Thursday, February 14, 2008

Reading Stephen King, Chapter 4: At odds in the '00s

Posted By on Thu, Feb 14, 2008 at 10:30 PM

click to enlarge darktower7.jpg

(The first "chapters" are here , here and here.)

Turnabout is fair play. In 1989, I resolved to stop reading Stephen King, even though I resumed reading him more obsessively half a decade later. In 2002 King threatened to stop publishing in a cantankerous interview with Entertainment Weekly. Where did that come from?

If King’s near-fatal 1999 accident and painful recuperation could be said to have a silver lining, it lays in the fact that the author planned to fast-track the composition of the final three books in the seven-volume Dark Tower series, rather than risk leaving his magnum opus unfinished. My satisfaction at getting the books within months (as opposed to the decades separating the earlier installments) was tempered by King’s threat to quit and passages like this one, from the “Coda” of the series’ final volume, titled The Dark Tower and published in 2004:

Yet some of you who have provided the ears without which no tale can survive a single day are likely not so willing. You are the grim, goal-oriented ones who will not believe that the joy is in the journey rather than the destination no matter how many times it has been proven to you. You are the unfortunate ones who still get the lovemaking all confused with the paltry squirt that comes to end the lovemaking. … You say you want to know how it all comes out. … I hope most of you know better. Want better. I hope come to hear the tale, and not just munch your way through the pages to the ending. For the ending you only have to turn to the last page and see what is there writ upon. But endings are heartless.

Dude, WTF? If you’re going to end the book, just end it, already – no need to berate me or bring sex into it. What did I do to deserve this?

In earlier commentaries and interviews, King mentioned that “entering Roland’s world” didn’t come easy for him as a writer, accounting for the long gaps between books, and producing the three concluding volumes in a row while slowly recovering from his injuries was a grueling process. By his own admission, at the end of writing them he was depressed and exhausted.

In Misery and King’s interview hangs an uncomfortable implication that readers like me are slave drivers, demanding their favorite authors keep producing output, like junkies demanding their fix. I'm sympathetic to that view, but in my case, I don’t buy it. I never felt that Stephen King owed me anything. Since he always claimed The Dark Tower would be seven books, it seems reasonable for me to expect him to write and publish them. It strikes me that King’s muse, his compulsion to write and the demands of readers all seem to blur together.

On the day of The Dark Tower VII’s publication in 2004, King was on “The Today Show,” where they presented him with a cake designed to look like the book’s dust jacket. King admitted he wasn’t going to quit publishing and that he had gotten out of the depression he’d suffered when he made the remarks in 2002. I never really expected him to bow out. Ambivalence to his fame notwithstanding, part of him seems to enjoy certain aspects of literary showmanship. In his way, he’s a born entertainer.

In some ways, the final Dark Tower book was an anticlimax: Mythic locations and larger-than-life villains had surprisingly mundane outcomes. The most impressive section of the book turned out to be the most realistic, least mystical sequence, in which the surviving main characters try to survive in the wilderness. And Stephen King is actually IN the last two books, a meta-fiction detail I still puzzle over.

Incidentally, I read the book after checking it out of the Chamblee branch of the DeKalb Public Library. While I'd previously bought all the books in the series in hardback, tightened finances following the birth of my daughter required I scale back my book budget. (With a writer as popular as King, you can get on the library’s reserve list early and get your copy within a few days of publication date.)

In fact, the very first book I read when my daughter was born a few years earlier was From a Buick 8. It's a minor King novel, but a weirdly engaging one. During those exciting, turbulent, sleep-deprived days, King's voice provided exactly the right kind of respite.

Tomorrow: Epilogue at Duma Key.

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