Saturday, October 6, 2012
100 Books #93 - Stephen King's SONG OF SUSANNAH
Someone -- I forget who, and it may be several someones, the way ideas like this get spread -- has observed that the current proliferation of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction is more or less exactly contemporaneous with the entry of millions of Baby Boomers into their retirement years, their golden years, the years in which previous generations been put out to pasture to enjoy their remaining years in contemplative peace (if they're lucky) before going gently -- or not -- into that good night. The Boomers are fighting it like never before, of course. And so, taking the observation about the spate of fictional apocalypses a little further, it represents the Boomers' collective freak-out that they, too, might die someday, and this an expression of their inability to imagine the world moving on without them. Apres nous, le deluge.
Increasingly, this is how the Dark Tower series is looking to me. For all that the first novel. The Gunslinger, was written when King was a very young man (just 19 years old), the series as a whole, and especially Song of Susannah (I haven't read the final book yet, obviously), feels like King having a vast and rather elegant freak out of his very own: not just "the" world but all the worlds are disintegrating, as they have been practically forever* but the horrible and final end is going to happen now. Unless the ka-tet -- Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy -- can reach the Dark Tower in time and do something as yet unknown there to stop it all from falling apart.
That's all pretty standard fantasy/quest novel stuff. What makes this feel like a giant Baby Boomer freak-out to me is what King, the king of all Baby Boomer pop fictioneers**, has done in this novel in particular -- namely, writing himself and his obsessions right into the narrative. Yes, this includes the blue Dodge Caravan that famously struck and could have killed him in June of 1999, and which famously prompted him to finally finish this series lest he George R.R. Martin us and leave it unfinished forever due to his finally finding a bucket to kick as most of us suspect Martin is probably going to do with A Song of Ice and Fire. Whereas in previous Dark Tower novels King ingeniously tied a lot of his most beloved stories together and made them into satellite/spin-offs of his grand DT mythos, here he has made himself all but an early stand-in for the Tower, the Fisher King whom Eddie and Roland must seek out, query and assist in order to further their own quest. The closer they get, the better they feel. Everything seems wonderful, even the clouds are more beautiful, and they start wondering if King is really just a man at all.
I mean, check out how they speak of him as they approach:
"Is he immortal, do you think? Because I've seen much in my years, and heard rumors of much more, but never of a man or woman who lived forever." "I don't think he needs to be immortal. I think all he needs to do is write the right story. Because some stories do live forever."
Excuse me while I discreetly retch just a little.***
Anyway, Song of Susannah and all of its tying in is all kind of impressive, as technical achievements go, but it's also all a bit twee. My ribs are already bruised and sore from all of the digs they've taken in the hundreds of pages of DT I've already read. This time King's elbow drew blood. Dude, pop culture and literary references are fun to tease out and play detective over, but not when the fun of figuring them out for myself is taken away. And an overwhelmingly self-indulgent, explicit self-portrait of the author, however tongue-in-cheek, taking such prominence in a story just makes it all that much worse.
I would really like to visit the universe next door, where King's magnum opus went through the hands of a really serious editor who was committed into making these books the real towering achievements they could have and should have been. In that universe, these stonkingly amazing characters are allowed to be themselves, to tease out or create meaning from the world(s) around them, to discover what they needed to do and the tools they need to do it organically and never once descend into that most annoying of all hack fictional tropes of wondering if they are characters in a novel. In that universe, these books vibrate in glory on their own merits entirely and become cultural touchstones on the order of, well, on the order of all of the works King so desperately wants them compared to that he all but shouts every time he ganks something from one of them "See how I referenced the Wizard of Oz here you guys, isn't that cool?" "Hey look, Magnificent Seven!" "Dudes! JFK was totally a Gunslinger. You guys, you guys, JFK."****
As it is, I appear to be stuck in this one, where true greatness is buried in cruft. The greatness is so very great that it shines through the cruft in a lot of places, but buried it remains. I know a lot of people who love these books so much that they read them over and over and over again and find new wonders to behold every time, on the order of how I keep finding new ways to enjoy Lord of the Rings and The Anubis Gates and Middlemarch and all of the oeuvres of Philip K. Dick and Joseph Conrad and Gene Wolfe. And bully for them, I say.
But I'm pretty sure that once I've finally finished these books, and I have but one left to go, now, I'm never going to want to revisit these universes again.
My ribs may never fully heal.
*But, as Susannah's latest alternate personality informs her, men had managed to shore everything up when magic left the world by building machines to do the work of magic and spells, assuming that there would always be men like themselves around to keep the machines, and thus the universe, going. Foolishly, of course; in King's as in so many universes, man is only a pale and crappy imitation of God, whose creations never last and are tainted by original sin and a lot of other craptrap. I mean claptrap. Or do I? For all that King has Roland asserting that he doesn't believe in any gods, we're still very much in King's famous medieval morality play in genre fiction's clothes, here.
**I, at least, can think of no other novelist of his generation who has so thoroughly woven that generation's pop and high cultural tropes into his work. He is famous for larding up his work with references to Boomer-era music (in which his taste is impeccable, if he can be forgiven by Beatles haters like myself for his overwhelming adoration of their stuff), in particular (check out EssJay's fantastic Stephen King playlist over at Insatiable Booksluts and remember this is just a taste of what he's done).
***I must say, though, as "writer meets his characters in 'real life'" scenes go, this one isn't bad. It contains a nice excursis on how characters come to be, bubbling up from the writer's psyche as if they were real beings with pasts and identities and goals and longings and regrets, for whom the writer feels like a mere amanuensis. But this emphasized for me, of course, what a shame it is that King never felt he could trust his characters to enact his plots, even though both elements are coming from the same place. That said, though, it was more than a little amusing to see King treating himself-as-character the same way he treats all of his other characters. Tee hee.
****Which, I get it. JFK's assassination was a shocking and transformative event that traumatized everybody who was alive then. It was a turning point in history. It may have changed our world forever. But I'm sick to my eyeballs of being reminded of that all of the time. Sooner or later, every Boomer artist has his or her say about it to borrow its importance to make his or her art that much more important. The effect of this, though, is not to enshrine this event and its effects on American life, but to cheapen it. And, for me at least, JFK's assassination is about as cheapened as a historical event could possibly get (don't even get me started about all the conspiracy theories and whatnot about it. Enough already, people). I could very gladly live out the rest of my life without ever encountering it in novel, film or art exhibit ever again. Which is to say that I have absolutely zero plans to read King's 11/22/63. I'm pretty sure that if there is a Hell and I wind up going there, Bob Dylan will be reading aloud from its pages to me for all eternity, and hey, why allow for spoilerage?