Lost Lit: Stephen King’s The Waste Lands (Dark Tower III)

How can we live a life that has changed? How can we be ourselves with any certainty, if the past has been mis-remembered? What if it’s been altered? Or deleted?

Surely most of you have experienced this as much as I have. Some recollections are so real to me that I don’t question their reality—but the other participants in those recollections seem to have experienced a different situation entirely, or one with the same dialogues and stage directions, but different intonations, motivations, expressions, and emotions.

When literature, TV, movies—any and all of the great narrative styles of our sunshiny days—play with this resetting, we’re usually not too upset.

Most of the time, the effect is comic: Don Quixote is a fine example of a work that takes all the traditional trappings of the knight errant, follows all the beats of the medieval romance tradition, but up-ends it into a parody that is also a meditation on the transformative power of narratives in our lives.* But Don Quixote is a fool because he wants to be like a character in a book; he is a character in a book with whom we feel a connection, but a distant one: we can laugh at his delusions while avoiding scrupulous self-examination. We’re so busy enjoying the meta-fictional moment, so busy analyzing the serious business of literary parody, that we forget that even a parody is still, at bottom, an expression of the absurdities and desperation of human existence.

Perhaps this ironic self-distancing is also our way of ignoring the potential for truth in parodies—parodies specifically, more than other narrative styles. Take two examples of great parody: Dante’s Comedy and the James Bond movie Casino Royale. As the experts have it, the Comedy is actually a parody of a thirteenth-century prose romance, written in Old French, called The Romance of the Rose. (It’s pretty well-known, as these things go, but it doesn’t have the blockbuster status of Dante.) In The Romance of the Rose, the hero goes on a quest for a beautiful rose. There’s also lots of allegorical stuff, and some pretty intense meditations on the romance genre as a whole and the problem of knights loving women and loving God. Dante plays with all this by having his knight go on a quest for salvation and divine love (instead of the carnal love felt for the rose, which is really a vagina just like the Eye of Sauron) only to find Heaven filled with those damn flowers. But in Dante, the rose is just a symbol, something that must be analyzed and understood in order to get at the higher Truth behind it all. So Dante’s parody points out the futility of artistic creation (like The Romance of the Rose, or—to get meta—the Comedy itself) in expressing the Divine Order of the Universe and such.

So, in Dante, parody tells us about art’s failings while simultaneously creating a sublime expression of art’s greatest achievement. That greatness doubles back on itself to create a sense that only truly great art can point out the futility of art. Then is the greatest goal of art to destroy itself? To become, as the New Historicists say, a “self-consuming artifact”?

On the flip side, Casino Royale (the new one, with Daniel Craig) is a parody. Of a parody. The book was “for serious,” or as much as any Ian Fleming novel ever is serious. But the most well-known adaptation before the Daniel Craig version was a late 60s humorous parody of the whole James Bond ethos—think Austin Powers without the teeth. But the recent reinvigoration of the Bond franchise spurred the Bond Powers that Be to return to the book (the first Bond novel) and therefore to parody the 60s parody—to turn what had been upside down, right side up again. Interestingly (and I’m not much of a Bond fan, so I could be getting this wrong), these Daniel Craig Bond movies also seem to be the only ones that acknowledge their predecessors within the movie: Quantum of Solace feels like a sequel to Casino Royale, as Bond is working out the issues that came to a head in Casino Royale.

These Bond films have their own parodic hi-jinks: both metafictionally by playing with the Bond cannon and drawing our attention to the re-invention of a previous re-invention (and therefore telling us that this new Bond must be taken seriously); and internally, within the fictional logic of the story, as the repercussions of this new seriousness include a reformatting of the franchise into a series of related episodes, instead of just individual repetitions of sex, guns, fire, and salty goodness.

But very few of us—in fact, I’m willing to say none of us—experience a profound despair at the thought of recasting of either Dante’s magnum opus or the new moodiness of a British hottie. We allow literature to re-set itself, we allow texts to re-write the past and create new ones. It’s fun; it’s cerebral; it’s sometimes even sublime.

[Spoiler Warning: I’m going to allude to many of the clips showed at Comic-Con’s Lost panel! Proceed at your own risk! I also talk about Buffy Season Five and beyond, and Angel Seasons Four and Five.]

Roland Deschain, in The Waste Lands, gets to experience this re-setting for himself, with nearly catastrophic results (he also experiences some even crazier metafictionality later in the series; we’ll get there when we get there). In the first novel, Roland met, loved, and sacrificed the boy Jake to further his own quest for the Dark Tower. In the second novel, Roland slipped into America-land, and saved the boy Jake from the death that sent him to Mid-World in the first place.

Now, he has to reap the consequences. While Eddie and Susannah are happily learning how to be gunslingers (and gettin’ their newlywed on), Roland is experiencing a deep mind-split: half of him knows the boy is dead (in Mid-World); half of him knows the boy is alive (in America). Unknown to Roland, Jake is experiencing the same split: he knows he is dead; he knows he is alive. Jake, however, is less familiar with the problems of magic and the possibilities of other worlds, and he just thinks he’s going crazy. Also, he’s developed an obsession with doors.

Jake’s and Roland’s mind-splits have been the topic of some Lost chatter lately, in light of a few of the clips shown at Comic-Con last week. To wit (and stop reading here if you are really that spoiler free. Last warning.): is Season Six going to re-set the entire Lost plot? Did Juliet re-set the clock, so to speak? Is Hurley happy, rich, and safe in LA? Is Kate still a wanted fugitive? For this line of questioning, I picture the numbers on that flippy-number thing in the Hatch: when they hit zero, they jump around for a while on glyphs and such (much as some of our Losties jumped through time for a while) before resetting, with a little help, of course, where they started.

All that chatter, and the weird effect of watching those clips, had a strange effect on me—the result, obviously, was about 1000 words on the nature of parody and the problems of metafictional re-setting. I find myself less worried about the characters on Lost (What would the effect of a resetting be on them? Would they go crazy like Jake and Roland?) than on me, the watcher: if the past five seasons disappear, I will feel cheated, even though I can still watch those five seasons just as much as before. The re-setting reminds me that all is fiction, even though I knew this all along: but suddenly, the possibilities of fiction (in which reality can be re-set) intrude into a simulacrum of reality, and the pretense of veracity is lost.

[Buffy and Angel spoiler warning! If you haven’t seen these show yet, dear god stop reading and rent them, now!]

Buffy was the first show that I watch that did a major re-set: the appearance of Dawn and the implicit re-ordering of the first four seasons. The bigger Buffy re-set, of course, was the emotional discombobulation of "Normal Again" in Season Six: Buffy as “some nutcase in LA” dreaming of life as a mythical avenger. The final shot of that episode, which seems to suggest that all of the Buffyverse is, in fact, a dream, is such a sucker-punch to the heart that I’ve just removed it from my personal inventory of Buffy canon. Buffy, in other words, is a horrible example for Lost to follow if they decide to re-set anything.

Angel, on the other hand, did it pretty well: at the end of Season Four, Angel bargains with Wolfram and Hart: Connor’s happiness, and the erasure of the entire world’s memory of the loss of peace on earth, in exchange for the keys to the evil kingdom. If Angel hadn’t been cancelled, it might have played out differently, but as it is, the real payoff to the erasure came near the end of the series, when Wesley re-remembers all of the pain of the previous five years. His despair reminds us that, sometimes, erasure can be a gift.

As far as The Waste Lands goes, the eventual erasure of Jake’s death is a gift—to Roland, and to the reader. Jake is a delightful character who brings out the best of Roland’s humanity. There’s a price for this erasure, though, that comes in the later books: trust me now when I say that all that sex Susannah had is there for a reason. I can still cry when reading Jake’s death in The Gunslinger, even knowing he’ll be back: it takes so much work for him to get back that the erasure of his death feels real and possible.

I’m just not sure about Lost, though. I like to think that those Comic-Con videos are just a hint of all of our worst nightmares: that the past five seasons would mean nothing; that season six would be a new start or—worse!—a pathetic attempt to get back to September 22nd, 2004. Watching characters experience a mind-split doesn’t sound nearly as enchanting as reading about them, although I am quite concerned that this is what Damon and Carlton mean when they said (after having been asked about flashforwards in the next season) that they were going to do something different than flashbacks and flashforwards in Season Six. Will we be stuck watching two branches of the timeline attempt to ‘course-correct’? And won’t that be kind of like torture?

And how meta-fictional is that? Precisely at the moment that the show becomes its most fictional, we become the most invested in the narratology of the reality it’s presenting. Freakin’ parody and its implications for metafictionality. Always getting in the way.

Of course, the Beam does ‘course-correct’ Roland and Jake. It’s here, in The Waste Lands, that we first find out about the Beams, which are the spokes on the wagon-wheel of existence that has the Dark Tower as its hub. It’s really interesting, although perhaps not overly productive, to think about the Dark Tower and the Lost Island in reference to the Beams. The Lost Island is movable, both through space and time, but the Dark Tower is fixed, the center of everything. The Beams are what hold it in place, and also (as we can see with the ‘course-correction’ they perform on Roland once he’s on the Path of the Beam) the straight line that keeps everything ordered.

I’m starting to wonder if the Lost Island is an anti-Black Tower (like anti-matter vs. matter, not like anti-choice and pro-choice). It’s a circle, Platonically speaking, and the Black Tower is a line. It’s movable; the Tower’s fixed. It isn’t held in place by anything; the Beams are the purpose of Roland’s existence. Maybe the Island isn’t where our Losties are supposed to go: maybe it’s where no one should ever go. What’s the opposite of the center of the universe? Should I start quoting Yeats? Is the opposite of the center the concept of diverging timelines? My brain hurts.

Dispatches from the Path of the Beam:

• So far, this review has been mostly me navel-gazing about the nature of fictional reality and its relevance to some throw-away Lost clips from a fan convention. If you’ve made it this far in the review... well, thanks.

The Waste Lands feels like two half-books to me: the first half, all about getting Jake back; the second half, all about Lud and Blaine. I’m going to talk about Lud, Blaine, and their weirdly fictional status in my next review. I probably won’t mention it in the next review, but it’s also worth pointing out that the Path of the Beam is where we start to get out first indications of the incursions of other fictions into the Roland universe: Shardik, for instance. Are the Beams held up, in part, by literature itself? By the questions and problems of art? This is a question that will keep coming up, in various forms, through the rest of these books.

• I haven’t forgotten you, Oy! Oy is a billy bumbler who becomes Jake’s friend, and eventually a junior member of Roland’s ka-tet. I’ve always pictured Oy to be like the above photo of a Shiba Inu. Please enjoy.

• I mentioned the Romance of the Rose above: it’s one of those weird influences on the Dark Tower that I can’t quite figure out. As Stephen King tells it, his main influences were spaghetti westerns, The Lord of the Rings, and Browning’s poem about Childe Roland. But all this medieval quest stuff…

*For the purposes of this essay, I’m using ‘parody’ in the classical, Quintilian, sense of the subversion of a previous trope—not in the sense of a Weird Al Yankovic song, or at least not exclusively.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

4 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Josie. Wow. I feel like I just sat in on a really, really good lit class that related to all of my favorite shows. What a fabulous read. Thank you.

Josie K said...

A class...with puppies! (Seriously, I've been hoarding that Shiba Inu picture for months, just waiting to the exciting day I could reveal it to the world. And I'm not even a dog person.)

CesarGM said...

Great review! I had to stop reading the Dark Tower halfway during book 4 and was kinda disappointed about the giant flashback thing just when things were getting interesting in the present, so I never returned to it. Your review just gave me the enthusiasm to pick the book again.

About Lost, the theory is interesting (and matches with the promos from comic con), but I don't think I would be happy if it were true.. In my opinion, much of what's happened in season 5 can only be explained by the 'what happened, happened' theory for them to come up with this split (and unstable) reality (I would probably like this storyline on a different series though. It has lots of possibilities)

Josie K said...

CesarGM, I'm right there with you on my theory--it's the kind of thing that I desperately hope isn't right, even as I continue to find more evidence to support it.

Definitely do pick up the Dark Tower series again. Book Four does drag a bit, but the last three are really incredible.