Saturday, August 25, 2012

100 Books #79 - Stephen King's THE WASTE LANDS

More Dark Tower? Well, why not. I've got lots of other wonderful books on deck to take me into autumn and beyond, as well as lots of writing projects, but wondering what was going to happen next in this series (or, more accurately, still looking for what it is that has inspired such passionate devotion among so many of my friends) kept nagging at me. There are two ways to deal with something like this: bring all your force of will and energy to bear on shutting up the nagging, or just go with the flow and give in.

I gave in. I just wanted to know what this weird trio King has ginned up, a half-deranged gunslinger who has been tricked into tipping himself a little further towards all-deranged, an ex-junkie who is maybe poised to become a Big Damn Hero, and a crippled former schizophrenic who has decided to call herself the BDH's wife (and is herself possessed of plenty of BDH qualities), were going to do now that they're a team.

Well, first of all, they're going to travel some more. Big surprise. I can sort of picture Randall doing an impersonation of this trio similar to his impression of the plot of the Lord of the Rings in Clerks 2 (warning: f-bombs, which, duh, Clerks).*

And tell me he isn't right? A lot of both Lord of the Rings and this series so far has been walking. Dark Tower less so, though. Walking and shooting and taking over people's bodies by means of weird stand-alone hoodoo doors in the sand, let's say. But mostly walking.

But on their travels, ah, on their travels, such wonders do they encounter. Like Shardik, a seventy foot tall robot bear with a satellite dish sticking out of his head, who sneezes parasites and sets ex-junkie Eddie to wondering why the hell he's suddenly thinking of talking rabbits (the answer is, of course, Richard Adams). Two-headed bison grazing on the outskirts of an ailing town. Billy bumblers, which are sort of like badgers and sort of like mockingbirds and sort of like dachsunds. Melanin-deprived white bees bumbling around and building a deformed hive in a tree. And those are just the strange animals.

As an interlude, we also get to spend some time with Jake, an 11-year-old boy in the "real" world, specifically New York City in 1977, who is going mad for pretty much the same reason gunslinger Roland is. They met in the first novel, Jake and Roland, in unforgettable and haunting circumstances. Then in the second novel, Roland was tricked into preventing their meeting from ever happening; time travel is tricky that way. But now both are tormented by dual consciousnesses, sure on the one hand that they met and parted tragically, equally sure on the other that their story together never happened. Roland both has and does not have Jake on his conscience; Jake is Schroedinger's Kid.

And once the full team is at last gathered (I wonder how many times I'll say that through these seven or either novels? Because oh yes, one of the billy bumblers, rejoicing in the name of Oy, becomes a member of the party, too), which takes half the book, things stall out for a little while but then get going as the ka-tet** discovers the Beam, basically a ley line that will lead them straight to the Dark Tower if they keep on following it, and find themselves faced with one whopper of an obstacle: a giant city, which Roland calls Lud, that may or may not be deserted. The sound of drums rumbling in a specific rock'n'roll backbeat rhythm every night strongly suggests that it is not deserted, as do the rumors of war helpfully imparted by a village of very old people. And how can I not think of Ballard's High Rise here, with its characters' descent into madness and violence enacted almost exclusively at night? Ho ho!

But from there it all kind of devolves into a bog-standard post-apocalyptic obstacle course through the ruined city, dodging a murderous band here, discovering the "real world" history behind a "Roland world" ritual there, with a sideline in rescuing. I won't lie: I yawned a bit. But that might just be because I stayed up too late reading. Again. Because, fortunately, as the rescue plot spun out, so did a puzzle plot, one that felt straight out of a Benoit Sokal game. And I love Benoit Sokal games, you guys. Love.

Only, you know, instead of finding a way to drive off the birds and solve all the other puzzles in order to get the train going like Kate in Syberia, Eddie and Susannah have to feed riddles to their malevolent pink train to keep it from electrocuting them to death.

Bonus points to King for mathiness there, by the way.

As always, though, it's Roland who makes the novel. A lot of the time, when I read Stephen King, my mind drifts off into a sort of speculation along the lines of how much it would suck to be a King character, goaded along mercilessly to serve the demands of the plot, haunted even in sleep by the remorseless and unavoidable promptings of his or her god, who is, of course, King himself. I am always at least half-conscious of the strings attached, can look above the stage and watch King yanking at them gleefully. It's all part of the fun of reading him, of course, watching him yank and twist and wiggle at the manipulator. But sometimes, one wonders what it would be like if his characters just got to be themselves, do what they would do, instead of always having to jump to respond to constant prophecies and visions, compulsions they "just have" and things they "just know."***

But then there's Roland, a most un-King-like figure, so tough and sere and scary I sometimes think that King himself is intimidated by him. Oh sure, Roland suffers and has suffered, but he suffers with gritted teeth, not giving an inch, not giving a flinch, ready to spit in King's eye, even when he has to give up his famous guns. He is, in other words, the only character I have encountered in these or any of King's books who seems capable of greeting King's dawn with a breath of fire and a raised middle finger. Of course, it would have to be on his left hand, since King took away his right middle finger, index finger, and thumb, right? Begging the question.

I must confess to a certain sort of psychic disconnect about him, though, because I keep expecting him to be the Roland of the Chanson rather than Shakespeare/Browning's Childe Roland, but that's my own problem. Stupid liberal arts education.

But so anyway, because I love Roland and the discomfiture he seems to elicit from his creator, and I love Eddie and Susannah and their weird romance and budding badassery, and sometimes even love Jake and Oy (I keep picturing the wee Jack Gleason that made his film debut in Batman Begins, and now graces us with his teenaged asshattery in Game of Thrones, as Jake), I am onboard for the next book wholeheartedly -- especially since it seems to offer the promise of lots of Roland backstory, which I do so long for.

I hope he's not plagued with too many burning bushes, though.

*But of course, Peter Jackson is unlikely to be tapped for the honor of adapting these books, if such a project ever actually comes to fruition, so it is equally unlikely that Randall will ever have cause to mock The Dark Tower. Somewhere, right now, EssJay is foaming at the mouth and screaming and cursing me like Gollum cursing Baggins at the very thought.

**Roland's word for his team; ka being more or less his version of karma, with an extra helping of necessity/destiny (because King seems unable to trust his characters to go where he wants them to go, do what he wants them to do, without such helpful little prompts), ka-tet invoking notions of a quartet as well as the Vonnegut-ian karass.

***Which is not to say at all that King writes unbelievable or one-dimensional or cardboard characters, because he totally does not. That's the thing. He creates these fully-fleshed out human beings out of his mind, something he has an honest-to-Bob gift for, but then, like a bad Greek god he  keeps sending them messages in dreams and other unsubtle nudge-shoves. Augh!


  1. I was gnashing my teeth, good call.

    1. Eddie is second only to Roland and Flagg for me, as far as King's characters go.

    2. The last time I read this was fresh off re-watching Tennant's years as the Doctor, so the Lud-drums very much brought to mind the Master's descent into madness.

    3. I don't hate WaG, but when I read it now, I totally skim. I like the beginning, I like the end, but much of the middle I find yawn-inducing.

    4. I will accept 4 stars. Seriously.

    1. Funny you mention the Doctor. I find all of Roland's guilt-tripping about the fanatical loyalty he inspires but doesn't feel he deserves just has to be part of the inspiration for NuWho's whole "The Doctor turns people into weapons" angsty thing, no?

    2. Yes, absolutely. They kill with their hearts, motherfucker.


Sorry about the CAPTCHA, guys, but without it I was getting 4-5 comment spams an hour.