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.

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