Friday, April 08, 2005

Finding the Tower 

I just finished my first hour of fiction writing in I don't know how long. To say the writing on my current book has dried up since Nolan's birth would be . . . true. The truth is: it's hard to write fiction, especially of the subject matter I am, when things are going really well. That, and, afternoons have proven to be a terrible time to write. Actually, they're great for me. Nolan seems to object, though. And I don't want to mess with our nice morning routine. Which leaves me now.

It's been hard to bring myself up here after work. Usually, I only want to sit down and read or watch a movie. But I think it might work like this, working late at night, just an hour at a time every night, only me, the dog, the tapping keys, and the lone light behind the monitor. I may be able to finish it. More -- I've just finished reading Stephen King's Dark Tower series, and I feel I owe it to King, to myself, and to my unreadable, fucked-up manuscript, to finish it.

After more than 16 years, I've finally finished reading King's opus, and, aside from commenting on it, which most readers ought to, I think I owe it to his effort alone to get to work on my own book. If art cannot inspire me to create for myself, I don't know what else can. Now my comments. That means:


I've read an awful lot of reviews of King's final novel in the series, and for the most part -- the sweeping majority, that is -- these reviews are negative, disappointed, annoyed, and even angry. As you, dear readers, can guess, I differ from the majority opinion. First, the majority opinion in bullets, second, my response:

• The last book (perhaps even the last three) is rushed.

In the scope of all seven books, in which the writing of the first began when King was in college, yes, the last three came very quickly. But does that mean they were rushed? Rushed assumes there was little characterization, lots of plot holes, and a general sense that something is missing. These three books contain a total of 1,972 pages. To me, that's not rushed. People may argue about the plot, but I think more than a few people would be hard-pressed not to create a plot hole in a 30-year, seven-book saga that aspires to write about all of existence.

• King overuses the deus ex machina.

This argument does not make sense. Either a writer utilizes deus ex machina or he doesn't. Readers can quibble over the use of this old tactic, sure. I -- and I normally abhore the god from above, coming down to save the day -- found King's employment of this not only appropriate, but necessary. He is not merely writing, as press releases like to describe, "a modern fantasy tale". He is writing about the concept of The Hero -- what civilization has put upon this figure. As most ancient heroic epics utilized the god in the machine, so should King.

• King's presence in his books is narcissistic and annoying.

I couldn't disagree more adamantly. King's presence in his books reveals a writer only hinted at in Misery: someone who acknowledges his success, but is intensely insecure of his own abilities. Given the sheer number of books he has published -- better, the number of readers he has affected -- this man is a voice for several generations. We can dicker over the quality of that voice, but it is clear this man has found a way to communicate with readers in ways more "literary" writers have not. Yet at dozens of points of the story, King derides his own work and persona.

While I find it easy to dismiss reviewers' claims of King's narcissism, I don't think I could form an articulate argument for why King's presence ought not be annoying. This is really a decision based on reader attitude, and I simpathize with it -- there are few books in which the writer partakes in the story. That is not easy to get used to. It draws readers' focus outside the covers of the book. And that is my point for how well done the metafiction is handled here: it is King's point to write an all-encompassing novel. What better way to do this than go outside the story. It was from the very first novel, The Gunslinger, when the Tower was described as the axle for the wheels of all universes.

• The deaths of Walter, Eddie, Jake and Oy are unnecessary, not "earned", and poorly written.

I did notice the character of Walter dim after the fourth book. I agree that I had higher expectations for him in the last few books. But I like how he served to build the Mordred character. Surely fans of The Stand will be disappointed in how he exits, but that also is a problem with any epic-length tale: with a story as long as this, the writer cannot achieve a major emotional high or low without that becoming artificial. I guess a better way to phrase this is: "What were you looking for? You took the Walter character to be a tremendous force of evil, even after the first novel, in which he clearly explained he was at least two steps from the Beast. So what would have pleased you?" I argue that nothing -- no suitable ending would.

Eddie's death, for me, was perfect. All through these books, these gunslingers have escaped impossible situation after impossible situation. They are like Han, Luke, Chewy, and Leia, running from the Stormtroopers -- Stormtroopers 15 feet away from them with lazer guns -- yet they are never shot, not even winged! At some point in time, for the Tower to mean somthing, for danger to carry any weight with a reader, the gunslingers had to die. Additionally, the dialogue for Eddie's death scene is some of King's finest dialogue ever published.

Jake's death was certainly earned, but for those who couldn't stand the deus ex machina, not earned how they would have preferred. It, more than any other death, advanced the plot. What was most revealing of Jake's death was what it showed in Roland -- he needed others. For the entire series, Roland has been diminishing physically. He may be dinh, but he is not all-powerful.

The complaint with Oy's death, from what I gather from most reviewers, is that it was predictable. This was the complaint given to Hitchcock when he revealed the secret of Vertigo before his lead character, Scotty, discovered it. I always defer to Hitchcock's opinion, and this case is no exception -- he thought it was more interesting to see how characters react when we know what is happening. We are watching ourselves without the shock of surprise to taint our judgment or thought process. I never, not for one page, thought King was writing a shocker novel; I never wanted to be surprised. And I never mistook surprise for fine storytelling.

• The character of Mordred is just a device.

And a fine one at that, given he is not only a thinly-veiled reference to the tale of Arthur, but also to the myth of Chronos. I agree, Mordred died rather quickly, perhaps even conveniently. But again -- this is not IT. This is not The Stand. Or Salem's Lot. The quest for the Tower is not to end in some all-out battle with a terrible, monstrous being of evil. (This is my same argument for those who decry the final battle with the Crimson King). The trials Roland and his ka-tet face all contain potential for failure and death, be it the escape from the slow mutants, the ride on Blaine, the battle against the Wolves, the firefight in the gas station, or the attack of Mordred. King himself says the quest for the Tower is about the quest, not the Tower. It is the race, not the finish line.

• The series is formulaic.

Writing something different, for the sake of being different, does not guarantee one fine art. Furthermore, formula work does not equate poor art. This may have a formula, yes -- the heroic epic -- but most art has some formula to it.

• There are many plot holes and inconsistencies.

Agreed. King bit off more than he could account for, even with as many pages as this saga has consumed, so plot holes abound. How do Ralph Roberts and Jack Sawyer fit in to the story? I don't know. The bottom line is there is nothing meaningful enough to drag the book down.

• King's attitude toward his readers is arrogant.

King's note to his readers at the end of the novel is strident . . . nearly bitter. It's as if he foresees the reaction the book will receive. Yes, we paid admission, I realize that. But the writer in me shrugs. The reviews I have read remind me too much of people's reaction to a movie sequel -- even if the sequel was good: they had their own ideas; the movie took another direction; therefore, it must not be any good.

• The ending, in which Roland is brought unmercifully back to the beginning, is unforgiveable.

This is the point on which the backlash against King is the strongest. Honestly, I have not yet read a review -- even a positive one -- in which the reviewer praised the ending. Why? The answer is simple:

It is a hard ending.

After years of searching for his Tower, Roland reaches the top, intent on discovering if the room at the top of the Tower really is empty. And when he opens the door, it is anything but empty. It is the opening scene of the first book, The Gunslinger, and Roland is drawn back in, to search for his Tower again, without memory, although King implies he may have done this many times before.

First, I ought to address the utter shock so many readers suffered. Did you really think it would end differently? Think about it. The guy wrote a book thousands of pages long. Thousands. With 13 pages to go, did you really think that King was going to begin a "journey through the Tower and to the top" so that Roland could conquer all, or meet Gan, or bring back the Prim? Beyond that, King peppers the books with the phrase, "ka is a wheel". How can existence, when compared to a wheel, end? Other readers wonder how can Roland be sent back to the beginning of the book if this was the "real world" where time only goes forward. I argue that the Tower is not necessarily sending Roland "back". King's saga is a fictional version of Nitzsche's theory of Eternal Recurrence, in which a universe is born and dies . . . and then reforms to create the exact same thing again . . . or maybe there will be differences. Different decisions. King also reminds us, over and over, that death is not drawn for Roland. He also makes it clear that Roland knows what to do, but not why he knows this. Deja vu. That readers were surprised by this is what surprises me most.

Speaking of different decisions: A number of reviewers have commented on how Roland's quest (at the end of the final book) may be different. King implies that all may be well -- Roland may finally achieve some redemption -- if only he takes his horn to the Tower, the horn lost during the battle of Mejis, set well into Roland's past. After first reading the references to the horn, I thought they were oddly placed and poorly explained. Now I understand: the horn is a red herring. Carrying the horn to the Tower will gain Roland no further rest or redemption than carrying the necklace from River Crossing. Furthermore, how is Roland carrying the horn any different than the tale as we know it? The end of The Gunslinger implies that Roland has his horn. If he does, the idea of losing it at Mejis is a plot hole . . . if the horn makes any difference. Folks, it doesn't. There is nothing Roland can take to the Tower that will perfect his quest. His quest is never-ending. This is King's point. This is the case of all heroes.

The reason I honor these books so, is they carry so many different themes. They are about The Hero, they are about civilization "moving on", they are about religion, they are about language, they are about culture, they are about communication, they are about literature, they about about personal demons, they are about conviction, they are about responsibility, they are about fatherhood, and they are about personal development. If we can allow King to make one statement, through all our ranting, let him make the statement that while all the rest of us are allowed to develop -- see Susannah, Eddie, Jake, Pere Callahan, Dinky, even Mordred -- The Hero, as we have crafted him through the centuries, who is not necessarily prevented from personal development . . . . must continue his quest. Roland's never-ending quest is a metaphor for our civilization's selfishness, but also a rather sentimental metaphor for the lasting quality of literature.

I know the books are not perfect. The writer in me shakes his head at several King-isms that usually get to me. But this is fine work. We are lucky to have seen it.

Thankya, sai King. Thankya big-big.

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