Novel * Stephen King * The Clearing at the End of the Path * 2004
I don’t know if there’s much of a preamble to the main discussion to be had here. If you’ve followed this series up to this point, you’re pretty much in all the way. The final book picks up exactly where book six left off, because as I’ve mentioned before, these final three entries in the Dark Tower saga were written together, and thus comprise a fifth volume split three ways. Obviously, this final run to the end had to be divided into more manageable sections, otherwise the book would be two thousand pages long, but the tone, language, and spirit of these last three novels are the same, contrasted against the previous books. That said, going into this final volume I can understand feeling a bit of trepidation. The story has taken a long time, gone some strange places, and has bled over into nearly all of King’s other writings. There is little doubt in my mind that these books are his most important achievement. From everything I’ve read from the man himself, it seems King would agree with that statement. Insofar as the actual story is concerned: this one is brutal. Yes, the book is huge, but it also moves like lightning. It’s relentless. It’s heartbreaking. And it’s beautiful.
Where to begin?
Let’s start with the very end. I don’t mean what Roland found at the top of the Tower, we’ll get to that. What I’m referring to is the Afterward, which is a device King uses fairly often in his writings, and something that I’ve always enjoyed. I suspect that King’s willingness to step outside of his narratives and address his readership is something that endears him to many people. It humanizes the author and enhances the voice of the story that has been told. At least, that’s how it usually works. It’s different, here. Instead of a friendly, fire-side chat with a seasoned story-teller there is an uncharacteristically cold, defensive statement. “Yeah, I’m in my book, what of it?” Well, it’s weird, Mr. King. “The ending is potentially disappointing, deal with it!” Yeah, man, sure. I like the end, actually, I’m not sure what else people would expect. “Don’t come to my house!” I… wasn’t going to? What an odd thing to say to me. Look, I get it. I will never be able to personally understand fame and the kind of weirdos celebrities attract, but dude, this isn’t the place. Whatever. I bring this up because I think the notion of “metafiction” is something that needs to be discussed. Partly because it’s weird, but also because it’s clear King knows it’s weird.
The defense that King mounts in his Afterward, the one he felt necessary to add once the story had been told, is that his presence in the book was a conscious effort to unify most (if not all) of the tales he’s spun over the years under one, over-arching narrative. He uses the word “pretentious” twice. The first is in describing how much he dislikes the very term metafiction. I’m with him, fuck academia. The other is when he tells us that he hopes his use of this thing he doesn’t like, metafiction, doesn’t come off as pretentious. I can understand the concern. The Dark Tower was always more than just another Stephen King story. Personally, I thought that was obvious. I’ve read Christine, I’ve read The Tommyknockers, and the Dark Tower books are in a whole other universe of quality. So I can see casual readers being very confused when King shows up as a character in his own story. And not just a character! Oh, no, King is one of the sacred lynchpins of the universe who must be saved at all costs! It’s pretty easy to read this stuff and think “oh man, the ego on this fucking guy, am I right?” And, despite some of the self-deprecating camouflage surrounding his appearance and in the interactions with other characters (Roland’s condescending near-hatred is pretty goddamn funny), yeah, I can understand the worry.
The Dark Tower has always been an ambitious undertaking. Ambition and ego are two sides of the talent coin, which is something that is touched on in the novel itself. Patrick Danville is a late game savant that enters the narrative at the end and saves the day with his otherworldly artistic talent. Roland gives him a challenge for his talent. Patrick responds to that challenge with “a look of hot excitement. It was the look the talented wear when, after years of just moving sleepily from pillar to post, they are finally challenged to do something that will tax their abilities, stretch them to their limits. Perhaps even beyond them.” Patrick doesn’t appear at the end of the novel because he’s an engaging character. He’s there for two reasons: deus ex machina, and as a comment on the act of writing the series itself. King sees himself as both, and to that point, it seems like Patrick represents King’s concern about talent and ambition more than the actual Stephen King which appears in the story. Talent requires arrogance to be wielded properly. Without ego and over-confidence, ambitious ideas die before they’re born. King’s idea is of a meta-narrative, in which the fiction which pours forth from his talented, imaginative brain is influenced by (perhaps born from) a great universal force and bleeds in and out of reality (and all realities which spin about the Tower). In order to best represent this idea, King necessarily needs to be of the idea. In other words, I agree with the man. Despite the circumstances of Jake’s death (in which it seems King is trying to come to terms with his near-death experience) I think he pulls it off. Your mileage may vary.
Meanwhile, at the end of the story, what just happened? Roland achieves his goal, losing absolutely everything in the process, mounts the stairs of the Dark Tower itself, and… tumbles back into his own life. The end is the beginning is the end. If you’re like me, you felt Roland’s fear and horror reading those last few paragraphs. I’ve been reading and re-reading these books for years, and it’s a long, brutal journey each time. For Roland, it was a harrowing, relentless pursuit of an ideal in which everything that he’s ever held dear was burned away from him. Yet he finally prevailed. Roland reached the room at the top of the Tower. King reached the final page of his manuscript. Readers followed them both to this last page. So the horror of finding himself helplessly tumbling back into the beginning is a visceral thing. I imagine it hurt King as much to write as it did for us to read. It’s effective, for sure. I’m also not sure what anyone reading this expected. The Dark Tower has always been about the journey, the characters, and the relentless nature of Roland to complete his destiny.
What I could have lived without is King’s attempt to end-shame me. Fuck you, guy, I know how to read a book. You’re not going to write a thing, include it in a book that I’m completely invested in, and expect me not to read it. Like Roland, there is no way that I would be satisfied with Susannah’s ending. It felt cheap. A cop out. An attempt to avoid the bleak, unmoving, and pitiless nature of ka. That Susannah would accept anything short of the proud death of a gunslinger feels disingenuous. Jake and Oy went out in acts of brave self-sacrifice. While Eddie’s death was sudden, anti-climactic, and goddamn heartbreaking, he at least went down in battle, and there’s no shame for a gunslinger in that. Yet Susannah survived, which as we see towards the end is no blessing. She also has a role to play towards the end, in which she manages to pull Roland out a potential downfall so close to his goal. But in the end, her bravery and fierceness amount to nothing. She is given the option to live a lie, and this is what she chooses. I can’t help but feel that is one of the few missteps the narrative takes, because Susannah’s decision to live a false life with not-Eddie and not-Jake in a world that is clearly not her own is counter to pretty much everything Susannah has done prior to this final moment. It feels like an attempt to give us some feeling of “happily ever after,” and that’s a betrayal of her character.
So that sucks. However, there is hope embedded in this final act. Eventually, Roland might finally get it right on one of his many attempts. This time he has remembered to pick up the Horn of Eld (it’s unfortunate that this apparently all-important detail is never mentioned before this last book, which makes its appearance at the end seem unearned), so we have that tease. It seems that each time Roland makes his journey, the closer he gets to finally ending his loop. That he can rest at last, clear of conscious, victorious at long last. Perhaps with the horn, he can finally arrive at The Dark Tower with his ka-tet intact, and at long last fulfill his ancient ambition.
One can always hope.