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The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Song of Susannah
There's something sublime about staying up until sunrise to finish reading a book. It doesn't have to be a spectacularly good book (in fact, this one is mediocre), just one that you find yourself wanting to keep turning pages on, right through until you notice that you don't need the overhead light to see anymore. I'm frequently up late, but it's usually against my will and filled with restless feelings, but reading? Nah. Reading is the best reason to still be up at 5:15 a.m. That's what my brain is built for, and it enjoys the exercise.

At any rate, I spent last night reading Song of Susannah, the sixth (and penultimate) book in Stephen King's Dark Tower series. I don't know why it took me so long to get to it--I've been reading the rest pretty faithfully--but there you have it. So... review. With spoilers, of course, so don't click if you don't want 'em. ;)

The Good
Unlike the last two DTs, Song of Susannah is focused very strongly on the ka-tet--the core group of people seeking the Dark Tower. I first fell madly in love with this series with book 3, The Waste Lands (and reading backwards to The Drawing of the Three, in which Eddie and Susannah are drawn, cemented it), primarily in the drawing of Jake Chambers into the world, so when the fourth book, Wizard and Glass, was largely a flashback story of Roland's youth, I was a little non-plused, and Wolves of the Calla left me a little cold. But Song of Susannah really got back the sense of family among the ka-tet--Eddie and Suze as a married couple, Jake as Roland's adopted son, Roland as dinh, or chief/father to his ka-tet. Father Callahan (yes, from 'Salem's Lot), an awkward addition to Wolves, comes into his own as a DT character here, recapturing some of his spirit from SL and helping Jake in New York... redeeming himself from his SL blunder in the process. He's a much smoother part of this book.

There's a very nice scene where Eddie and Roland confront Calvin Tower, an infuriating book collector who gets himself into trouble because he refuses to take any danger more seriously than he takes his books. Eddie very seriously wants to kill him, but then he does something vaguely brave, and Eddie wishes--quite sincerely--that people would just stay put in their pigeonholes... but he understands that, maddening and weak as Tower is, he's "second cousin to a good guy."

Eddie and Roland arrive in Maine in 1977, and in a rich sequence, are struck by the reality of the place, a kind of hyper-awareness. They note the beauty of the sky, the rich colors, and so on. In fact, they have entered the more-or-less real world, so there's good reason for it--but it's a very evocative passage on top of it.

There's also a great moment when Eddie is having a bullet removed from his leg when he reflects that you simply can't have this kind of story told without a scene of someone having a bullet pulled out of him with no anasthesia. The best moment of metatext in a very metatextual book.

Mia, the new personality who's hijacked Susannah's body, could easily have come off as totally flat--she does irritate Susannah herself to no end--but she ends up having several interesting conversations, and is swept away emotionally by Susannah's (well, Odetta's) memories of the Civil Rights movement. I was also pleased with the return of Odetta Holmes. For those who don't know, Susannah Dean suffers from a split personality, first introduced in Drawing as both Odetta Holmes, her birth name and a rich, cultured lady with a Columbia education, and as Detta Walker, a streetwise, murderous bitch with an effected Butterfly McQueen accent that drives everyone (including Susannah) completely crazy, and would offend Odetta, if Odetta had any idea that she existed. At the end of Drawing, Detta and Odetta, through a magical mechanism, see one another and do battle, and Odetta wins by dropping the fight, embracing her twin saying, "I love you." They merge, and become Susannah Dean (their shared middle name plus the married name). But she starts to fragment again when she gets pregnant and a demon comes in to join the party.

The reason to relate all of this in my happiness over the return of Odetta is that after the unified personality of Susannah emerged, Detta Walker continued to make appearances as a separate entity, though one under Suze's control, but Odetta Holmes--the woman's actual historical identity--was just referred to as a self-righteous prig and left at that. Now, as the personality is splitting badly again, Susannah has a chance to talk to Odetta, and Odetta contributes really valuable information. Her education and morality play a much more effective role than Detta's street smarts and cattiness, which keep coming out and having little or no effect.

Basically, while I like Roland's world, King is at his strongest as a writer while he deals with the prosaic realities of this world juxtaposed against the magic undercurrents, and most of Song of Susannah takes place in this kind of environment. There's a magical hotel key card, bucksters singing on the streets of New York, city guys wearing fresh-pressed flannel shirts for a hunting expedition in Maine, and so on. For a guy who wears Coke-bottle glasses, Mr. King sees the world very well.

The Bad
Really, Mr. King, we'll read volume seven. You don't need to keep leaving the individual story at a cliffhanger to keep us buying the books. Honest. Really, I promise. Absolutely. I want to see the Tower as much as Roland does. Leaving Susannah/Mia in labor with Jake and Callahan rushing in after Callahan gives Jake last rites... was that necessary, really? If you follow the pattern of the last few, you're going to resolve the current cliffhanger in a chapter or two anyway then move on into the rest of the story.

Boy, am I glad I have a solid grounding in King works, though even I think I have to go back and re-read a few things (particularly Desperation) to catch some of the intertextual allusions. Yes, Stephen King is in fact Stephen King, so there's a good chance of a lot of books having been read by the audience for DT, but... that's a lot of books, some of them not among his best (or best-known) work. I know the term can toi comes from Desperation and the low men are from Hearts in Atlantis, but those were both read-it-once books. I don't know them by heart, and I don't think many people do, and the text of Song of Susannah doesn't trouble itself with refreshing the memory. (Of course, maybe people who haven't read Desperation didn't stop and try to remember what can toi were... still.)

The rat people and cannibals were overkill. I appreciate exuberance in horror as much as the next girl, but there's e-damned-nough going on.

And the indescribable.
This is normally where I'd put "The ugly" in a review, but what I want to talk about here isn't "ugly" per se. It's just... odd. I don't know what I think about it.

In Wolves of the Calla, Father Callahan comes across a book called 'salem's Lot, written by one Stephen King. It is, of course, the story he remembers living. A bit disturbing, neh? And Song of Susannah follows through on this.

When Roland and Eddie go to Maine in 1977, it is to the real world. Not to a fictionalized New York or a fictional Castle County, ME, but to Bridgton. (In a moment that's funny to any writer who's ever gotten a detail wrong, Eddie learns that Co-op City, where he grew up, is in the Bronx and always has been, though in his world--the world of a mistake by Stephen King--it's in Brooklyn.) There, they meet...

Stephen King.

'salem's Lot has just come out, he's writing regularly and just starting to fall into his drug addiction phase. His kids are all small, and Tabby and the older two are off visiting her mother. (Owen is at a babysitter's.) King is alone in his house when Eddie and Roland show up.

This is a writer's fantasy, of course--I'm sure we've all had it--but it's the sort of thing that you almost have to be dared to write. It's like writing Harry Potter fiction as a good writer, and deciding to write a self-insert in the author is an American transfer student who falls in love Draco and can do wandless magic, and becomes headmistress in her fifth year. It's every bad idea ever, and you just want to see if you have the strength to pull it off.

King does it. Sort of.

With something like that... well, it's like being dared to dance the hoochy-koochy naked on a table while singing "My Darling Clementine". You may do it very well, and it may end up being an effective scene, but the audience can't get past the fact that they're, well, watching someone dance the hoochy-koochy naked on a table while singing "My Darling Clementine."

King writes the Stephen King section really well. He evokes the house and the environs vividly. I can see the ugly purple carpet, the toys in the lawn, the notepad with the scatalogical message on it. He treats himself as a character fairly--neither with the brow-beating of the recovered alcoholic looking at his early days nor with reverence (though the characters he created, of course, are a bit reverent toward him; he as a writer doesn't write it as though there's anything about him that should be). He does what any self-respecting fiction writer would do, and faints. Then proceeds to start drinking. Roland hypnotizes him, they talk about the Dark Tower, and King treats himself like any of the other objects they've come across on the quest. And he makes himself part of the plot--Eddie sees that he's marked to die, and in fact part of the cliffhanger is that the van kills him before he finishes telling Roland's story.

And if you're going to have a writer involved and have them be fictional characters who've come to life, it's more honest to just go ahead, bite the bullet, and have it be the actual author.

Still, I'm not sure what I think of the notion of them being fictional characters within the fiction. It doesn't sit quite right with me. And I can't get past the hoochy-koochy aspect of the Maine sequence, even though I think it was fascinating and King played it fair. And I enjoyed the performance, honestly. It was weird and indescribable, but I did enjoy it. And I respect the writing skill it took--writing oneself as a fictional character can't be an easy thing unless you're writing yourself as Mary Sue sweeping in to save the day. Writing honestly about yourself as a character... it takes a yard of guts, partly because you're exposing real stuff, and partly because you have to have the guts to make changes in yourself on the page to fit the story.

I think I may have to let it sink in for awhile.

One other note that's not spoilerish and a weird thing to review. The pages in the hardcover edition are freakishly thick paper, and I kept thinking I was about to miss a page and trying to turn to something in between. They've got to be three times the thickness of a paperback, and twice the thickness of a normal hardback. It should last pretty much forever, but it's kind of irritating if your fingers are turning pages by instinct without you really paying attention.
1 comment or Leave a comment
liebchen127 From: liebchen127 Date: July 19th, 2004 04:11 am (UTC) (Link)
OMG! I did not know that the sixth Dark Tower book is finished and out there to be read!!!! *closes eyes to ignore the spoilers and leaves internet to buy the book*

I have lots of time to read now because I am in my holidays :)))
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