Thursday, December 6, 2018

Towering Paradoxes of Self-Reference: Song of Susannah: The Dark Tower VI by Stephen King

Song of Susannah, the sixth installment of Stephen King's sprawling Dark Tower saga, may be my favorite so far in this series.  Now I see why philosophical types love these books so much.  I particularly love the towering paradoxes of self-reference (pun intended, of course).  More on that in a bit.

Oddly, Song of Susannah seems to be a lot of people's least favorite (judging by a non-scientific sample of online reviews).  Is there a lot of linear movement toward the ka-tet's goal of reaching the Dark Tower?  Not really, although some really important things happen.  Is there a lot of what might look to some people like self-indulgent postmodern wankery?  Sure, but I think that's a surface-level reaction -- the line between wankery and brilliance can be thin, but I think King is on the side of brilliance if you catch a glimpse of what he's doing.

On the first point, I can see how readers impatiently awaiting the culmination of Roland's quest might be frustrated.  But I think this is not the best way to read this series (as I've been saying in reviews of previous volumes, especially books three and five).  If all you want is the end, you could probably skip books 4-6 entirely, but I think you'd miss so much of what makes The Dark Tower such a great series.  It's cliché, but it's true in this case: it's about the journey not the destination.  Besides, some really cool world-building (or technically, worlds-building) happens and you learn a lot more about some of the characters (I'm still not entirely sure I like what King does with Susannah, but you do learn a lot more about Mia and the chap in this one).  This isn't to say that everything makes complete sense.  There are plenty of patented Dark Tower WTF? moments that may require a second or third reading of the series to understand. Also, I rather suspect King is setting us up for some really cool stuff in book seven.

On the second point (about alleged postmodern wankery), I really think this is unfair to King.  The self-referential stuff actually does serve the plot, adds to the world-building considerably, and makes some pretty deep points about the creative process.  As with a lot of other Dark Tower weirdness, you have to hang on and enjoy the ride and hope that sai King is either going to make sense eventually or be entertaining enough that you don't care whether it makes sense.  You do need a high tolerance for weird, mind-bending stuff to get the most out of this series.  It's not for everyone (as King himself recognizes).

Another cool thing that doesn't seem to get enough attention is how King structures the "Song" in 13 stanzas, which gives this book a unique structure and--

--"Wait, what do you mean by 'self-referential stuff'?"

You got me.  I left that key question unanswered.  To answer your question, dear reader, I need to get into some really big spoilers.  So, beware.  There be spoilers ahead, thankee-sai.


(You've been warned...)

(Don't say I didn't warn you about the spoilers...)

So .... (SPOILERS) ... here's what turns off a lot of readers: Stephen King is a character in his own novel.  This shouldn't be too shocking if you've read book five, but Roland and Eddie roll up to King's house in 1977 Maine to have a little chat.  Again, this is exactly the kind of thing that could be self-indulgent postmodern wankery, but I don't think it is (or maybe I just have a high tolerance for such self-referential wankery, who knows?).  Postmodern wankery can often be identified by taking itself too seriously and being obnoxiously self-indulgent, but since King represents himself as a bit of a drunken buffoon rather than the Ever-So-Serious-Hero you might expect when authors make themselves part of the story, I think it's hard to make that charge stick in this case.

Roland and Eddie find out, of course, that King has written the stories that turn out to be The Gunslinger, and they encourage him to publish it and continue the series because they come to believe that King is their creator.  It turns out that King is more channeling the story rather than creating it himself, and in this case this turns out to be literally true: Ka is directly channeling the story into King's mind, which to my mind is a brilliant way to make sense of the creative process and to serve the actual story at the same time.  Roland hypnotizes King to make him forget their encounter and plants the seeds needed to make the rest of the series happen.

But wait, if Roland didn't do that, would he not have existed to wander into King's house in Maine to tell him to bring about the existence of Roland and ka-tet?  Which came first, Roland's existence or King's idea of him?  Does this question make any sense when you have time travel in a multiplicity of worlds?  The end of the novel is a series of fictionalized(?) journal entries over the course of the next 20+ years that show how King eventually followed Roland's subliminal suggestions.  Whoa.  I meant to put this down and go to bed at that point, but I had to stay up super late to finish it.


This literary self-referential paradox raises a lot of cool stuff to think about, much like philosophical paradoxes such as the liar, Nāgārjuna's paradox of emptiness, Russell's paradox, or the paradox at the heart of Gödel's Second Incompleteness Theorem.  Are paradoxes necessarily lurking whenever we turn a medium upon itself, whether that medium is fiction or philosophical thought?  Can you think about thinking or fictionalize about fiction without generating mind-bending paradoxes?  Is this a feature of reality itself (as the logician Graham Priest argues) or is it a result of the cognitive limitations of the human mind?  (I discuss some of these metaphilosophical issues in my own work).

King adds what we might call a concept of a paradox of literary self-reference.  As in philosophical self-reference, literary self-reference either threatens to tear apart the very medium in which it takes place, or it's a lot of mind-bending fun.  Or, in my opinion, both.  As the classical Indian philosopher Jayarāśi discovered 1,200 years ago, paradoxes can be a delightful intellectual rapture in themselves.

I wish I had read this series earlier.  I can't go back to the past (probably), so instead I decided to immediately dive into book seven.  I've heard there are even more mind-expanding paradoxes there.  Maybe even the Tower itself.  No turning back now, do it please ya.

See my Goodreads review.

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