Well, I’ve now read the first two books in The Dark Tower series, and I am beginning to understand why Stephen King looks upon this work – which he describes as ‘one long story’ rather than seven individual novels – as his crowning achievement. It’s a classic quest narrative, yes, but it’s more than that. (It would have to be – nothing feels quite so derivative these days as a classic quest narrative. Normally they bore the pants off me.) It has irony, it has knowingness, it has postmodernism. It has a love of its own game so heartfelt it is a joy to behold. It also has some inspired writing. Take this section, from ‘The Oracle and the Mountains’, about two-thirds of the way through The Gunslinger:
The sun climbed to its zenith, seemed to hang there more briefly than it ever had during the desert crossing, and then passed on, returning them their shadows. Shelves of rock protruded from the rising land like the arms of giant easy chairs buried in the earth. The scrub grass turned yellow and sere. Finally they were faced with a deep, chimney-like crevasse in their path and they scaled a short, peeling rise of rock to get around and above it. The ancient granite had faulted on lines that were step-like, and as they had both intuited, the beginning of their climb, at least, was easy. They paused on the four-foot-wide scarp at the top and looked back over the land to the desert, which curled around the upland like a huge yellow paw. Further off it gleamed at them in a white shield that dazzled the eye, receding into dim waves of rising heat. The gunslinger felt faintly amazed at the realisation that this desert had nearly murdered him. From where they stood, in a new coolness, the desert certainly appeared momentous, but not deadly.
(The Gunslinger p148)
This is what I mean about Stephen King and sense of place! That gorgeous word ‘sere’, and then the lovely image of the desert sands ‘curled around the upland like a huge yellow paw’, giving the desert itself the character of a serval or a mountain lion, stretched watchful and tawny and deadly in the baking sun.
The Gunslinger is full of writing like this. There’s a terseness, an economy (like being sparing with water when crossing the desert) in its construction. Yet the lyricism, when it occurs, is exquisite.
This is a perfect short novel. Anyone who still labours under the impression that King isn’t interested in writing should try it. (And I’d be willing to bet those many detractors of King who haven’t actually read him wouldn’t be able to guess the author of the paragraph above, not in a million years.)
The Drawing of the Three, the novel that follows, is very different. Longer and less meditative, less austere, this is more Canterbury Tales than Rheingold, but it’s a lovely thing, with some super set pieces (the Balazar shoot-out, the whole of the final sequence with the Roland-possessed John Mort and the cops and the gun shop guy) that made me laugh out loud through sheer enjoyment of King’s skill in telling, the bravura of what can only be called his writerly choreography.
To be honest, I feel I could quite easily launch into The Waste Lands right now, and from there to the end of the sequence and not feel trammelled for a moment. There was a time when I believed that King was so different from me as a writer that I couldn’t possibly learn from him, but I’ve changed my mind on that, rather. We’re no more similar now than we were then, but King does all kinds of things so well that it’s worth paying attention, not just as a reader but very much as a writer, too. I think what I gain most from reading King is the drive and the courage to try new things, things I might not have dared to try otherwise. His evident enjoyment of the craft is contagious. His memoir/manual On Writing has inspired and helped me more than any other book on writing I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a few. I would recommend it, without hesitation, to anyone.
My quest for the Dark Tower will have to be deferred for the moment, however, because quite suddenly there are other books I need to read. I’ve just begun researching for a new piece of work, something I’ve been skirting the idea of for a while but that now appears to be acquiring a definite shape.
This is the exciting time, when the idea is still so new it is almost infinitely malleable. I haven’t yet had time to write myself into a corner, or become daunted by the complexity of what I’m attempting. I’m doing something rather different this time, and writing (very vague, very flexible) chapter summaries in advance, which gives me a shivery feeling, like looking at a chessboard in the moments before a game begins, the pieces in position, ready for battle.
It’s a matter of form.
Thinking about form a lot – it’s a subject I’m obsessed with, anyway. I liked very much some of the thoughts expressed in the latest of Jonathan McCalmont’s excellent essays, Annoyed with the History of Science Fiction:
Terms like ‘info-dumping’ are the science fiction equivalent of the film critic’s ‘deep focus’, ‘long take’ and ‘dynamic editing’. However, while film critics are able to draw upon a rich technical lexicon, the few technical terms used by SF critics generally come bundled up with their own unexamined assumptions about how best to write science fiction. For example, the lionisation of show-don’t-tell at the expense of the info-dump assumes that the aim of science fiction is to tell a story that is immersive in that it never causes the reader to break from the story and think about what it is that they have just read. However, some authors such as Stanislaw Lem, Neal Stephenson and Kim Stanley Robinson make frequent use of info-dumps as they believe that wading through densely written expositional text is an integral part of the science fiction experience. I would even go so far as to argue that Lem’s approach to info-dumping is so effective and idiosyncratic that it not only forms an integral part of his novels’ literary affect, it also makes his work substantially more complex and interesting than anything written under the purview of show-don’t-tell.
If we simply assume that show-don’t-tell was a linear improvement on the info-dump then it follows that writers like Stephenson and Lem are nothing more than unsophisticated writers who have yet to acquire the skills necessary for Heinleinian narrative immersion. However, if we assume that science fiction is a literary tradition rich enough to create its own literary techniques and that the info-dump might be a literary technique with its own affective payload then experimental info-dumpers such as Lem and Stephenson immediately appear more important and influential.
I loved this, even if I don’t think I can entirely agree with the idea that info-dumping is unique to SF. The term is SFnal, the technique not exclusively so, and many and various are the writers who have employed it. Versions of it, anyway.
That’s not the point though, or at least not for me. The point is that we should think about form, because the games we can play with form are as exciting as the stories we can choose to tell. Form is, in its way, its own kind of story.