Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Genre Mash Up and Philosophy Building: Wizard and Glass (The Dark Tower IV) by Stephen King

One of the things I love about the Dark Tower series (so far) is that you never quite know what's coming next.  What will Roland and company find after they disembark from the maniacal, riddle-loving supersonic train?  I don't want to spoil it, but I thought it was cool.  What if King spent 600+ pages on a flashback to Roland's youth in the fourth book in the series?   How could that possibly work?  The crazy thing is that it does work (for the most part).  Although Wizard and Glass, the fourth installment in the series, isn't perfect, it might be my favorite Dark Tower book yet.  (See my reviews of the previous books here and here.  I was perhaps one of five people that liked the Dark Tower movie that came out last year, which you can read about here.)

First, the bad.  Like most 800+ page novels, this one is probably longer than it has to be.  It's a bit bloated in the middle, but it's Stephen King so even the bloat is still interesting.  Somewhere around page 400 or 500 I started to wonder when things were going to pick up, but I never contemplated putting it down.  And it does all come together even if it takes King a bit too long to set up the pieces.  The weirdest thing is that, even with all the set up, I still have plenty of unanswered questions about the setting and the larger context in which the story takes place.

Another thing that didn't always sit well with me was the treatment of many of the women characters.  Granted, this is Stephen King so humans and creatures of all genders are regularly mistreated, but the women in the flashback story seem particularly mistreated, often by men but sometimes by other women.  Maybe King is making some sort of a statement here, but it can feel a bit (unnecessarily?) unsettling on occasion.

Still, there's a lot to like for Dark Tower fans.  We finally find out (mostly) why Roland is after the Dark Tower in the first place and why he's the gruff, emotionally distant weirdo he is.  Believe it or not, as a teenager Roland had a great love affair.  I liked the love story.  It can seem a bit cheesy, but being a teenager in love is pretty cheesy if you're (un)lucky enough to have experienced such a thing first hand.  If anything, Roland and Susan are slightly more mature than most teenagers here on Earth.

Some people (especially capital L Literature types) like to denigrate Stephen King for being pulpy, but for my part I find his writing style pretty interesting and engaging - at times I'd even say beautiful.  There are plenty of bad things that are popular (and indeed, there are some bad Stephen King books), but it's a mistake to discount King merely on account of his popularity.  In the last few years I've come to admire King as an author.

Somewhere around the middle of the novel you might be lulled into thinking you're reading a standard Western with a bit of romance and a dash of supernatural horror.  But if the Dark Tower books have taught me anything, it's that you can't take appearances for granted.  As the story goes on, we're reminded that we're in a strange world with strange cultures and people that are uncannily similar to, yet different from Earth and its cultures and people.  The other books are genre mash-ups, and this is no exception.  There's probably a bit less science fiction in this one than the others, but there's plenty of fantasy and, especially toward the end, plenty of old fashioned Stephen King horror.

It's easy to discount these books as gimmicky fantasy/Western schlock (as I did for a long time after having read the first two in high school).  But having read four of them with an open mind, I'm actually in awe of Stephen King's world building.  Building a world from scratch (to the extent than anyone ever does) is one kind of achievement, but I think what King does in these books is something just as impressive.  Piecing something together from a wide variety of sources, while putting an uncanny spin on it that makes the world itself a bit horrific yet simultaneously endearing, all in a way that makes sense within that universe while being, well, Stephen King ... that, that's a neat trick.

The Philosophy Report: Philosophy Building

Philosophically speaking, there are of course issues of memory and personal identity involved (is Roland really the same person as he was in the flashback?), but one of the biggest issues is an ethical one.  Is it okay to cause pain or to let people suffer for the sake of some higher goal?  What if that higher goal will bring about less suffering in the long run?  There's classic utilitarian versus deontology sort of stuff here.

This reminded me of a tie to politics that I've been thinking about lately: should you let people suffer for the sake of your higher political goals or ideals?  Here in the US, there is a tendency for some (especially on the right) to say that children and families should suffer for the sake of upholding political ideals about enforcement of immigration laws and national sovereignty.  And some on the left have had the quasi-Marxist thought that we need to let things get much worse and that people need to suffer for the sake of creating some alleged future political awakening.  I'm uncomfortable with both options, since I tend to have the Buddhist attitude that suffering is in itself bad (except maybe as a means to greater alleviation of suffering later) and intentionally inflicting suffering on others is almost always wrong.  But maybe I should be more of a Roland here and look at the big picture?  Or maybe Roland isn't actually the hero, either in the series or in real life?

Maybe you could throw in some virtue ethics: is Roland or any other character here being a person of good character?  And let's add a dash of existentialism: Given that Roland has made the choices he has, should he take ownership of those choices and affirm these choices as his own?  Does this affirmation give his quest for the Dark Tower its meaning?  Or should he take the advice of Daoists like Zhuangzi and live wandering free and easy? (Is Oy the Billy-Bumbler a good Zhuangzian?)  Or might the characters learn a bit from Buddhist perspectives and see that it is their desires and sense of selfhood that ultimately cause their suffering?

Maybe King is encouraging us to do some philosophy building like he does his world building in the Dark Tower series.  By taking ideas from various sources and putting them together, we may not reach our goal of the truth, but we just might get an interesting journey.

Rating: 90/100

See my Goodreads review.

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