Pander 3 (Autumn 1998)
Stephen King. Wizard and Glass. The Dark Tower, 4. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997. 672 pp. $34.95.
Stephen King: Wizard and Glass (1997)
The psychomachia of Stephen King continues. By now, his “constant readers” (that is how he addresses us) have become accustomed to author’s asides intended to keep us up to date with the never-ceasing agony of creation. The latest volume in the “Dark Tower” series has been unusually long in gestation, and since the one before it – The Waste Lands – ended on a cliffhanger, this has been frustrating for fans accustomed to a regular fix. What excuses does he have to offer, then?
I knew that Wizard and Glass meant doubling back to Roland’s young days, and to his first love affair, and I was scared to death of that story. Suspense is relatively easy, at least for me; love is hard. Consequently I dallied, I temporized, I procrastinated, and the book remained unwritten.
It’s just like the old song, really: “I dillied, I dallied; I dallied, I dillied” – and so what, really? Where does all this get us? Well, it gets us to a day in western Nebraska where a still small voice spoke to the self-styled “shlockmeister” as he travelled across the deserted miles of cornfields. “I will help you,” it said; and over time he came to realise that this was the voice of his young self, facing him across a whore’s bed in a land of his own imagination!
I’m being a bit sarky at the master’s expense, I suppose, but I must confess that I see a certain danger in so relentless a self-dramatisation. As he whispers confidences to us, his wide-eyed audience, mentioning in passing that he’s “written enough novels and short stories to fill a solar system of the imagination, but Roland’s story is my Jupiter,” he sets himself an increasingly difficult standard to live up to.
This kind of literary hubris is nothing new, of course. In the preface to The Rescue (1920), Conrad recounts all the vicissitudes which kept him from the book for twenty years. He laid it aside in 1898, and took it up again in 1918. In between these two dates, he wrote everything worth reading that’s associated with his name. “Sentiment, pure sentiment … prompted me in the last instance to face the pains and hazards of that return.”
As I moved slowly towards the abandoned body of the tale it loomed up big amongst the glittering shallows of the coast, lonely but not forbidding. … One after another I made out the familiar faces watching my approach with faint smiles of amused recognition. They had known well enough that I was bound to come back to them … and every moment I felt more strongly that They Who had Waited bore no grudge to the man who, however widely may have wandered at times, had played truant only once in his life.
Conrad writes more elegantly than Big Steve, of course, but this is frighteningly close to the latter’s description of the moment when “I found myself confronting myself across a whore’s bed [he particularly likes that phrase, it seems; it comes up twice in a two page Afterword] – the unemployed schoolboy with the long black hair and beard on one side, the successful popular novelist … on the other.”
Why “frighteningly” close? Because The Rescue is a dreadful book: dull, and overwritten, and interminably dragged out, and because it sets the tone for other elaborately unreadable pieces of late Conrad such as The Rover and The Arrow of Gold. This kind of musing on the past, on the mysteries of craft which can connect a scene begun in 1970 and not completed until 1996, sounds valedictory, not constructive. For almost the first time we begin to doubt the master’s fecundity.
So does the problem stem from writing prefaces to your works at all? No, I don’t think so. Anyone who has graduated to a collected edition will presumably be leant on to provide prefaces. Henry James did it, Graham Greene did it, Thomas Hardy did it. But most of them took up an attitude of commenting on past achievement without ruling out the possibility of further heights. Ending an aside to the reader with the words: “I have started to believe I might actually live to complete this cycle of stories. (Knock on wood.)” scarcely inspires one with confidence in Stephen King’s present state of mind. And commenting of your own book, “I don’t know if it’s good or bad – I lost all sense of perspective around page six hundred – but it’s here” sounds unnecessarily grovelly also. It deliberately (and, to my mind, disingenuously) plays into the hands of hostile critics. We all love to kick a man when he’s down, but if he squeals enough while we’re doing it, at least we might feel a bit ashamed of ourselves – that’s the reasoning, I think.
So, after all that, what’s the book actually like?
Well, better than The Rescue, certainly. That book begins quite well and then gets terribly dull. Wizard and Glass kicks off with about a hundred pages of the dullest writing that Stephen King has ever perpetrated. I may be alone in having quite enjoyed the previous volume of the series, which ended with our hapless heroes caught in the clutches of an evil monorail train, but the way in which they extricate themselves from this dilemma really makes “with a single bound, Jack was free!” look like a masterpiece of the storyteller’s art.
Imagine reading a Big Steve book where you start checking to see how many pages you still have to endure, rather than how many are left to enjoy!
Thankfully, once we get into the swing of the central narrative, the old master begins to exert his spell (sorry, all those old reviewers’ clichés seem to erupt in me at once: “ a rattling good yarn,” “suitable for readers from six to sixty,” “I read till two tall candles were stumps” [I always used to wonder what they’d been doing with the candles]). I don’t myself find the strange mélange of King Arthur, Gary Cooper and post-apocalyptic America which characterises Roland’s world anything but incongruous, but it doesn’t matter very much, really. King has generally been better with people than with places, and the people here are interesting enough to keep us turning the pages (I’m doing it again: “ a real page-turner.”)
The “young love” aspect is fine, I think. I don’t see what all the fuss was about. If Big Steve thinks that that’s the worst thing about the book, he’s got another think coming. The real problem is that everything good is in the central flashback narrative. Most of the weaknesses come from the fact that he (and we) have really lost interest in Eddie, and Susannah, and Jake, and especially Oy the billy-bumbler as they make their interminable way towards the increasingly unimaginable Dark Tower.
Hitherto, I’ve yielded to none in my admiration of Stephen King, but I rather resent the fact that he has taken up this tone of Who’s not with me, is against me. The book has been made to resemble a loyalty test. Click your heels three times and say “There’s no King like Stephen,” and you might be rewarded with more volumes in the series. Tough love – that’s what he needs now, I think. I want more Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent, not more stuff like this, hovering on the very brink of being declared, once and for all, a load of old tosh.