“We are ka-tet – one from many. Let the palaver begin.”
So Ana over at The Book Smugglers is doing a re-read of Stephen King’s epic fantasy series The Dark Tower, and, since I am an unreformed fangirl of said series, I’m joining in. Unfortunately, The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three are currently sojourning at the Book Repository, where I can’t get access to them, so I’m starting with the third in the series, The Waste Lands, which I’ve long considered my favourite.
Roland, the last gunslinger, continues his quest for the lost and fabled Dark Tower, at the nexus of all worlds, along with his ka-tet, a group of characters drawn from the New York of our world: Susannah, a disabled black woman haunted by her baleful alter ego Detta Walker; Eddie, ex-heroin addict and Susannah’s lover; Jake, an eleven-year-old who’s died twice; and Oy, a billy-bumbler (a cross between a squirrel and a racoon) who talks. Their journey leads them across the plains of the ancient and forgotten kingdom of Mid-World, as they advance upon the glittering, rotting city of Lud whose towers rise above the skyline.
So I think I’ve worked out exactly why The Waste Lands is my favourite of all the books in this series. It’s here, in this third part, that the sense of what King calls “magnificent dislocation” reaches its apogee. It’s here that the strange familiarity of this world really sets in; where the dregs and shards of a thousand worlds fall together and almost seem to join up. Almost, but not quite; that almost is vital to the success of the book. The Waste Lands is the last book in the series where King can keep tantalising us, keep teasing answers which never come; the last book before he has to start coming up with reasons, which can only ever fall into the region of the mundane.
The Waste Lands, accordingly, taking its cue from the T.S. Eliot poem of the same name, is absolutely full of fragments of meaning which never quite add up. We have a giant mechanical bear named Shardik made by North Central Positronics, a Z.Z. Top song being broadcast in the depths of an abandoned city populated by Luddites who’ve forgotten that technology should serve them rather than the other way about, a downed Focke-Wulf aeroplane flown by a giant of a man, a riddling contest taken straight from The Hobbit. Hell, we even have the Cracks of Doom making an appearance:
Susannah, who had read her Tolkien, thought: This is what Frodo and Sam saw when they reached the heart of Mordor. These are the Cracks of Doom.
King, it’s quite clear from a somewhat pontificating, 7 page long Preface (not to mention a couple more pages of Argument), is essentially writing – or trying to write – a sort of Modernist Lord of the Rings, with plenty of sex and death thrown in for good measure. It’s significant, after all, that Our Villain is a schizophrenic computer inhabiting a monorail train instead of a small grey ex-hobbit with teeth (because technology is SCARY and attests to the fragmented condition of modern man. Or something) and that Roland’s ka-tet effectually puts paid to a number of relics of the old world as it makes its destructive way through Mid-World. The landscape they pass through is a waste land of meaningless fragments of a defunct world. This is probably supposed to be a comment on modern life. If so, it’s a pretty hopeless one.
Having said that, The Waste Lands is also a book full of very human moments. For the first time in the series, Our Hero Roland is having to interact with other people on a daily basis. In other words, he’s making friends again. He’s becoming, again, an upholder of the old days even as those days pass irrevocably: “This is the way he was…before the world moved on and he moved on with it,” thinks Susannah as they enter a run-down old village where they meet their first non-ka-tet humans for long and long, humans who greet the gunslinger as a sort of god, declaring that the good days have come again. Nothing materially has changed; just a handful of nice strangers passing through the town. But that interaction is a moment of hope for the people of River Crossing, a real and meaningful piece of social interaction standing against the decaying technologies, the malicious magics, left behind by the dead and vanished Great Old Ones.
So, yeah. The Waste Lands is a good book. Not perfect: King’s prose is best described as functional, and occasionally drops into the clumsy. I’m not sure I reacted as viscerally to it as I did the first time around, either; those highs and lows of emotion rarely stand up well to re-reading. But that sense of dislocation, that aching and unassuaged sadness for the relics of a forgotten world that looks so much like ours, is still present, and in spades. It’s an ambitious project, this one, but it rewards that ambition. Fantasy readers: this is the series you are looking for. At least until book 3.
Oh, and also? Oy the billy-bumbler may be the cutest fictional animal ever written. Just sayin’.