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We're getting closer...
on 20 December 2013
I do love Stephen King, his wise-whispery narrative voice, the dark flip and twist of his imagination and sheer creativity of his metaphors, but... As Magnum Opus's go, The Dark Tower isn't a Gormenghast or a Lord of the Rings, although I really wanted it to be. It is original, yes, gripping at times, weirdly fantastical and there's absolutely nothing else like it out there. It merges a spaghetti Western hero with a quest to save existence from vampires, robots, demons and the Crimson King. Where it falters is when the narrative becomes little more than an echo-chamber for King's own experience. He's a vastly intelligent, generally self-effacing chap but he's fallen into the trap here of crossing the line between fact and fiction and as a result diminishing our experience of both. For as foreshadowed heavily in Books 5 and 4, in this story the author himself makes an appearance.
Locked inside the walls of our own skulls it is easy for any of us to lose perspective and this series is beginning to read like therapy as Eddie and Roland, separated from Susannah and Jake, head to 1970s Maine to meet - yes, you guessed it - Stephen King himself. This infinity mirror effect is fascinating, but the reasons for this are not all positive. A big part of our interest comes simply from open-mouthed disbelief that he's actually going to go through with it. The writer meets his own characters scene is a bit of a cringeworthy moment, although to give King credit he doesn't paint himself into this picture as anything other than the flawed human being he is.
The plot point that justifies King's decision to bring himself into the story is that he's effectively been channelling the Dark Tower stories for years. In fact the stop-start nature of the publication of the series through the years is also explained because dark forces have been trying to stop him all of this time. King also begins to explore here the life-changing event that was his own accident, when a van ran him over on a walk and this incident holds strong fascination for him.
A relatively short volume in King terms, Song of Susannah sees Roland's Kai-Tet split, with Susannah, Jake and Oy being through a door into New York of the 1999, whilst Eddie and Roland travel back to 1970s Maine. By the end of this tale Susannah will have given birth to the demon child she carries, we're in for some surprises there and Father Callahan, he of 'Salems Lot, will no longer be part of the Kai-Tet of 1999.
This book has the feel of an automatic bowling pin setting machine, with a clunk and whir everything's being aligned ready for the final showdown - hey this is the Gunslinger after all - in Book 7. There are some genuinely gripping moments and some great visceral horror, a return to vampires, this time with their own three-dimensional back story, but in the end the book does feel like a prologue to the final volume.
If the question each page of a book asks its reader is; "Do you want to read on?" then there are significant sections of this series where my answer, beyond sheer stubbornness and dogged loyalty to my literary hero, would have been a firm; "You know what, no actually." It is rambling at times and the rules of the world he's created seem to be ignored way too easily for it to become totally engrossing, say, like Tolkein's Middle Earth. A good example of this is occurs here in Book 6. For a goodly part of this story, Susannah, a double amputee after a nasty accident with a railway train, actually grows legs. The only reason I can see for this is that she needs to move about in the New York of 1999 without a wheelchair, because this is a part of the plot where she is not surrounded by people who can help her. It is at moments like this that my generally very willing disbelief suspension kit clunked to a stop I'm afraid and I was tipped out of the story. Great writing though and rich in imagery of worlds other than these. I will loyally shuffle onto Book 7 now, for like Roland himself, I do want to see this bloody Dark Tower after all this time!
*** Three stars, but out of loyalty, without added admiration for Mr King it'd probably be just two.