In anticipation of the film coming out, here – week by week – are my reviews of THE DARK TOWER novels.
Here’s a question: Does Stephen King writing himself as a character into the penultimate episode of THE DARK TOWER make it more or less epic?
Mid-way through, our heroes Roland and Eddie find themselves in Stephen King’s 1977 home where they chat with the author himself. But where does this take us?
When Martin Amis does it, it can seem like the height of solipsism, an author’s attempt to wank slowly and grandly in public. And yet, the substance of this visit, and King’s appearance, actually brings together all of King’s other books – to a lesser or greater degree – under THE DARK TOWER banner.
Yes, it could be an exercise in extreme naval gazing, Stephen King removing the fluff with pliers and delicately combing the surrounding stomach hair, but on the other hand it turns THE DARK TOWER from a three thousand page novel into a twenty thousand plus page novel. Okay, we’ve already seen big allusions to THE STAND and SALEM’S LOT (and there are probably lots of other more subtle references I’ve missed, my memory is not what it was) but this book is overtly stating the fact that everything Stephen King has ever written (and presumably will ever write) is about this incredible quest for The Dark Tower.
Which – I don’t know – might be one of the most brilliant sleight of hands ever, even though I still find myself irritated by how meta it is.
SONG OF SUSANNAH is the most difficult book in this series to review. More than any other it feels like a bridging novel, a shifting pieces into place novel, a journey without a clear destination novel. Even more so than THE WASTE LANDS, which at least did get through a hell of a lot of stuff before it abandoned us with Blaine the Mono, this is a book all geared towards an ending which isn’t there – an ending which won’t arrive until the next episode. So the only thing we have to look at is the journey, and how thrilling or gripping it is.
But, unfortunately, disjointed and disappointing are the best ways to describe it.
Forces beyond their control split up the ka-tet (our central posse) as they head once again to New York City (both the 1977 and 1999 versions). Unfortunately this splitting up doesn’t ramp up the tension across the novel, but instead turns out lumpy and forced together.
For a start, Eddie and Roland’s segment would seem to play for a lot less stakes than the rest of the ka-tet. They find themselves in 1977 dealing with antiquarian book seller, Calvin Tower, in an attempt to save the blessed rose of New York which is one of the key symbols of The Dark Tower.
Now this rose, and the vacant lot in which it sits, has been a big symbol for a number of books – but it still just feels like a symbol. The other part of the ka-tet is trying to save one of their own, Susannah – a human being. And no matter how well you describe this rose, no matter how beautiful and important you make it sound, human beings are clearly going to find greater empathy with other people rather than flowers.
It’s Susannah who is the star of the piece, the character around whom it all spins. Roland and Eddie are elsewhere and their plot is actually over half-way through; while Jake and Callahan arrive later with the attempt to save her. So it’s Susannah who carries the book’s weight. And this is problematic, as I find her the least well defined of the ka-tet.
Undoubtedly this is due to the extreme schizophrenia the character suffers. There isn’t one character in Susannah, generally there is at least two and in this book three. It almost feels as if King decided that the female lead in his great fantasy series could do virtually anything, and then proceeded to get her to do exactly that. As such the character of Susannah herself suffers, as sometimes she has the personality of Detta barging her out of the way, while now there’s also Mia jostling for space as well.
To keep the drama going, King lets her have lots of arguments with herself, but after awhile these become tiresome and ever so slightly ridiculous. He tries his best to sell the notion of her disappearing to various fantasy places to debate with herself, but there’s only so much drama a writer can squeeze out of a woman talking to herself, no matter what the stakes. After about the third such argument it all feels a bit like – well – extreme naval gazing.
(King does at least apologise for the “ridiculous Butterfly McQueen’ accent in which Detta speaks. Clearly the charges of racism bothered this liberal white writer. However he then goes to ruin it by including over the top, stereotypical Japanese tourists, which feel like a sudden transportation to a now justly forgotten 1940’s Warner Brothers’ propaganda cartoon).
In the end, well that’s the thing we don’t really have an end.
The danger is increased with a particularly gruesome scene in which King once again stretches his horror writing muscles. But we have no resolution, no pay-off. In THE WASTE LANDS the journey was luxuriated in, it was entertaining while it happened. In SONG OF SUSANNAH, the journey doesn’t flow in the same way, with the narrative voice not really caring, just keeping an eye on the distant ending. But without any knowledge of what that ending is, it’s difficult to see this volume as anything other than insubstantial.