Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Towering Feat of the Imagination

Some palaver on reaching the halfway point in Stephen King’s Dark Tower epic.

I wrote a post a few months (see August archives) back about having crossed the halfway point in reading J.K. Rowling’s behemoth ‘Harry Potter’ series after I had completed the fourth book. It seems fitting, now that I have crossed the same threshold in Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga – I am just completing the fourth novel of seven, Wizard & Glass – to reflect on this series also, and perhaps jot down some thoughts on the long way towards an ambition I have to one day write an essay which examines one epic story in light of the other and vice-versa. If it was only about sales, Rowling would win hands down: her series has sold more copies than any other in publishing history. Of course, Stephen King is not exactly unfamiliar with strong book sales. His novels have been flying off the shelves for far longer than Rowling’s have.

When you introduce Stephen King into a discussion about literature, there will always be plenty of detractors who say he should not be a part of the conversation. It’s a well-known story that on the very night he was presented with the National Book Foundation’s medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003, a controversial decision, the winner of that year’s National Book Award in Fiction, Shirley Hazzard, decried his selection. Critic Harold Bloom described him at the time as being the author of ‘penny dreadfuls’. And so forth. King has had literary critics his entire career. It has never slowed down his ability to write stories people around the world loved to read. And on that night, King commented on all the hoopla with humility: ‘I've tried to improve myself with every book and find the truth inside the lie. Sometimes I have succeeded.’

Literary critics have plenty of legs to stand on when they critique King’s writing. He’s a sloppy, overbearing and sometimes sophomoric prose writer; his stories are riddled with gratuitous gore and sex, even for someone who specializes in the horror genre; his characters are frequently cartoonish and unintentionally ridiculous; and, in addition to all that, he can display an unpalatable poor taste in his stories and in his use of language. All of these things are on typical display in the Dark Tower series and certainly in the fourth novel, Wizard & Glass. How can a writer who relies on these techniques really command the attention of serious literary minds for very long?

It’s tough to say definitively, but one can go a long way towards imagining how that could be when you consider the simple fact – and I think this probably is a fact – that in 100 years, almost every prominent ‘literary’ novelist of our time will be remembered only with difficulty, but we will almost certainly still be reading and talking about Stephen King books. Just think about that for a moment, and maybe we have part of our answer.

While we are contemplating this, let’s turn our eyes towards the Dark Tower, shall we? Here we have an epic fantasy series for which the creator clearly has long-term, perhaps career-defining ambitions. King obviously regards this series as his magnum opus, and why not? It’s certainly no worse than any of his other accomplishments, and in terms of sheer imagination, it rivals his very best work. Is this saying much? Perhaps, perhaps not.

We must remember that a lot of people find it amazing that J.K Rowling came up with the idea for Harry Potter in a train in 1990, and it took until 2007 for her to realize the massive breadth of her intentions. But that’s child’s play, time-wise, compared to King’s achievement with the Dark Tower series. He came up with his idea in 1970, and at the time he was totally unknown and so down on his luck that he didn’t even have the resources to take his own ambitions on. As Wikipedia has it, he shelved the idea, and took a second job pumping gas at $1.25 an hour to make ends meet instead, all the while penning nutty horror stories to try to make a few bucks here an there to pay bills. And it’s not like he didn’t have responsibilities to live up to: he was already married with two little children, and making $6,600 a year as a high school English teacher. It took King not seventeen but thirty-five years to complete his opus. If nothing else that is a testament to the man’s endurance and tenacity of vision. He would not let his story go unwritten, and he also felt a great obligation to his readers, who craved resolution. I find that kind of follow-through admirable.

In the most cursory analysis, however, this series lags behind the Harry Potter epic in many areas, not just sales. Rowling’s story is more elegantly written, more appealing to a larger body of people (wiping out the lines between ‘adult’ and ‘children’s’ literature), and far more carefully plotted. Even though her story is long, the corners fight tightly together, the lines are worn smooth, and the end result is polished and structurally secure – at least, so far. King’s epic is almost the complete opposite. It’s bulky, unruly and sometimes so unencumbered, you wonder if you’re really reading a draft that slipped through the editing cycle. Though it took much more time, it’s far less polished. One can argue that this shouldn’t be the case. King may not be as skilled at plotting a long story as Rowling clearly is, but he at least could have cleaned up the shoddy language and cut back the obviously overgrown thickets during his pruning process. That he didn’t raises questions about his literary judgment, even after all this time on the job, and also about his publishers’ desire for money, for they seem to believe that the public will consume just about anything King writes, and will shirk on editing and revision just to get the product out to consumers. You can’t kill the publishers for that, however – they’re correct about it, for one thing. But you can criticize King for not being more meticulous about his craft. Not that this has ever been his way.

With all that seems to favor Rowling’s series, why is King’s even in contention with it, at least for this reader? The answer to this question is seated upon a questionable foundation: that there is something to be said for tenaciousness and imaginative power even in the face of shaky literary quality. That having the steadfastness to finish a race can stand up to the accomplishment of running a better race. One result may be superior, but which is the more formidable achievement? Do the spoils always go to the victor? (If so, it would be hard to explain the enduring popularity of the film Rocky. It’s not the acting.) It’s a good question.

King’s story is inspired by a 19th century English poem by Robert Browning called ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’. The story goes that in 1970 he thought up the first line of the entire series and wrote it down: ‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.’ The fact that the entire saga springs forth from that image of the tower and that single sentence is to me fairly astounding. But it would be a number of years before the first novel, The Gunslinger, would appear, originally in 1982. That first installment tells the story of the pursuit hinted at in the opening sentence, and introduces Roland Deschain, the saga’s protagonist. He is the last gunslinger, a kind of half-bounty hunter, half-Sergio Leone-style cowboy, and evidently there are no more to follow in a desolate world that is of a parallel existence to our own. (This is only one of a few ideas I fully admit I am more or less stealing for my short story ‘Suicide Station’.) In the opening segment of this first novel, when Roland obliterates an entire town with a pair of guns, we get a sense of both the fantastical, over-the-top aspects that this whole saga shamelessly embraces, and the distant, forlorn nature of the protagonist himself. He can sling his guns all right, and evidently he’s okay doing it whenever he feels it’s needed. We are treated with only a glimpse of his main obsession, which is to find and reach the Dark Tower.

The entire series is a quest epic, and the tower is its center and its object, although the nature of the tower – what it is, what it precisely does – is shrouded in mystery throughout much of the story. King holds these ideas close to the vest, and it’s very hard to determine whether it’s because he intends for the reader to stay in the ‘dark’ for most of the journey, or if it’s more because he himself didn’t know exactly what the tower was. It’s probably something of both. Not knowing what the outcome of a story will be even as one writes it is nothing new, writers do this all the time. Giving the distinct impression that you aren’t aware of the story while you are writing it is something different. King barely straddles this line. I have had the distinct impression throughout the first four books that he was only vaguely aware of where it was all going, and was counting on his story-telling power and sheer verve to bring him through to the right conclusion. Whether this was the case or not, of course, only King would be able to say.

The bad news about writing the story this way is that it can meander and stray all over the place, and in many of the novels this is exactly what it seems to do. Wizard & Glass in particular, in my view, is largely hobbled with this malady. But at the same time there is an upside to letting one’s story-telling instinct take its course and not getting in its way. It unleashes the undiluted power of the imagination, and it can make for some wild twists and turns. If you plot your story too much it can seem well-hewn and gracefully constructed, like Rowling’s great wizarding tale, but it can also seem conventional and constricted by the same old rules. Stephen King, in this story and probably most others, cares nothing for the rules. I think the result, even among some of the shoddiness and the frivolity that sometimes infuses the narrative a little too much, allows for the emergence of some of his most interesting ideas. Ideas like a huge tower holding together all existence and a series of spoke-like beams hidden in the earth, leading to that center. An abandoned city with a monorail train with a mind of it’s own that happens to have gone insane. A mysterious mutant-figure named the Tick-Tock man. A group of glass balls, each a different color and hidden throughout King’s Mid-World (inspired by Tolkien) in various places, each with a soothsaying purpose, called the Wizard’s Rainbow. The concept of ka, a term which vaguely means ‘destiny’, which guides and binds together the inhabitants of Mid-World, much like the idea of The Force in George Lucas’ universe.

Letting his imagination run amok has also allowed King to introduce another interesting element to the saga, one that J.K. Rowling could never have equaled. In the creation of Mid-World and the quest for the tower, initially conceived before he had any readers or name recognition, King realized he had come up with a universe of his own into which he could tie in every last filament of his own forthcoming body of work. He created a patch of ground on which he could tell his stories his way, and he planted his literary flag there. This means that even as he went on to write all the various other novels and the hundreds of stories he would produce, in one sense it was all done in a context of his own creation. The King universe, for better or worse, was also all built around the Dark Tower. What this meant was that as he wrote each installment of the saga between the years of 1970 and 2004 he was able to weave in characters and settings and storylines from his other books. This is why one of King’s greatest villainous creations, Randall Flagg, best known for being the primary face of evil in his novel The Stand, can also be found in the Dark Tower universe. Another mysterious and dangerous creature called The Crimson King, which was featured in the novel Insomnia, is alluded to throughout the first four Dark Tower books. And Father Callahan, who was a pivotal figure in one of King’s best early novels, ‘Salem’s Lot, makes a prominent appearance in later volumes of the series.

I think these things are the qualities which combined make the strongest case for King’s saga. I am by no means declaring the Dark Tower series the winner. I found the novel Wizard & Glass to be a somewhat missed opportunity. It tells a very long back story, a romance, which explains something of how Roland got to be the way he is, but it takes up 80% of this critical fourth novel, and it moves incredibly slowly. The final portions of the novel are explosive, literally, but King’s penchant for too much exposition and hard-headed insistence on telling every last detail of every move of the characters in the flashback derails the pacing considerably, almost fatally. I can see many a reader getting too bogged down in Wizard & Glass to bother continuing. Yet by the time you reach the end you do know a good deal more about Roland and enough clues have been dropped in relation to the exhausting and bloody journey still ahead that the persistent reader will be compelled to venture further, if only to determine what the Dark Tower is, and what it really wants from Roland, or possibly from all of us.

These thoughts to be continued down the road, after I am able to finish reading all seven books of both of these remarkable storytelling accomplishments.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Duke's Quick Hitz

Hey hey, here comes a relative stranger to these pages... all I can say, people, is it ain't for lack of tryin'. I'm constantly thinking of musings or ideas I'd like to share on this blog, but finding the time is a whole other ballgame. At any rate, I'm back to offer some thoughts on subjects various and sundry...
  • Mutt's upcoming 'Suicide Station' - This should be an interesting set of posts from Mutt. Serialized fiction has in recent years, of course, gone the way of the dodo, but I've heard more than one author speculate on how the internet and social media applications could provide a way to resurrect the practice. The Secret Thread is proud, then, to lead the way in this effort... and best of all, I can take some credit for that even though I am doing absolutely NONE of the real work!

    Seriously though, I hope everyone comes back and checks out Mutt's new story when he starts posting it. He did this (as mentioned in his post) way back in 2005 and I remember that being an interesting tale (go back and read it here)... it's a good way for Mutt to try out some new ideas and flex his fictional muscles, so to speak. Plus, he and I have been musing lately about genre fiction and horror tales in general, so I for one will be looking forward to checking out how these conversations might inform this latest effort of his. I know that doesn't help anyone else who comes here to read it, but hey, it filled up some column inches...

  • An ancient travelogue - As the left column indicates, I've been making my (very slow) way through Herodotus' Histories over the last several weeks, and I must say it is pretty fascinating stuff. It's like going back in time, finding an old and grizzled traveler who's been all over the ancient world, getting a camp fire going and just letting him regale you with tales of what he's seen. What's really interesting to me is the objective tone he tries to take throughout - he says a lot of "well, this tribe believes in this, and these people think this is the best method for building a temple... but that's not necessarily my opinion." It's like he made a conscious effort at "fair and balanced" reporting from his own experiences... Herodotus is known as "the father of history," but in some ways his work could be regarded as the original investigative journalism piece as well. Anyway, for anyone willing to put in the effort, this is about as close as you can get towards getting an idea of what people actually thought and believed a long, long time ago, centuries before the birth of Christ.

  • Welcome to the jungle - For some reason the concept of packing up and heading out into the untamed jungle to build a new utopia has been coming up a lot in what I've been reading, listening to and watching lately. I recently checked out a film from the 80's I've been meaning to catch up with for years, Peter Weir's fascinating adaptation of Paul Theroux's novel The Mosquito Coast (featuring a solid, under-appreciated performance by Harrison Ford in the prime of his acting career). Then Mutt shared with me a song from folk artist Kate Campbell about Henry Ford's wacky scheme to build a utopian village in South America where he could grow unlimited rubber trees to produce material for his tires... it didn't work out needless to say, but apparently the ruins of it are still there if anyone wants to go and find them. I've also been watching the first season of the TV show Lost, a rarity for me (I don't usually get into TV), which is obviously about starting over in the jungle, although in this case obviously unplanned. This latter show was more or less forced upon me by my work colleagues, but seeing as I value their opinions I thought I would give it a try... and so far it's been pretty gripping and well-done, especially for a TV show.

    It just got me thinking that the "starting over in the jungle" thing has become quite the literary/cinematic sub-genre unto itself... obviously the idea of Utopia has been around since More and was enhanced by Rousseau, but when you think about it there are all kinds of fascinating stories and films that take this idea and run with it... and I realize some of them are among the more interesting that I've read/seen. Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now, Aguirre: The Wrath of God & Fitzcarraldo from the great Werner Herzog, and I know there are many others I can't think of right now. At any rate it seems a lot of people missed or don't remember The Mosquito Coast, which is a shame because it shows a different side of Ford we haven't seen much of before or (certainly) since. You may want to check it out.

  • "Read in order to live" - That great quote is from Flaubert, but I was reminded of it recently when I went back and listened to an interview that the esteemed young British novelist Zadie Smith did with Bookworm's Michael Silverblatt back in 2007. In it Smith offers some fascinating and insightful comments about the necessity to read "not just for entertainment, but in order to learn how to become human." She impressively took the concept all the way back to Aristotle, who spoke about ingesting art as "a training of the emotions" and described it as a different type of learning, one outside the realm of the logical, i.e. math or science. Her point, which I find profoundly important and relevant for out time, is that not only do se seem to have given up teaching our children the moral and even spiritual importance of reading, but we seem to have completely forgotten the entire point of the thing in the first place. Maybe Robert Jenson was right - maybe the world really has "lost its story."

    At any rate, Smith has all kinds of interesting things to say in this wide-ranging interview, including some provacative comments about "the search for identity" in fiction, and how she thinks that conept is just something for critics to talk about and not the concern of a writer who cares about his/her characters. It's a great conversation, and I highly recommend anyone interested in matters literary to check it out.

All for now... maybe I will check in with some more "quick hitz" in another post down the road.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Caution: Dark Turn Ahead

Introducing Mutt Ploughman’s second serialized short story, coming soon

For only the second time, Mutt Ploughman will be presenting a serialized short story exclusively to Secret Thread readers in the coming weeks. This is a return to an experiment I tried once over three years ago, in September 2005, right on this blog, with the serialization of my short story “Start Something”. That tale’s conclusion was a little on the dark side, but overall the story was not intended to be bleak: it was about a man trying to locate his creative voice, and the false limitations we sometimes put on ourselves in attempting to discover our true calling. The problem for the protagonist was that he made his discoveries too late, and became victim of a random act of meaningless violence.

Dark as that seems, that’s nothing compared to the new story, which I can honestly say is my first-ever Gothic tale in nearly 19 years of writing creatively. I have never written a flat-out horror story in my life, and while I’m not sure this one qualifies, it is intended to be a dark tale, as its subtitle will suggest. The story is called “Suicide Station”, and will consist (hopefully, subject to change) of four sections, the first of which, “The Dead Ravine”, will hopefully be posted here in about three or four weeks, give or take. Before the end of the year, anyway.

(Is something going on here with the letter ‘s’?? After all, my second serialized short story, a series that started, appropriately, with “Start Something”, is followed by “Suicide Station”. What in blazes is going on here????)

Anyway, here is a brief teaser:

In “Suicide Station”, a man lays down to sleep next to his wife in his suburban home, but wakes up alone, wrapped in a cardboard box, lying on cracked, brittle ground in a world of unimaginable desolation. Surely he has dreamed up this terrifying place. But what if the place itself has dreamed him – and everything and everyone he has known? What if the ‘real’ world is cataclysmically different from our own, where the destruction we all fear has been in progress for centuries, where synthetic “gods”roam the empty landscape hunting for any remaining human survivors, and where only four “waystations”exist to transport the ones still alive from the reality back into the dream? The man locates one of these survivors – a woman who tried to save her son many years agofrom what was coming – and who needs his help to find him again. Together, they move towards a huge black obelisk across an arid landscape, where their fate awates.

Friday, November 07, 2008

A haiku

To My Brother on His 38th Birthday
a haiku

generous gesture:
when my twin held the door wide
on my way in here.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Journal of a 'Novel'-Entry 49

The Mind Wanders

The writing of my fledgling novel has been pretty difficult in recent weeks. Well, actually, by “pretty difficult” what I mean to say is “nonexistent”. I suppose this edition of the ‘Journal’ will amount to an update on why I haven’t made much progress. I’d better turn things around. If for no other reason, it would be a travesty to arrive at the milestone 50th entry of my space-stealing “Journal of a ‘Novel’” and not be writing the thing at the moment when I reach it.

I get pretty streaky sometimes with this long work of fiction, which is not very conducive to getting the thing done, but it has been a consistent problem. At least I can say, and this is usually the case even when I get in ruts in writing this novel, that I continue to write something even when I do get blocked. One thing I stalwartly refuse to do is go long periods without writing anything. Thus, I have been working on a few other side projects. For several weeks now I have been gathering up notes to attempt a nonfiction essay about the work of novelist Paul Auster, and indeed I recently read four of his novels in the same month – unprecedented for me since I started reading seriously around 1988 or so. I have started to write the piece a couple times, but I am having trouble finding the correct ‘angle’ I want to take. That’s pretty normal. Hopefully I will find the right point of entry here soon and head into it. It’s not that I want to keep procrastinating on the fiction, but I have put a lot of thought and reading into the idea of writing about Auster’s work – which I have read for years – and I want to take it seriously if the muse is calling me to write this piece.

Otherwise, I have recently written two essays, one called ‘Problem Child’ (posted below) which was a humorous (hopefully) look at my years in the ‘metal militia’. Part of the inspiration for this piece was reconnecting with an old high school pal with whom I played in a metal band called Mere Illusion (I want it on the record that I was not in the band when that name was selected; even back then I didn’t much like it. ‘Grand’ Illusion would have been better.) more than 20 years ago. We had one on-stage performance, at the Governor Livingston Regional High School ‘Battle of the Bands’ in Spring 1988. After I started working on the piece, this guy actually turned up an audio casette recording somebody had made on the night we performed, and mailed me a copy. There were six songs in all, all metal songs from the 80s, and I was both the bass player and the lead singer of the band. We performed in front of about 300 people. It was honestly one of the most surreal listening experiences I have ever had to listen to myself playing and singing heavy metal over 20 years ago. Like I said, the essay was more or less written before I heard the tape, but the tape certainly helped firmly root me back into that time, and it helped round the thing out. It is weird the way things happen serendipitously sometimes.

Finally, most recently I have written a new essay called ‘The Soldier, the Spirit, and the Bride’ which is nothing at all like the last one I wrote, thankfully! I think I successfully got the metal out of my veins (only for now, it never really leaves, once a junkie you remain on the hook….). This essay was precipitated by a very different motive: my mom had found a clipping for a writing contest being sponsored by Central PA magazine (who knew?) that advertised an annual writing competition, and she sent it to me, suggesting that I should write something for it. Normally, I wouldn’t do that. Most of the time, I can’t write because I want to get something, or because someone invites me to do so. (If someone approaches me from Newsweek tomorrow and asks for an essay, I’d probably change that tune.) The topic and the motivation has to come from a more mysterious place within; you get grabbed by a subject and a sudden burst of energy to write on it, and it usually isn’t clear until later why you wanted to write about that topic in the first place.

On the other hand, though, sometimes you see something like this, and take it as a challenge: what would I write if I had to enter the contest? Could I come up with something? What do I have to say about anything related to central Pennsylvania???? The answer at first was: not too much! I couldn’t think of anything and I sort of dismissed it. But then one day an idea popped into my head, and I realized it was something that had been buried back in there for a while (13 years, to be precise). So I accepted the innate challenge that my mom had made when she first sent me the clipping, and just started writing. And I got an essay out of it that I am pretty pleased about. I will enter it into the contest; whether it wins anything is another story. I am sure the odds are long, but it will be out of my hands. Maybe someone will love it; more than likely, I’ll get a note saying which essays did win. But no matter. It’s not the competition or the prize money (modest); it’s the idea of challenging myself to write under certain limitations. I’m not posting the essay here though; the rules are pretty strict about the essay not appearing in print anywhere first, and who knows who could find it even on a blog. Wouldn’t want to be disqualified on those grounds.

Some day I am also going to write an ambitious piece which sets out to compare Stephen King’s 7-book Dark Tower series (note ‘What We’re Reading’ section on the left) to J.K. Rowling’s 7-book Harry Potter series. I want to compare and contrast these two massive works of the imagination to see which is superior and why. So far I think Rowling’s series leads the race (I am through book IV in her series too), but both efforts have some discernable merits over the other, for vastly different reasons. In general, at least so far, Rowling’s series is far more intricately plotted and elegantly composed than King’s is. It’s kind of like you might expect from a big work from a British imagination versus a big work from an American imagination. It’s like a large, endless castle banquet vs. a Super-Sized Value Meal at McDonald’s. Both are excessive, but one is a bit more refined. That’s not to knock Stephen King too much, however. He plays much more fast and loose with the rules than Rowling does; relies far less on conventional themes and well-known mythological devices; his long suit has always been his fearlessness and his lack of attention to what ‘critics’ think. Rowling is a superb plotter, she does everything meticulously and carefully and is fully in command of her own world of Hogwarts; King shoots from the hip, lets his imagination run totally wild across his barren landscape, sometimes to the point of outright sloppiness, but his compelling voice and assurant hand knows you will keep going. It dares you not to.

So there you have it: this post is about everything but the job at hand, my Indiana novel. It is on the back-burner. But I’ve come far enough to know it will be back. After I get some of these ideas out of me, I will take it on again. I think the day is probably coming pretty quickly though when I am going to have to clamp down. The question will become, are you going to get this story done or not? If you’re not, shelve it now and get on with whatever else you plan to write. But if you think you are, then let’s knuckle down to the job at hand. It is hard to have the impulse to write about many things; both a blessing a curse. I am glad I have ideas, but I think I require more literary discpline if I want to write novels, something I have aspired to do for nearly 20 years (and still no novel). I’m not getting any younger. Time waits for no man.