Novel * Stephen King * Sadness, Pathos, and Despair * 1997
After sitting on just the worst cliff-hanger for six… freaking… years, Wizard and Glass was a bit of a disappointment at first. In retrospect, I set myself up for this. I spent most of my early teen years reading pretty much every Stephen King novel in existence, because he is a quality writer and I have good taste. Further, I must have read the Dark Tower books once or twice a year in the five year span that separated the paperback release of The Waste Lands and the day I saw Wizard and Glass sitting on a table in a Costco in Santa Maria, California. I’ve already recounted how important that third volume was for me, and at the time it was easily elevated to Greatest Thing Ever Always in my wise, eighteen year old estimation. After purchasing the fourth volume and leaving the vast concrete warren of Costco with all haste I spent maybe a day reading all 650 plus pages of this thing. That is entirely too fast to read anything properly, but then I have a problem. Still, I was let down. Because before the fourth volume appeared, each volume of The Dark Tower has progressed in both narrative and character. As the narrative moves along, we get to know the central group of characters better and since they are so few, it’s as if we really are with them. Say what you want about some of King’s plot devices or narratives, he has always had a significant talent for creating relatable characters, and I would argue that The Dark Tower encompasses his best effort in this area. Over the course of those first three books we as readers have come a very long way with Roland and eventually his newly minted gunslingers. Then, after a very exciting and strange first hundred and twenty pages or so, the entire narrative comes to a complete and total halt. I remember upon reaching this break stopping, flipping toward the end (which I almost never do), just to see where this mid-book flashback ended, and was dismayed to see that it was the vast majority of the entire book. I didn’t wait six years to read about a baby Roland hanging out with these other dorks I didn’t even know! So I began to plow through it, because what else am I going to do, and then before I even realized what was happening I began to get even more involved with this flashback than with whatever I had been hoping for. Honestly, it’s kind of a dirty trick.
Because here’s the thing: Wizard and Glass isn’t just the best Dark Tower book, I might argue it is King’s best work, period. It gets better with each re-read, even though those revisits are coming less often, and that is due totally to the power of the story itself. It’s a harrowing and heartbreaking read, and as such takes some emotional fortitude to properly get through it. And at the end you’re still going to weep because bird and bear and hare and fish and goddamn this book. So that’s a ringing endorsement, I suppose. Read this book if you want to be super sad. To be fair, King does a deft job of weaving in enough badass action sequences so that one is not completely overwhelmed with despair but then charyou tree anyway and oh god.
So not much actually happens with the overall story here, and that’s actually fine. The story which does play out turns out to be the most important piece of Roland’s past and as such justifies such a lengthy and depressing detour from the main narrative. There is the side effect of getting us all invested in a whole other set of characters and then, so far as I can remember, never really following up much with them, at least not in such detail as this story of Roland’s youth, but such is the scope and scale of such epics. Besides, after Roland’s tale of lost love is finished the final three volumes of the book come in a bit of a rush. A two-thousand page sprint to the finish, if you like.
There is a criticism of literary analysis that I have come across in my years of pursuing such things which is generally voiced by people who claim to be “bad at English” which breaks down to this: analysis ruins the story. The sentiment seems to break down to the idea that reading deeply into a narrative is both fatuous and overly subjective. Not only that, but if you’re spending so much time digging into how the story and characters are pieced together and worrying about language and symbolism and shit, you miss out on the power of the work itself. This is, of course, easily countered by the following argument: shut up. Perhaps followed by my masterclass counterpoint: I hate you. Still, there is still a certain attraction to that notion, especially once we wander outside the hallowed halls of literary canon. It’s easy to read something written four hundred years ago and not really have an emotional connection with it. There are vast cultural and stylistic divides between then and now which can make dispassionate analysis much easier with the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare. However, with something like Wizard and Glass, it’s much more attractive to just take it as it comes. Roll with the story, get immersed in the characters, and move on with your shattered heart and have a good cry (have I mentioned this book is fucking sad? Because it’s really fucking sad). In the past, that’s exactly what I’ve done with not just this book, but the series as a whole. It’s been more a fun, Lost-esque guessing game and figuring out the more vague and esoteric aspects of the world and whatnot. And there’s no reason this aspect of enjoying fiction shouldn’t be a part of enjoying this series. The Dark Tower is super weird, and only gets weirder from here on out.
By the time I finish with The Dark Tower, I should be closer to at least one essay-length thesis, but as you can see from the individual entries this is a disparate series of books. This makes a great deal of sense, especially if you look at the publication history. King drifted in and out of the world, spacing out volumes over years and decades. The story changed, the world changed, and all of this is reflected within the story itself: time and history are in flux as the world moves on and unravels at its source. That, of course, is a handy plot device to deal with the large amount of retconning that King has written in over the years, but it works. The meta-narrative of these books encompasses everything King has ever written, after all, so it makes sense that time and narrative remain in flux. This idea accelerates with Wizard and Glass as well. While the entire series is based largely on other works of literature, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” and “The Waste Land” most obviously, this volume leans rather heavily on Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet to be precise, but also reaches out to include works of more contemporary popular culture. The Wizard of Oz is the blatant parallel here, and the entire ending sequence is a fucked-up carnival version of the film (although it’s nice King gives the books a shout-out, despite including the back-handed line “the only one that mattered was the first one”). Perhaps even more significant is the inclusion of elements from King’s landmark novel The Stand, which remains atop most fan polls as bestest Stephen King book ever. From this point forward, The Dark Tower is no longer a self-contained story. Much like the tower itself, this series is for King the lynchpin of all his stories, in fact all stories, full stop.
Still, this is a difficult novel to talk about on its own terms. Aside from cool, peripheral moments (such as the death of Blaine, the discovery of Topeka, the introduction to the concept of the thinny), this is a human tragedy. The purpose is to essentially tell the origin story of the Roland we’ve come to know. To understand why he’s so doggedly broken and fundamentally fucked up. Once there was a boy who loved, and then is broken by the horror of an indifferent and unfair universe. He learns that the object of love can die, but the love itself doesn’t, which is were true tragedy lies. Roland hates these lessons, they are terrible things to learn first-hand, and in response he eventually learns to just shut all that bullshit down. As such, it’s important to understand why Roland is a borderline sociopath at the beginning, otherwise it would be difficult to truly relate to the guy. Wizard and Glass makes Roland human, which is of paramount importance to make the story as a whole pay off.