The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   50

Wizard and Glass

by Stephen King

illustrated by Dave McKean

The Dark Tower, vol. IV
NY: Plume, 1997.
That Stephen King is not a great novelist, few would dispute; but that he is actually a good one, people above a certain regulation degree of education or social standing are supposed to deny. In America, well-written books are supposed to be like tarless lungs, beyond the aspirations of the lower classes. This is rubbish, of course. Stephen King isn't Umberto Eco or Andrea Barrett or Richard Powers, but he's no ignoramus either, having studied English when that actually involved studying classic English literature; and English literature of course begins with creepy-crawly monsters tearing people limb from limb. King has in fact written whole books with less gore than Beowulf, or even than a single act of a Jacobean revenge-play. He has also written books about the legacy of Puritanism, the life of American small towns (a subject to which he returns repeatedly), the power of story-telling, nukes, why cars are sexy (subject of three well-regarded ``cultural studies'' books I can think of off the top of my head), plagues, domestic tragedy and heartbreak, addiction, and a full-dress Apocalyptic epic à la Milton, only told from the perspective of the grunts, subjects no dues-paying American literatus could object to, if only they weren't also filled with creepy-crawlies. He's also produced one of the best books (certainly much better than almost everything by psychologists, sociologists and culture-studiers I've seen) on why people like to read about creepy-crawlies in the first place. He understands the art of grabbing the reader's attention by the scuff of the neck, placing the fingers just so to cut off the flow of blood to the disbelief centers of the brain, and holding on until the last page like few others currently putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. On top of all this, the religious Right thinks he's turning the youth of America into devil-worshipers: really, what more could one ask for?

Well, lots, of course. For one thing, lots less: the man suffers from the sort of logorrhea which newspaper-serialization made endemic among 19th century novelists, with less excuse. Lots of his books could be cut in half, to considerable advantage, but of course editors aren't going to do that. (His short stories, for obvious reasons, don't suffer from this so much.) For another: writing simply and exclusively in the American demotic has its advantages, audience not least among them, but limits the kind of stories he can tell without getting the tone all wrong. Indeed, there are probably people who still would boggle if you told them that King could write a novel --- a short novel --- with a concise, elevated and poetic diction and pull it off. But he did, more than ten years ago now, in the single best thing he's ever written, The Gunslinger, an intoxicating mix of Shane, The Waste Land, Robert Browning, Thomas Mallory, Clifford Simak, the fantasies of Carlos Castaneda and haunting prose (for years I could recite passages word for word). It was a part --- a small part --- of the story of Roland, the last gunslinger, as he pursued the man in black, vengeance, and the Dark Tower, across years and continents, implacably, relentlessly, heeding but paying the cost to himself and everyone around himself, though ``the world had moved on.''

It was, as I said, the best thing he'd ever written; also gnawingly incomplete. King promised more; sketched a vision for the series which could only be called grandiose; and began, every few years, to produce sequels. These do not, alas, rise to the same heights, or fit within the same compact compass, as the first; but they're still fine books. (Mild spoilers begin here.) Part of the growth may be attributed to King's ever-expanding ambitions for the series, which now seems like it will embrace, not only all of his fictional worlds, but all worlds whatsoever, and the Dark Tower (or perhaps rose bush) which is the common center of them all. Something is (or was; or will be; for time is flexible) terribly wrong there, and so the world has moved on, and not for the better. Roland has acquired companions, drawn from three different times in late 20th century New York, one of whom he had already met, and sacrificed to his quest, in The Gunslinger. His own world, which is perhaps one of our most distant futures, or floating somewhere to one side of us in the stream of time, no longer consists of a handful of evocative details and fragmented images, suspended in an equally evocative blankness, but has acquired customs, forms of speech, inhabitants, something like a geography, and (in this book) a politics that Ibn Khaldûn or C. J. Cherryh would approve of.

Wizard and Glass is the latest installment in this continuing saga, and a welcome sign that (having only three more books to go) King may actually live to finish it. It consists, almost entirely, of Roland explaining to his new companions how he came to fight a small war, meet the love of his life and get her killed, one summer in his early teens. (This is not a spoiler.) We forget just how young the heroes and heroines of medieval romance are, and how young their real-life counterparts were. (Well, some of us do. Others are only a few generations removed from an Old Country where they would be expected to be married and taking an active part in vendettas at fifteen.) King portrays the explosive mixture of adolescent impulsiveness, stubbornness and over-confidence with adult powers, responsibilities and passions quite convincingly. Along the way to the fore-doomed end, we have: idiots, horses, mysterious machinery left behind by the Great Old Ones (Sunoco, Exxon and Citgo) blindly continuing its mindless work, dances, treachery, maiden aunts, vivid landscapes, double-crosses, the turning of the seasons and of the moon (or rather, moons), triple-crosses, concubinage, family squabbles, an army of desperadoes, the last oxen in the world, a chorus of ``Hey Jude,'' a discourse on true love (``boring... like any addictive drug''), and unpleasant goings-own about Halloween. And, of course, the Wicked Witch of the East: for Roland's story has now swept up Oz in its wake, which he doesn't understand (neither does the witch), but his companions and readers will.

I half wish I could attribute some profound significance to Roland's story, either some message it carries or what it says about our time and place, but honestly I can't. It's nothing more than a very well-told story, but also nothing less, and that ought to be enough.

672 pp., 8 color plates
In print as a paperback, US$17.95, ISBN 0-452-27917-8
16 August 1998