Monday, August 13, 2018

Weird Connections: Wolves of the Calla (The Dark Tower V) by Stephen King

At some point in Wolves of the Calla (The Dark Tower V), Roland wonders why the stories from the world of Jake, Susannah, and Eddie (i.e., our world) tend to be of only one genre (science fiction, Western, mystery, horror, etc.).  I've wondered this, too.  And apparently so has Stephen King, especially in this genre-blending series that I continue to love.

Wolves of the Calla is the fifth volume in the series, which is one long story (or more precisely, a network of interconnected stories).  So, don't even think of reading this unless you've read the previous four books (there's a later stand alone novel that I'm saving for later).  You can see my reviews of volumes one and two here, volume three here, and volume four here.

As with the previous book, Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla is probably going to annoy people who have strong preconceived notions of how Roland and his ka-tet's quest for the Dark Tower is supposed to go.  Do they make much progress toward the Dark Tower in these several hundred pages?  If not, is that disappointing?  Or it is the point?  Are we happier with strong ideas about how things should go, or are we happier with as few preconceived ideas as possible?

Around the second or third book I learned to stop worrying and love the series, which has pushed me through what some people see as inessential back story (Wizard) and a pointless side quest (Wolves).  But "pushed through" isn't the right way to say it.  I genuinely enjoyed all of it (the vast majority of it, anyway).  Part of this is just because Stephen King is so good with characters and stories that add a little something even if you can't quite say what it is.  But a lot of it for me has to do with a deeper emerging theme of the series: things are connected in ways you can't see or won't see for a very long time.  The delight is in having the patience to discover these connections.  This, along with the genre-blending and sheer novelty of never knowing what's coming next, is what I love about this series.

As I've discussed in my reviews of some of the previous books, King is pitting (at least) two mindsets against each other.  One mindset is that you should have your mind set on one goal, one thing that will bring you happiness, or failing happiness, meaning or fulfillment of some kind (many philosophers are of this mindset, at least in their philosophical moods).  Another mindset is that life is about the journey, not the destination.  Part of a good life is learning to love many things, to appreciate the weird coincidences and connections as they come (as the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, the Scottish philosopher David Hume, or Oy the Billy Bumbler might teach you).  I'm personally a bit more of the second mindset, but I think most of us can relate to both at least to some extent.  The ability to appreciate both is key to appreciating this series in my opinion.  In fact, even Roland (arch proponent of the first mindset) comes to see the value of stopping to help others along his way.  (Ironically perhaps, some Buddhist philosophers like Nāgārjuna might say that you can reach the single goal of Buddhism - the eradication of suffering - precisely by getting rid of all of your preconceived notions of how things should be, by lessening your Roland-like obsessions).

The main story of the novel revolves around the people of Calla Bryn Strugis, a mostly peaceful Western type town in Mid-World along the Beam to the Dark Tower where almost all births are twin births.  Unfortunately, every 24 years or so, the "Wolves" come from another area called Thunderclap and take some of the children.  The children then return awhile later severely mentally damaged as "roont" who develop gigantism as well.  Weird.  But not that weird for this series.  Anyway, they ask Roland and Co to stay and fight the Wolves.  That's the "main" or at least overarching plot of this book.  There's also a story of the ka-tet's attempts to protect a valuable piece of real estate in New York in 1977 (because why not? - actually it's explained ... mostly).  We also get some important back story from the town's oldest citizen as well as some fun little myths and legends of the people and their various religions, including an awesome story about a woman's sweet revenge.  There's even a scene where Roland dances and sings for everyone (no joke).  The variety of English spoken by the townsfolk is oddly both quaint and beautiful, a variation on Roland's manner of palaver, thankee-sai.

It's mentioned on the back of the book, so I don't think it's a spoiler to say that one seemingly-random thing happens when a character from Salem's Lot shows up.  I now want to read Salem's Lot, which was never very high on my Stephen King to-read list before (vampires aren't really my thing).  But Callahan and his added back stories in this book are just so interesting that I don't mind stepping out of the main narrative for awhile.  I will be interested to see how a character from King's other works connects even more to this series.  And if you think that's meta, well, just wait...

This isn't to say everything's perfect.  Sometimes all this seeming randomness makes you wonder whether King is free-associating a little too freely and not thinking things through.  For instance, I didn't understand why they had to worry about the passage of time back in 1977 New York when they possessed the power to travel in time.  I also didn't entirely understand the central idea of that subplot (the thing they're trying to protect).  Is this lazy writing or is there something I missed or should expect later?  As a big science fiction fan, I've always had some misgivings about King's attempts at science fiction as not really worked out the way a more typical SF writer would (The Tommyknockers ... need I say more?).  But maybe in this series that's just part of the genre blending.  Still, the robot character is kind of disappointing.

I'm also still not entirely sure how I feel about what King does with/to Susannah.  Sure, it makes for an interesting character, but putting so much on the disabled black woman sometimes feels a bit uncomfortable coming from a white male author.  Or maybe not; I'm undecided. King is hardly kind to any of his characters (Oy the Billy Bumbler is mostly okay so far, I guess).  Maybe I'll decide in the next volume, which is supposed to be Susannah centered.

Criticisms aside, that King is (mostly) making all this craziness work is pretty amazing.  It's downright addicting.  Last year I started a tradition of reading a Dark Tower novel during my annual August beach vacation.  I read Wolves on the beach this year, but I don't think there's any way I'll be able to wait until next August to read volumes six and seven.  I'm too excited to see what weird twists and turns King will take next.

Rating: 90/100

See also my Goodreads review.

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