The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands

Novel * Stephen King * Entropy, Man * 1991

Synopsis

This novel is where the series really hits its stride. I hesitate to call it Peak Tower, only because the fourth is just so goddamn good, but insofar as the overall tale of these last gunslingers is concerned, the third volume is the most momentous. So as to not oversell this book, I shall try to maintain a tone of neutral, erudite, scholarly detachment and not get overly excited when shit pops all the way the fuck off. Because goddammit, this ending is a real nutbutter.

This is an event-driven book in a way the previous volumes were not. As such, it’s difficult to lay out a rough synopsis without getting all spoilery, despite being of the opinion that you can’t actually spoil a great story. I’ve read this particular novel around twenty times. I have the original paperback my mom bought me for a birthday in 1993, before I had read the previous two. The covers are still intact only because I’ve taped and re-taped them. I don’t even remember the first time I read it, other than being furious at the ridiculous abrupt ending. So no, nothing about reading this book is in any way worse for having the knowledge of what happens. Quite the contrary, actually. I’m pretty sure I enjoy it more with each new reading.

However, in deference to spoiler-babies, I shall refrain from talking about all the cool stuff that happens in this space. If the first two books were mostly about character building, this third is about movement. The final pieces are added to the persona dramatis in the form of Jake and Oy, and some actual progress toward the Tower is made. Not only that, but the world itself is finally given some character. The argument for Roland’s world is made here, as more details are given about what is and what was. Things are still very mysterious, but there are enough tantalizing details given about the world, Roland’s place in that world, and the Dark Tower itself that what we are told is extremely satisfying. Honestly, The Waste Lands strikes a near-perfect balance between exposition and mystery. Sadly, though, readers eventually demand to know everything and things start falling apart (remember Lost? They totally caved to this desire and look what happened); unless you’re going to fully document your fantasy world like Tolkien or George R.R. Martin it’s best to leave most of these details to the reader’s imagination. Lots of tangents happening here. Time to move on to the text, I think.

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What? It’s fine. Hop on.

Discussion

My first instinct is to talk about T.S. Eliot. I mean, that’s just something that happens to me sometimes, but considering this novel takes quite a bit of inspiration from the man’s poetry, it actually makes sense this time. In fact, I’m pretty sure I have Stephen King to thank for getting me into Modernism in the first place. And my 10th and 12th grade English teachers, I guess. But mostly Stephen King. Anyway, considering this volume is named for perhaps the defining Modernist poem (fight me, motherfuckers), T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste  Land,” it stands to reason to look a little closer at King’s choice to tie his novel so closely to the poem.

There is a point towards the end of the book, where Eddie and Susannah stand alone in the Cradle of Blaine, when Susannah quote’s Eliot’s poem: “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats and the dead tree gives no shelter.” Eddie gets the willies and asks her what the heck. Her response: “A poem by a man who must have seen Lud in his dreams.” That, I think, is a close enough indication of what Stephen King is doing here. “The Waste Land” is a long poem which is essentially about the alienation of modern man. Once there was a world that was understood, but that world has moved on. It is this shattering of the tradition of expression and thought that Eliot is referring to as “a heap of broken images.” That’s the micro version, anyway. The poem itself is comprised of a series of imagery and references to the aforementioned artistic tradition, all of which seem initially jumbled, looping back over the course of the poem back to that key phrase. King takes it further, and weaves a good deal of Eliot’s imagery into his novel. Whereas Eliot was working figuratively, King takes his work and makes it a literal work of fiction. It’s a neat trick, but what pushes it into the realm of greatness is how deftly King retains the overall theme of Eliot’s masterpiece. Once there was a world that we knew and understood, and that world was mostly good. But time flows and the world moves on. Entropy and decay works at every level and things slowly wind down. Eliot deals with this by wallowing around in the detritus of the past and crafting his mourning into landmark poetry. King responds by creating a hero to stride forth into the darkness and attempt to win the day back.

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Welcome to the World of Tomorrow!

This is the book where King finally lets loose and, with an assist by T.S. Eliot, begins to fill out the world Roland and his band of gunslingers are travelling through. Many of the world-building touches King adds in this book persist until the end of the series (and loop back to the re-written first volume). It’s weird to watch a writer who clearly had no overall outline for the larger tale when he started go back and retrofit certain details. In this book Gilead is not in Mid-World, but everyone still knows the old languages and the legends of the gunslingers. Different time frames are tossed at us constantly. How old is Lud? Was it built by Great Old Ones? What about Blaine? He claims he’s less than a thousand years old, but the Great Old Ones predated Blaine, right? There was a massive disaster created by the GOO (heh), and Lud was clearly built alongside or after that disaster, as its city systems are integrated with the Waste Land in mind, so of course Blaine and the city were not built by the GOO, but by a later round of not quite as great and not quite as old ones. I guess. The thing is, I don’t get the feeling that King cares much about these details. There is a good deal of narrative hand-waving that occurs to justify this loosey-goosey time keeping. The Tower is the nexus of all space and time. Entropy has its inevitable claws in the Tower. Thus, all of the machinery that supports the Tower are slowly breaking down. Therefore, space and time are also breaking down, and are naturally not trustworthy. How long was Roland zonked out on that beach after his late night hippy talk with Walter? Who knows! Furthermore, who cares? What is important are the impressions. Once, there was a great society. Perhaps more than one. Civilization flourished and all was well. Later, things began winding down, as they do, and civilized man did what he could to support the Tower and therefore time and space itself. But now those ancient supports are themselves failing. As the world moves on, society reverts slowly and surely, both civilly and technologically, other social constructs were invented to maintain some of the prior peace and order, thus gunslingers. Now they’re gone too, save Roland.

Meanwhile, we are thrust into Mid-World and presented with a flurry of images. Crashed Nazi warplanes. A decayed, bizzarro version of the George Washington Bridge. Endless banks of computers underground. A thousand-foot wall separating the ordered, rational city from the unsettling chaos of the Waste Land. These are the details that stick, the heap of broken images. Like Eliot, Stephen King is working with overwhelming feelings of alienation and disaffection. The difference is that King has applied these feelings to an entire world. He deftly plucks details from the poem and makes them real. Lud is a literal version of the Unreal City in Eliot’s poem. The fractured sense of time pervades both the novel and the poem. As Roland and his ka-tet push towards their goal HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME seems to echo around them (this, admittedly, becomes more a factor in the final three books, but is still present here). Each work is haunting in their own way, but they are telling the same story. Once there was a world, but it has moved on.

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