my understanding, few things are straightforward (at least to Western minds like mine) in Hindu mythology - it's not an exact fit. I'll just assume that's intentional. If we could put it into words, it wouldn't be Gan, or something. All Things Serve The Beam.

But more on this in a bit (Sun-temple of Konark, 13th century)
More Human Than Human, Pt. 2

If the appearance of the-author-himself was limited to where it appears in Song of Susannah and only one or two of the places he appears in The Dark Tower, I'd be less inclined to say it doesn't work. But it intersects the plot in two ways that really eff things up for me. First, there is the death of Jake.

The proportions of this Michael Whelan painting match Roland's grief. Unfortunately, they also work as a metaphor for the metaphor-overwhelming-the-plot. "Towering over," pardon the pun.
Jake dies when he and Roland travel to Keystone-Earth (i.e. 'real' Earth) Maine and save real-life Stephen King from dying from injuries sustained in his real-world accident. Several problems arise from this.

One, it's just a bit silly. The Crimson King is influencing Keystone-Earth Bryan Smith, i.e. the driver of the minivan that plowed into King on June 19, 1999? Why not Bill Thompson or Kirby Macauley or any-other-number of real-world personae? (And how does this square with the CK's influencing Other-World Ed Deepneau in Insomnia or even Keystone-World King as a child (re: that moment with the spiders in the barn, described in Song of Susannah?) And are we being asked to believe that Other-World Jake is actually buried off the road somewhere in Maine? Etc. etc.

(I would say no, we are not actually being asked to believe that, but damn it, King forces us to pay attention to it all by telling us "It's not just a story; now it's real," so it would be intellectually dishonest to ignore. This is a story, after all, and stories have to support their own implications. If we are introduced to the writer-writing-the-story and the reader-reading-it, it's even more important to provide reasonable "cover" for suspension-of-disbelief. Ditto for King's insistence he just transcribes these things from the voices he hears; it's a nice metaphor, but there is actually no Deep Space Dark Tower broadcasting on some secret wavelength to the writer. At least, I don't think there is. I think he sits down and types them out, like any writer, anywhere.)

Secondly, while I did enjoy the section dealing with the Tet Corporation at 2 Hammarskjold Plaza, does this mean the Tet Corporation actually exists? (Apparently, it does; does this mean its shadow ("Sombra" in Spanish) corporation does, as well? (Maybe it does!) Or Positronics? (Which, as we discover, was created by the husband of Mrs. Tassenbaum, the driver of the car that takes Roland and Jake to Stephen King and Bryan Smith, and whom Roland bangs, for some reason.. Not important to this meta-ness discussion, that, but I found it a bit odd. The in-text explanation is "Because he sensed it is what she wanted." Well, fine, fair enough, but seemed a little off, to me. Can a fictional character have sex with a real world one? If so, all these Fifty Shades of Grey mental-cases are in luck.)

Let me just say again, none of these questions need to be asked, but by overlapping so many elements of the fake and the real, I feel we get avoidably-lost in the mirror-maze of meta, and to no real purpose.

Kind of says it all...
A little of this stuff goes a long way. If it were just the part in SoS and the brief interlude where we see Keystone-Earth SK writing-the-story-we're-reading (i.e. when he receives the "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" poem,) I'd be fine.

Although it was nice to see a cameo from King's Corgi, Marlowe, aka "The Snoutmaster," in that scene. Incidentally, Oy is based on Marlowe, so even he gets in on the meta-action.
But the accident sequence and the deus-ex-machina that results from the part-just-mentioned tip the scales for me.

Part of it is the problem of "meta" to begin with. Taken to its logical extreme, all fiction is meta. There are actually no vampires or dimensional gateways or talking robots or what not, after all; these are all attempts for artists/ readers to reconcile themselves with the world around them and the reality of one's own mortality. Characters-like-Mordred aren't just characters; they're placeholders for and representations of our collective inability to ponder oblivion. i.e. We are actually replaced by the next generation(s) and are actually forced out of existence/ reckoning whether we like it or not. We give birth to our destruction, forevermore. 

It's all very Hegelian. (If I didn't sound like a wanker already, I probably just jumped the shark.)
Along these lines, I was disappointed with the Crimson King, now that he finally appears "in the flesh." Though, only at a distance/ off-camera.

He's supposed to be the main-baddie of the series. While I appreciate SK's willingness to thwart genre-convention, ask yourself, would The Emperor have been better-served by being seen only off-camera or via-long-shot in Return of the Jedi? What if you never saw the shark in Jaws and it was blown up way off in the distance? Etc.
I also didn't like how he was prone to scream EEEEEEEEEEEE! in all-caps between taunts to Roland. Okay, I get it, he's insane/ petty, but it just didn't read-well to me.

Mainly, though, what is going on here? If he has the power to do all the things attributed to him, why does he go about things the way he does? Just because he's crazy? The banality/ lack-of-imagination of evil, or something?

Is he real in one world and a metaphor in others? This is kind of cool, in a Crisis on Infinite Earths sort of way. It's not just the Keystone-Earth-King the Crimson King seeks to obliterate, but all the Kings; similarly, it is not just the Other-World Crimson King Stephen King creates/ keeps-creating but all the Crimson Kings. Whew. I am giving myself a headache.
Someone with artistic skills could really have a field day redesigning old JLA covers around Dark Tower themes.
And how does this square with how the CK is dispatched to the clearing at the end of the path? (i.e. erased by Patrick Danville's magic-drawings, in a manner familiar to anyone who grew up watching Looney Tunes.)

Any discussion of "meta" must include "Duck Amuck" by Chuck Jones and Michael Maltese et al. This short should be considered a philosophical masterpiece of the 20th Century, on par with anything by Sartre, Wittgenstein, and Godard.


Part of me kind of likes it...

"I refuse to believe that I was raised in Brooklyn simply because of some writer's mistake, something that will eventually be fixed in the second draft," says Eddie Dean at one point. Hey, believe what you want, Eddie.
...but on top of all the other things, mainly I'm disappointed. The Crimson King is relegated to just another obstacle to be overcome rather than the puppeteer-of-evil heretofore-described. And there's never any danger involved, because King has revealed himself to be the puppeteer. When the characters are in danger, he steps in to save them, via notes/ dreams/ now-ultimately-an-eraser, and when he-the-author is in danger, they step in to save him.

Let's Get Back to The Ending

So, Roland enters the Tower and ascends through the years of his life, as represented by the different floors. (And apparently he's around twelve hundred years old.) He gets to the top and finds a door that leads him back to the beginning, i.e. right before the first sentence of book one. I liked this. In the Tralfamadorian view of time, King (the author) is always writing the Dark Tower books (as well as others), and we're always reading them. Life is a bucket on a water-wheel, ceaselessly emptying and replenishing itself. We think it goes in one direction, but that's only because we're in the bucket. (The Tralfamadorians describe human perspective as the view from a moving train car, only ever seeing one direction and mistaking it for the way all things move.) Our own vector in spacetime is, seen from another perspective, not a mountain-trail-to-be-climbed but the whole-mountain-range.

I personally have no problem with this view. You could say it privileges a more Buddhist view of reality vs. the more-Christian view of "may we all be reunited in the clearing at the end of the path." But I don't see that as a problem. All I ask of fiction is that it is consistent with itself, not my personal viewpoint.

This could explain why I thought the ending to Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactice was great, whereas many people hated it.
 But, I'll go ahead and say it - they just didn't get it. It's a show about the inevitability and equality of belief systems. It works. Trust me. 'All of this has happened before and will happen again.'
Hey, I just realized "Tapestry," the aforementioned TNG episode, was written by Ronald "Frackin'" Moore. So say we all!
Ka is a quantum wheel. We are, ourselves, no more than characters created, erased and re-drawn. The point of Roland's journey is not the destination but in the journey itself.

So, I liked the ending, and, all that meta-talk aside, that's really 80% of the battle. Susannah, Jake, and Eddie are reunited in a different Earth/ time (and we're assured Oy will pop up, eventually, too), Roland's karmic wheel spins anew, and curtain.

It really is a remarkable novel, all-told. A lot's been left out of this blog, because a lot freaking happens in it. I'll subtract points for the excess-of-meta and the deus-ex-machina elements, but it's hard for me to say it's not a fantastic end to a fantastic series.

Two Last Things

- At some point in the last hundred-and-fifty pages, "con" starts to appear as a word-swap for "sussin' out." (Like many made-up-words or phrases in fantasy novels, it's based on an out-of-fashion usage of a still-in-use word) As I don't recall seeing this at any time before, though, in the series, it really stands out when it's over-used. It probably only appears probably four or five times, but where the hell are you, Chuck Verrill? (King's editor) Isn't this the kind of thing he's supposed to point out? Based on stuff like this or the other hiccups I've mentioned elsewhere ("sugar," dialogue tics, African-American-hair descriptions being at odds with actual-African-American-hair, women-with-no-legs-leaping-to-their-feet, etc.) I think my idea of what an editor does is really off. He's only human, of course... but come on, dude.

- Speaking of Chuck, he's mentioned by name at one point by King-the-writer/character, who wonders if his increased usage of Mid-World terms like "Ves'-Ka-Gan" in pt. 7 will get the red pen treatment. Maybe it should've. He definitely goes a bit overboard in this one.

Things That Still Make Me Go Hmmmm

- How did Patrick Danville end up at Dandelo's?

- What exactly is the relationship between the Line of Eld and the Tower? They're Guardians of the Tower (along with Maerlyn... I think?) but how did this happen? How (and why) did Excalibur get melted down into Roland's guns? Is this meant as a metaphor for storytelling (i.e. King-the-writer's personal-storytelling spins on Arthurian myth?) or are they actually the Knights of the Round Table? Lots of unanswered questions here.

- The Beams/ Guardians - are they magic or were they built by the Old Ones? (i.e. Positronics, apparently, at least the Guardians) Where did the magic come from?

- If Positronics rose in "our world" in the late 1990s and "our world" is the Keystone Earth... what does that make All-World? Is there a future King Arthur who protects "our world?" Are there Beams? 

- Absolutely none of the mystery of The Turtle from It is addressed, and if we are to take King's remarks at the beginning of the Coda and reiterated in the Author's Afterword at face value, that's none of my damn business. Okay, then! But why draw attention to it via naming the robot "Stuttering Bill," aka It's main protagonist?

- What the hell was going on with Dorrance, then, in Insomnia? Why is Patrick Danville the character-recalled-here and no mention of him?

If my brief forays into online Dark Tower stuff is any indication, I'll receive no satisfaction on these questions. Ah well. Here's hoping we'll see a few more books.  

There will be water if Ka wills it.

NEXT!
Ranking the Dark Tower books and Some Other Tidbits!

5 comments:

  1. "The Crimson King is influencing Keystone-Earth Bryan Smith, i.e. the driver of the minivan that plowed into King on June 19, 1999? Why not Bill Thompson or Kirby Macauley or any-other-number of real-world personae?"

    I suppose a credible-answer to this would be the two latter gentlemen are too strong-minded for the CK's influence. Fair enough. Just, it still doesn't sit well with me. I don't think Bryan Smith belongs in this book.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Reminds me of Roger Zelazny's "Amber" series. Maybe Keystone-Earth is only thought to be the "real" Earth, but is, in fact, a "shadow" of the "real" Earth that is pretty close, but does have stuff like that character buried in Maine. So the parallel dimensions, like Zelazny's "shadows," are very thinly-sliced, with real-world King writing about Keystone-Earth King writing about the Dark Tower multiverse. It also reminds me of those old DC books when Julie Schwarz and assorted other writers and artists were visited by the Flash et al. So, inserting oneself as the writer into one's fictional creation is a conceit we all - writer and reader alike - have to play along with, much like we have to accept the journal entries and letters in Dracula are real and being related to us accurately, or that the Necronomicon is an actual book tucked away somewhere.

    I think Zelazny inserted himself into his multiverse, too, but not very obtrusively.

    Michael Whelan was, and still is, one of my favorite cover artists. His work graced a lot of books I read in the late '70s/early '80s. It strikes me that Darrell K. Sweet would have been a good artist for these books, given his interest in and talent for Western and wilderness art.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If it's done seamlessly, I'm fine with going along with it. But I think the seams are showing here, and ultimately burst. Probably - and of course, just my opinion - would have been better served leaving out the accident part.

      Delete
  3. The accident stuff didn't bother me. Quite the opposite, in fact; I thought that was kinda wonderful. Manly tears were fought, unsuccessfully.

    I'm with you all the way on the Crimson King, though, especially the "EEEEEEE!" business, which is just awful. I think the idea is that the Crimson King has been defeated and banished to this level of the Tower as a result of the events of "Black House," but to be honest, unless I'm forgetting something it is only hinted at even there, and never addressed outright. That's just bad storytelling; King isn't guilty of that particular crime on occasion, but he sure is guilty of it here. His idea might have been the have the Crimson King be a bit like the Eye of Sauron, in that he is a villain the hero never actually HAS to defeat. If so, it didn't work.

    Still, on the whole I think -- like you -- that it is a marvelous novel. And the ending...! Hoo-boy, did that give me the shivers the first time I read it.

    Speaking of endings, I thought the end of "Battlestar Galactica" was great. Nice "Tapestry" references, too; one of the very best episodes of a great series.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I didn't mind the reading of the accident part (i.e. it's touching and moving and all); it just raises too many problems. (for me). It was the main contributor to the general malaise about any/ all obstacles in our heroes' path.

      Glad you're with me on the other stuff, though, particularly the Crimson King and the end of BSG; what the frak is wrong with people...!

      And hell yeah, Tapestry is one of the all-time greats. I tend to quote that one a lot - it has a lot of real-world applicability.

      Delete