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The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
The Dark Tower review, with spoilers
I read The Waste Lands first. It was book three of the Dark Tower series, and I backtracked quickly to read the first two. The first one, The Gunslinger, wasn't a book that would have grabbed me, had I not known better things were coming, but the second The Drawing of the Three blew me away... though it didn't--and still hasn't--passed The Waste Lands as my favorite book in the series. The Waste Lands brought up a lot of good thought-points, and a lot of good emotional power, and a general good yarn, with lots of excitement and adventure and angst. It was so compulsively readable that I didn't even pause before believing in a psychotic talking monorail named Blaine who was willing to postpone his own suicide in order to have a riddling contest. He just was.

Which is to say, I became a total Tower junkie on book 3, and was salivating for book four, Wizard and Glass... which didn't thrill me. I didn't dislike it, and I liked it better on subsequent readings, but I was definitely looking forward to picking up the forward momentum in the last three books.

I can't claim bitter disappointment with them. They're readable and enjoyable. They just didn't feel to me like they fulfilled the promise of The Waste Lands. But to get to the specifics, here's my review of the final book of the DT series, The Dark Tower.

For starters, I was relieved that it wasn't as horrible as a review I'd read had made out. Yes, there is a line when Roland reaches the Tower that says, "It is perhaps better left to the imagination," which the reviewer had implied was all he said about it, and my reaction... was perhaps better left to the imagination. The reviewer neglected to mention that in fact the narrative then does enter Roland's POV, and does give his reaction to being in this place he's dreamed of all his life. He realizes that he does in fact go on breathing and his aches and pains still hurt, but he doesn't feel a let down, and the magic of the place totally enthralls him. It's a perfectly decent evocation of such a moment, and the reviewer I read needs to be reprimanded for giving such a false perception.

Also, the ending itself, while King says he's not entirely happy with it, seemed to me to be just right--Roland reaches the top of the tower (highlight spoiler) only to find himself back at the beginning of the first book, with the fading knowledge that he has made this journey many times, and is condemned to repeat it until he stops making the same mistakes, because Roland never changes. This time, though, he has a sigul that he didn't have before, and the reader is left with hope that somehow the next trip through will have different results. It may not have been a great and glorious triumph of an ending, but it was an interesting ending that actually fit the story much better than such a triumph would have.

There were many things I absolutely adored, including the whole issue of the Breakers, and how they didn't want to be rescued, really, and how their talent demanded a way to express itself, even when it was destructive. I also liked the comments on endings, how ending was only another word for goodbye and basically was a very unpleasant concept. And the evocation of setting... just beautiful. There are many things to like.

On the metza-metza level, I can't say that I object in theory to the notion of King inserting himself (and his accident) into the storyline. All's fair in love and storytelling, as long as you can actually pull it off, so what the heck? Why not put himself into it? He plays fair with himself as a character, neither making himself a total clown nor a brilliant hero. It's a bit jarring that the fate of the known universe rests on his shoulders, but everyone acknowledges that he's a poor choice for it, and he never becomes an especially good one. His characters come in to berate him, not hang out with him, and Roland in particular spends a lot of book 7 absolutely furious with him. If anyone could pull this off, it's Stephen King, who's pretty effortlessly made a character of himself in his nonfiction. Does he do it?

:wince, sigh, wince again:


I won't say it absolutely can't be done, because I think it could be, but King doesn't make it fly here. It's too jarring, too out of the blue coming as late in the series as it came, and too much weight of disbelief to suspend, even for a seasoned fantasy reader. I enjoyed it in a scene-by-scene way, and I see how it was working, but it just... didn't quite make it.

Another "meh" point was the Mordred plot--Roland's weird were-spider son. It could have gone places, but ended up just kind of petering out.

The real disappointments, though, were structural. The early books created a great world and planted any number of things in it. Almost none of these actually came to fruition, while many things that had no supports built into the text ended up in prominent roles. Eg, I'm very glad I read Insomnia, because if I'd just been a Tower junkie, I wouldn't have had the first clue who the boy is who ends up Roland's final companion and provides a vital service. It tied up Insomnia's plot very nicely. There was also a good tie-off of Hearts in Atlantis (though I'm still wondering how Ted got the rose petals), and poor Father Callahan from 'Salem's Lot finally gets redemption, in a rather good scene with vampires. What it doesn't seem to tie off are the loose threads in the Dark Tower series itself. What was in Jake's house while he got ready to leave in Waste Lands? What about his real parents, who the text explicitly said he was "not done with" yet? Would Roland have ever learned not to sacrifice everything and everyone for the Tower?

The last is, I think, the question that ended up most bothersome to me. From the time of Jake's first appearance in The Gunslinger, the moral question that hung around him was Roland's paternal responsibility to him. (Roland is his symbolic, not literal, father, but that's never considered an issue.) In the first book, Roland sacrifices him; later, he is brought back after a pretty well-orchestrated creation of an alternate universe, and the first thing he does is get Roland to promise that he won't let him fall again. Roland does promise this, quite passionately, but a part of his mind thinks he won't be able to keep it.

All of which is to say that the death of Jake Chambers is structurally feasible, though part of a tragedy in which Roland is unable to change, which fits beautifully with the ending (and gives hope that poor Jake may make it through the next trip). Unfortunately, when Jake dies, it's a complete accident and Roland has no choice in it at all. The entire structural reason to kill Jake, the thing that would give his death resonance, is gone, and the upshot of that is that Jake dies, and King literally has to tell us that his billybumbler/dog is crying to establish that there's grief involved, because the reader's mind isn't going, "Oh no! Jake! Poor Jake!" It's going, "Well, since the structural cues of the book lead toward X scenario, it's highly unlikely that this is an actual death, and therefore, let's just skim to figure out how he's going to fix it."

I need to point out that Jake is my favorite character. I didn't shed a tear. Instead, I was just flipping around impatiently for ages trying to find where the payoff was. It had come very quickly on the heels of Eddie's death (my other favorite character, and for him, I bawled my silly eyes out). That death wasn't structurally set up, but it was the kind of nasty surprise that makes sense in context, and felt quite real. Jake's death attached itself as a coda and just... how to put it? Major character deaths are big things. They mean something in the context of the story. Jake's death didn't carry its own weight at all. This is partly a pacing problem (too quick on the heels of Eddie's death for any proper emotional adjustment), but mostly--hugely--a structural one. Jake was a note played at a certain pitch throughout the books, and his death came off as nothing more than a dissonant moment, after which the logical expecation was that the pitch would go true again. And it didn't.

King inserted a scene after that, with character!King in his study realizing that readers wouldn't like Jake's dying (comparing it to Annie Wilkes's response to the death of Misery Chastain), but it was all the Voice of the Turtle, and my response to that was just to say, "Yes, but the Turtle was already in a funk, and needed a bit of editorial help, which you, Constant Writer, are supposed to give him. The Turtle, after all, can't help you after a certain point... remember?" The visions that come out of the ether (King's Voice of the Turtle) are wonderful, and I love them to bits, which is why I polish them as much as I can to make them shine, and put them in settings that are as appropriate to them as I can find. King had a great setting made for Jake's death, but he ignored it altogether and set it in a shoddy tin frame.

The thing that grated on me just on my particular nails-on-a-blackboard frequency was the creation of an alternate universe toward the end in which (highlight) Jake and Eddie are alive in New York, and brothers who have grown up together in White Plains instead of Brooklyn. In what possible way would you tweak the universe to make two unrelated people related, remove them both from their contexts, move them into a new setting... and then say that they are the same characters? How in the world would such a thing work, logically? What do you change in their pasts to create the new universe, and how does that end up moving them to White Plains, and have Jake born several years later than he actually was, since in fact he'd be pretty darned close to Eddie's age in absolute terms? Bad alternate universes make me cranky. Make the AU make sense or don't make the AU. I don't put up with lazy, badly thought-out AUs from fanfic authors; I'm not going to cut a canon author all that much slack on the subject. Why not have the AU one where both boys had been taken from their rather poisonous home lives and adopted by the same family? It stretches credulity, but would at least make sense. Randomly making them brothers with a different name and wildly divurgent ages... it hurts my brain trying to figure out how to precipitate that AU. Okay. My particularist brain-ache has been expressed, and I will now go back to issues that other people may care about.

The only thing I outright hated about the book, though, was the death of Randy Flagg, who has walked and flown through so many of King's books that the contemptuous treatment of him really came off as more of a direct slap in the face than even the Annie Wilkes jibe for anyone who disagreed with Jake's death. That, my dear all-unknowing mentor, was just shoddy.

And with that, I'll bid adieu.
2 comments or Leave a comment
thewhiteowl From: thewhiteowl Date: December 20th, 2004 02:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
Monorail? As in, trains?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 20th, 2004 03:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
2 comments or Leave a comment