Tuesday, December 25, 2018
Journeys in the Metafictional Multiverse: The Dark Tower: The Dark Tower VII by Stephen King
The Dark Tower series is a journey like no other. And The Dark Tower: The Dark Tower VII is the destination as the final* volume in the series (*Not exactly the final book: King added volume 4.5 in 2012). One of the strongest threads running through the series is a tension between being fixated on the goal (Roland) and enjoying the journey itself (Oy, and as we come to learn but could have guessed earlier, King himself). I'm definitely an "it's about the journey not the destination" kind of person, but I have to say I loved this destination, probably precisely because I wasn't fixated on it. As the Buddha figured out thousands of years ago, sometimes the best way to get something is to stop wanting it so much.
At over 1,000 pages, this is also the longest Dark Tower book. It's rare for a 1,000 page book to actually have enough plot to fill 1,000 pages, but this one does. And I loved it all. To an even greater extent than the previous Dark Tower books, this one resists easy encapsulation. The story picks up right where book six ended. There are trips to New York and Maine (1977 and 1999), vampires, "low men," even more metafictional phantasmagoria, a few emotional gut punches, and... wait for it... the Tower itself!
I'm not sure I've completely understood everything in this turning of ka, but I have a feeling this series is a journey I will be making again. Ka.
As much as I love all the extreme weirdness and seeming (but not true) randomness, there are a couple things I've never understood. It's weird that the only places on versions of Earth connected to other worlds are in United States and that the only Earth folks are all Americans from the latter half of the 20th century. Sure, King is one of the great American writers of the late 20th century (and would be more widely recognized as such if lit people weren't so snooty), but that doesn't justify it within the story (of course, the border between inside and outside the story is porous in this series).
I've never been 100% comfortable with the Susannah character. It's not her herself (I've come to like her a lot in the course of these books), but more what King as a white non-disabled man does with a black disabled woman. The Detta side of her is a bit of a stereotype, which is of course intentional on her (Susannah's? Odetta's?) part. And putting her through that whole Mia/Mordred storyline over several books... it's not like King is exactly nice to his characters, but everything from the demon-rapist in book three to eating frogs while sleepwalking because of having yet another personality inside her to Mia's weird fixation on motherhood and the whole Mordred thing... I honestly don't know what to think about all that. I felt like I was coming around to everything by the end of the series, but we'll see how I feel when I go through the series again.
There's so much delightfully bizarre stuff in these books, but in the last two books one of my favorite themes is how King uses all the metafictional bits to talk about the creative process. As ka would have it, I picked up King's book On Writing right after finishing The Dark Tower. On Writing doesn't say much about the Dark Tower books, but it does give a non-fictional account of King's 1999 accident (or is it metafiction by other means?). On Writing also discusses the idea that writers are in some sense excavating a story and characters rather than creating them out of nothing. Or, as the last two Dark Tower books put it, maybe a writer is receiving a transmission from the Beam in order to save the multiverse! You never know...
Although King says in the Author's Note of The Dark Tower that he doesn't like the word "metafiction," I like it. I'm a gauche philosopher, so you shouldn't trust me, though. One of the deepest things King does in these books is to encourage readers to reflect on the creative process and what happens when your characters really do come to life. Can you use fiction to investigate fiction? Does this create towering paradoxes of self-reference, as I discussed in my review of book six? Can we use creativity to plumb the depths of creativity? King might have some answers for us. Or maybe not. Either way he gives you a lot to think about.
Now I need to get into some spoilers. So here we go.
No really, some big spoilers here ..... After the deaths of Eddie, Jake, and Oy (it's a testament to King's genius that I was crying at those parts) and the departure of Susannah back to Earth (some Earth, anyway), Roland ends his quest alone. Or, not alone, exactly. There's a mysterious boy, Patrick, who has the power to draw things into or out of existence (because, sure, why not?). Patrick uses his powers to help Roland defeat the Crimson King (yay!), and then Roland enters the Tower alone.
Here King stops the narrative for an Epilogue that follows Susannah's trip back to Earth. Only it's not the Earth she left. King has a rare moment of pity on his readers when Susannah meets versions of Eddie and Jake, who are brothers on this Earth. Tears again (from this Constant Reader, anyway).
Then, because an Epilogue isn't enough, we get a Coda. King tells us that there will probably be a canine version of Oy in this other world, and are you really sure you want to go into the Tower? Why not stop here? It's all wrapped up. King comes clear with his preference for the journey rather than the destination, and laments his readers who are "grim, goal-oriented ones."
Having warned us, King reluctantly continues his tale. I feel that I should pause again and give an extra super special spoiler alert (although truth be told, I knew this spoiler several books ago and enjoyed the series just fine). You've been warned. Here we go. So, Roland goes up the stairs of the Tower, finding scenes from his life (many of which we Constant Readers have witnessed as well). He arrives at the top of the Tower and the Tower gives him a terrible realization: he has done this all before and will do it again, not remembering the previous attempts. He emerges in the Mohaine desert, and we are treated to a familiar sentence: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."
Some people hate this. Some find it brilliant. I am one of the latter. There are deep philosophical resonances, everything from the horror of rebirth in Hinduism and Buddhism to Sisyphean ruminations on the meaning of life. Are we so different than Roland, either literally or figuratively? Is this King's revenge on the "grim, goal-oriented" ones? Is the message that meaning, if it is to be found, is found among the surprising detours along the way rather than in the Big Important Goals, which are ultimately mirages in the Mohaine desert, anyway? Or are we to believe that since Roland has the Horn of Eld this time, the next iteration of his journey will finally be successful? Does this ending make sense of the ill-fated 2017 Dark Tower movie starring Idris Elba (a movie I liked) as a sequel of Roland's next trip rather than an adaptation of the existing books?
SPOILERS COMPLETE. CARRY ON.
Whether we ever find answers to the questions this series raises, I've loved every minute of thinking about these questions. Thankee, sai King, for the journey. Long days and pleasant nights.
Allow me to give a Coda of my own: one great thing about this series is that not only is it rich enough to read again, there is a standalone book that takes place between books four and five (The Wind Through the Keyhole: I will get to that soon), not to mention all of King's other works that touch on the Dark Tower multiverse directly or indirectly. I've already gotten to 'Salem's Lot, The Mist, and "Everything's Eventual." I read The Stand and Eyes of the Dragon many years ago but may re-read them soon. I hope to get to Insomnia, Hearts in Atlantis, The Talisman, "Little Sisters of Eluria," and more soon. I have a feeling the Tower will keep me busy for a long time yet, as it already has in the past. As I began my review of the first book, "I first read this back in high school and ... I didn't get it."
See also my Goodreads review.