Sunday, September 2, 2012
100 Books #82 - Stephen King's WIZARD AND GLASS
Just as when I read The Drawing of the Three and found that my favorite bit was the sideshow, Roland versus the Lobstrosities, in Wizard and Glass I find that the coolest part is in the beginning, in which the ka-tet matches wits against Blaine the Pain, the Suicidal Riddle-philic Capattack Train (we'll call him BPSRCT for short). There's just something about high-stakes riddling, I guess. Also, BPSRCT is quite seriously, and horrifically fun, threatening and torturing its captive/passengers in a way that reminded me very strongly of AM, the over-the-top malevolent computer in Harlan Ellison's short story "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." You know BPSRCT would have abracadabra-ed Roland into an immobile blob of flesh if it could have.
I would gladly have read much more of that craziness, but 'twas not to be. Now, I sure have been curious about Roland's backstory, because he's just so capable and mysterious, but I really do have to be careful what I wish for because WOW.
Mostly, the backstory is OK. I am unimpressed with the framing of the narrative -- ostensibly, Roland is telling the story to his companions as they all sit around a campfire, but we get the good old crappy third person omniscient narrator who knows precisely what everyone is thinking and feeling every moment and has to tell us all about it. I wouldn't mind this absurdity so much, except in that King won't allow us to forget it; indeed, seems to delight in rubbing our noses in it, as in an "interlude" exactly halfway through the book, which has Eddie wanting to know how Roland "can know every corner of this story" and Roland's response is a cheap and cheating "I don't think that's what you really want to know, Eddie." Here it's King addressing the reader, basically, and telling her to "let it go, nerd." This ticked me right off, and my constant simmering annoyance at this spoiled my enjoyment of a story that I would probably otherwise like quite a lot. And the thing is, the thing is... doing this was completely unnecessary. I'm inclined to think that the Dark Tower fans were more than ready, as I was, to get some of Roland's backstory and would have been perfectly happy to just get a straight-up non-sequential novel about Roland's first big adventure, without the hand-waving at framing it as a campfire discussion during which time also just happens conveniently to stretch so that the night is exactly as long as the many, many, many hours it takes for Roland to "tell" his story. Seriously, why bother?
The very cool first 100 pages or so of Wizard and Glass, the BPSRCT joyride through hell, could just as easily have been the very cool first 100 pages or so of Wolves of the Calla, and the rest of the very small amount of overall narrative progress could have been presented in that book, too. At least, I suspect so, not having read Wolves of the Calla yet.
Now, I know the poor souls who were waiting not-quite-GRRM-ian lengths of time for new books might not have been totally pleased to get a non-sequential fourth book for their pains, but then again, they might have appreciated it for having been rendered a better book overall. It's an unanswerable question, possibly, and maybe I don't have any "right" to speculate about it, reading these many years after the fact, with all of them available to me at the same point in time, but as someone who gets annoyed at things like bad narrative framing, my prejudice inclines me to favor this theory.
But enough of my narrative quibbles*, because Roland's backstory, except for all the tiresome teenagers-in-love-and-thinking-sex-is-only-for-them focus, is pretty good, if kind of bloated and slow. Having been manipulated by the forces of evil into earning his guns way too young, Roland and his two best friends get sent to a neighboring Barony to assess what it has to offer the Affiliation (the ragged remnants of civilization in which the boys grew up)'s War Effort, but really just to get them out of harm's way for a while to give them a little more time to grow up. But of course, they uncover dastardly doings as well as forbidden love. We get a trio of Scary Bad Guys, a few Corrupt Politicians (one of whom has made a binding contract with Roland's girlfriend Susan to get to satisfy his Grody Old Man lusts on her Lissome 16-Year-Old Beauty until she is pregnant. He saw her first; Roland is the interloper. But since said politician is a caricature instead of a character, it's all right that Roland steals his girl. Not that I give a damn about any of this. I roll my terrible eyes and gnash my terrible teeth at romances, especially annoying teenage romances, spoiling my quest stories), some Unhappy Aging Women Who Need To Get Laid and, my favorite bit, a Nasty Old Witch who has been engaged to babysit a mysterious sphere that is basically a pink Loc-Nar. Oh, she is awesome. By which I mean ridiculous, ineffective, thwarted, a sacrificial virgin way, way, way past her prime. Which means she is ridiculously entertaining.
And of course there are Roland's boyhood friends, Cuthbert and Alain, long alluded to but never seen until now. It's hard not to be fond of these lads, for all that they are just so overshadowed by Roland; Cuthbert is a big smartass, Alain kind of mystical and gentle, but they are bothmore than up to the task of keeping their friend on track And yes, they are basically stand-ins for Eddie (Cuthbert) and Susannah (Alain). Which leaves Jake as Susan. Um. Best not follow that line of reasoning too closely.
Redeeming all of this for me, at least, is the setting and the season. King's Old West town by the sea brims and shivers with archetypal power as it simmers through the summer and approaches harvest-time, which is celebrated in a ritual-cum-festival called Reaping that combines all of the fun and excitement of a quality county fair of yesteryear (surely King's own childhood) with all of the god-propitiating dread of ancient ceremonies like the burning of the Wicker Man and every fertility rite ever. But of course this particular year, with our three young strangers in town, a pink Loc-Nar in place, and serious war brewing on the frontiers, no one's going to get to enjoy it much this year. The passages concerning this occasion, preparations for it, anticipation of it, hints at its deeper meaning, are the best bits of Wizard and Glass saving the breathless madness of the train ride, and are the ones that remind me most of what I most love Stephen King for -- his short fiction. Ah, me.
Ah, I should have seen it coming, the pink Loc-Nar. King wasn't going to continue to allow his most fascinating creation ever to go on existing in his cussedly tough and independent way forever. At least Roland's promptings from God are more unusual and interesting than the usual message dreams and unexplainable knowledge. As a way for such an amazing character to suddenly gain a life-consuming obsession, it's fair enough, I suppose.
And so onward, if with a bit of a ragged rather than a lusty and excited cheer go I. Because if nothing else, these books are interesting in that they tie so many of King's others together, sort of the way Heinlein wound up stitching his together, and Greenaway his. Roland Deschains is Stephen King's Tulse Luper. And that's sort of cool.
*But maybe not of my grammatical/philological ones. Because folks, 800+ pages of faux archaic dialect is annoying enough (as apparently our author knows, as he has one of his characters muttering to himself about how sick of it he is at one point), but the constant appearance of "thee" being used in the vocative case (i.e. as a form of address) and "ye" being used interchangeably with it ("ye" is in fact acceptable when used in the vocative, but it is a plural pronoun) purt'near drove me up the wall, pilgrims. I should, perhaps, count my freaking blessings that at least no early modern English conjugation errors (e.g. mixing up the second person forms like "hast" with third person "hath" like people so often do) accompany these spurious "thees." And yes, King made up this world and maybe the people with which he populated it just are not keen philologists themselves and would sooner shoot me than discuss with me such niceties, but that doesn't mean it isn't irritating as hell to a certain type of reader.