by Matthew Peckham
The fourth book in Stephen King's The Dark Tower cycle is in fact a novel secreted within a novella; the novella concludes the third book's cliffhanger and progresses Roland's ka-tet a minute distance along the path of the beam toward the Dark Tower, while the "novel within" is a ripping 496 pages of flashback: the tale of Roland Deschain of Gilead's first love affair, and the terrible events which first and finally awaken him to his quest to locate the arcane, ailing crux of all time and space. Expertly crafted and gratifyingly epic, Wizard and Glass, the fourth book in the cycle, is a love story for those of us who don't read love stories anymore.
At the end of The Waste Lands, Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy (an intelligent, dog-like creature called a "billy-bumbler") are on a monorail hurtling at nearly 1000 MPH through the desiccated topography southeast of the hulking, attenuated city of Lud, subject to the whims of an insane and suicidal artificial intelligence named Blane. Their only hope of survival appears to lie in a book of riddles discovered by Jake before he was "drawn" into Roland's world: if Roland and his band can stump Blane before he reaches the end of his trackage at the edge of Mid-World, they live; if they fail, Blane will commit suicide at supersonic speeds.
The riddling game, a tradition dating back to antiquity (and indeed, one of the riddles invoked is the Sphinx's infamous "What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?"), is played to full effect here, the stakes doubly stacked: life, and rite of passage. The denouement, steeped in the same essential rituals that made characters like Kirk and Spock such icons, is satisfying and earned, and the nearly six years waiting between The Waste Land (1991) and Wizard and Glass (1997) are quickly forgiven as King's narrative blade exhibits a quality of style and control that is both masterful and literary. Climbing from the halted monorail, Roland and his companions disembark to find themselves in an alternate version of Topeka, Kansas. The time: soon after the superflu -- the government-manufactured disease that launched King's apocalyptic The Stand (1978) -- has ravaged the world.
Except it's not quite that precise fictional Kansas either; it is, in fact, one of the possibly infinite number of alternate realities sustained by the Dark Tower, one in which the Takuro Spirit competes with the Honda Civic, Boing Boing Burgers with McDonalds, Nozz-A-La with Pepsi, and the Kansas City Royals have become the K.C. Monarchs. Worst of all, the "path of the beam," an invisible magnetic force Roland and his companions have been following (six beams total, all connected -- at their common single intercross lies the Dark Tower) has disappeared. In the distance is a wavering, warbling force called a "thinny," referring to a place where the fabric of reality has been "rubbed thin," a phenomenon that may lead to alternate realities, death, or nothing at all.
In the brief opening and closing sections, Roland and his companions navigate the thinny and encounter Randall Flagg, the diabolical half-man/half-demon creature from several of King's other books. But it is the intimate campfire tale Roland shares with his companions as they approach a distant emerald palace along Kansas's I-70 prior to their encounter with Flagg, that marks this as one of the most powerful narratives to come from King's prolific mind within or out of The Dark Tower cycle.
How did Roland learn of the Dark Tower's existence? What set him on its path? These are a few of the questions the considerable middle-section of Wizard and Glass explores, taking us back to just after a fourteen-year-old Roland bested his teacher, Cort (described in The Gunslinger), to become the youngest gunslinger on record. Roland is the son of the lord of the Gilead and the Affiliation, a feudal kingdom loosely modeled on the mythological Arthurian Britain. Poised violently against the Affiliation is an enigmatic figure known as John Farson, or "The Good Man," who is stirring populist anti-monarchical sentiment (intriguingly, both tradition-based royalty and democratic liberalism come under fire here). To keep them safe from Farson's machinations, Roland's father sends Roland and his friends -- Cuthbert and Alain -- east, to the barony of Mejis, and the town of Hambry on the Clean Sea. Though their Affiliation tasks (counting town resources such as horses and fishing equipment) are intended as superficial ways to their time in retreat, Roland and his companion soon learn the town's leaders are in the employ of Farson himself, his reach grown considerably. Surrounding the town are several decrepit oil derricks (a few still operational); Farson has discovered a way to refine the oil, and intends to use it to fuel an army of war machines and robots in an assault on the seat of the Affiliation in Gilead. Hambry's town leaders -- caretakers of the oil and machinery for Farson -- have hired a group of mercenary gunfighters, one a failed gunslinger from Gilead named Eldred Jonas. Much of the story, an unfolding of plots within plots, concerns the contest of strategies and wills played out between Roland and Jonas's deadly groups.
At the story's core is a young sixteen-year-old girl named Susan Delgado, who has unwillingly agreed to bed with the elderly and lascivious mayor of the town for purpose of siring a child in exchange for land and money unlawfully taken from her and her sister after the death of their father. Behind the scenes, a witch-woman named Rhea of the Cöos (also probably a vampire) certifies Susan as "honest" (virginal), then monitors and manipulates Susan and the town from afar using a magical orb known as one of the thirteen "bends o' the rainbow," a pink-colored "wizard's glass" (the thirteenth, known as "Black Thirteen," represents the Dark Tower itself). In a nod to Tolkien's palantirs, these orbs are harmful distillations of magical essence with the power of sight (future, past, geographic, etc.). Despite her compact, Susan falls in love with Roland, and the two experience the brief thrills of young passion, but as King writes halfway through:
True love, like any other strong and addicting drug, is boring -- once the tale of encounter and discovery is told, kisses quickly grow stale and caresses tiresome... except, of course, to those who share the kisses, who give and take the caresses while every sound and color of the world seems to deepen and brighten around them. As with any other strong drug, true first love is really only interesting to those who have become its prisoners.Or in Roland's words: "First comes smiles, then lies. Last is gunfire."
The theme of the book, of all the books, is turning out to be the essential clash between freedom and predestination; the latter is described as "the wheel of ka," a metaphysical belief that fate or destiny shapes the world, turning time and again to bring us back to the place we began. Famously ridiculed in Voltaire's Candide, the arguably negative consequence of surrendering to a deterministic outlook is subscription to a belief that everything happens exactly as it's supposed to, discouraging volition. Roland's greatest strength, also his greatest weakness, is his ability to sacrifice anything and anyone for the Tower, excused under the imperative and in the service of ka, and here we see the seeds of this fractured sense of nobility take root as Roland is forced to choose between Susan and the Dark Tower (or at least thinks he is, which should suggest something about the fundamental nature of Roland's problem).
Wizard and Glass also marks the evolution of King's voice into something powerful and literary. Gone are all traces of stylistic shock tactics, or what some have come to think of as narrative "bloat" in some of King's earlier books. All that is here seems vital and necessary. Consider the following abridged passage, unfurling in a voice that is still clearly King's, but judiciously poetic:
Some called the Huntress the last moon of summer; some called it the first of all. Whichever it was, it signaled a change in the life of the Barony. Men put out into the bay wearing sweaters beneath their oilskins as the winds began to turn more and more firmly into autumn's east-west alley... in the great Barony orchards north of Hambry… the pickers began to appear in the rows, carrying their odd, off-kilter ladders; they were followed by horse-drawn carts full of empty barrels. Downwind of the cider-house… the breezy air was filled with the sweet tang of blems being pressed by the basketload. Away from the shore of the Clean Sea, the days remained warm as the Huntress waxed, skies were clear day and night, but summer's real heat had departed with the Peddler. The last cutting of hay began and was finished in the run of a week… in the fields and gardens, baskets to pick into were cast along the rows by women with their hair tied up in kerchiefs and reap-charms hidden in their bosoms. The last of the tomatoes were picked, the last of the cucumbers, the last of the corn, the last of the parey and mingo. Waiting behind them, as the day sharpened and the autumn storms began to near, would come squash, sharproot, pumpkins, and potatoes. In Mejis the time of reaping had begun, while overhead, clearer and clearer on each starry night, the Huntress pulled her bow and looked east over those strange, watery leagues no man or woman of Mid-World had ever seen.The story is rich with the details of an intricately structured culture, the rhythms of its own hybrid patois (a mix of American western slang and courtly medieval speech), and a political and philosophical infrastructure that challenges the reader's notions of democracy and tyranny throughout. Why is the Affiliation crumbling? The world moving on? Is it merely emblematic of a poisoning of reality at the Dark Tower itself? Or is the decay an expression of the human psyche as it navigates increasingly complex fictions -- labyrinths of signification valued for their own romantic abstractions; a "virtualized" existence, successively cleaving individuals from communities?
The Dark Tower books, like Tolkien's Middle Earth, Miéville's New Crobuzon, or Wolfe's Urth, have at their core a darkly romantic sense of bleakness, a resignation to the telling of reality's mundane horrors in the excited trappings of the "tortured fantastic." Whether Mordor is winning the war (Tolkien), has won the war (Miéville, Wolfe), or stands to have its very existence challenged in a meta-narrative sense, as King's books do, they are united by all the essential principles Miéville recently established in his definition of the New Weird:
New Weird, in attempting lovingly to invert, subvert, culvert, and convert the clichés of the fantastic, is both a renunciation and a return... New Weird is secular, and political... the itself reacts against religiose moralism and consolatory mythicism... it is messy. It feels real, not like a fairy story. It is literature which knows that the world, and the literature embedded in it, are politically constructed. For New Weird, morality is a problem, not a solution or a given, and politics is inescapable... and most importantly, this is fiction that trusts the reader, and, therefore, surrenders to the Weird.1Dave McKean handles the interior plates this round, bringing his uncommon mélange of paper maché textures, photomontages, and surreal drawings to bear on Roland's world. Unlike the previous book's artists, McKean focuses on the psychological (something arguably endemic to his style in any case), drawing images over images, blurring colors and peppering with symbols (such as the eye sigil of the newly named Crimson King, the malevolent creature possibly holding the Dark Tower in End World). McKean's vision of the Dark Tower, a gothic cathedral erupting from out of Roland's head in a fugue of lightning bolts and clouds offers poetic insight into the last gunslinger's plight, both literal and spiritual. For some reason, Viking elected to continue the awkward tradition established by the post-Grant printings of the book, and excised six illustrations -- arguably some of the best. It's a shame, as readers new to the series will miss these entirely, (though Anthony Schwethelm has seen fit to reproduce them for online viewers at his fansite).
If Wizard and Glass has a weak point, it may lie with its hurried ending, which in the space of a mere fifty or so pages propels Roland, Eddie, Susannah, and Oy toward the green palace blocking I-70, and into an obvious encounter with Frank L. Baum's infamous mythology. The close of the powerful end sequence, which involves a resurrection of the pink "bend o' the rainbow" and the grimmest revelations in Roland's dark history, has a touch of deus ex machina that feels out of place in this otherwise darkly, weirdly beautiful tale; perhaps King worried too much the book was overlong (in deference to his endless critics) and sprinted when he should have jogged. Otherwise this is the strongest book of the first four in the series, the most controlled, the most reverberant with what the so-called literary writers like to call "craft." It also marks the final stage in the transformation of King's narrative style to something fully mature and realized in the final three books of the series, written back-to-back not long after King's accident in the summer of 1999.
Matt Peckham lives in Nebraska and Iowa. His first book, a guide to Mike's Carey's Lucifer, will be published by Wildside Press. For more about Matt, check out mattpeckham.com
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