Tuesday, March 30, 2010


"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 (the orgasm is, after all, God's way of telling us we've finished, at least for the time being, and should go to sleep)...You say you want to know how it all comes out...For an ending, you only have to turn to the last page and see what is there writ upon...And so, my dear Constant Reader, I tell you this: You can stop here...Endings are heartless.

Ending is just another word for goodbye."

When I started Stephen King's seventh and final book of the Dark Tower series, The Dark Tower, I knew that I had to take the book slow. I knew that I had to savor each paragraph, each sentence, and enjoy the experience. Because I knew that the ending could never and would never live up to what I wanted.

I won't bother you too much with what I wanted. Suffice it to say, it was along the lines of a philosophical and psychological battle at the top of the Dark Tower between Roland and Randall Flagg. I was hoping for something along the lines of the climax of Michael Crichton's Sphere. But it would be silly for me to expect an ending like that out of King. He has his own style and voice, and that is why I like him.

I've come to the realization that my favorite writers are sort of like friends. There are many things I love about them, and then there are the human imperfections that they have. There are little ways of writing the odd sentence or expressing a specific emotion in a scene that bother me about the writers I love. But like a friend who has a quirk that can be annoying, I'm starting to learn to accept these little idiosyncrasies because they are part of how that writer writes.

So, the ending of The Dark Tower is a very horror/B-movie/pulpy kind of ending, but what more can be expected out of Stephen King? I finished the Epilogue of the book late at night, and vowed not to read the rest (the Coda and the complete Robert Browning poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came") until the next day. However, my curiosity got the better of me. I read the Coda, which includes the quote I have up above. I wish I hadn't read it.

At all. I mean, I wish that the novel ended with the Epilogue. The Epilogue is perfect, it resolves the subplot of the piece. The chapter before that SPOILERS START has Roland walking up to the Tower SPOILERS END. I honestly feel the piece could have ended there, with the rest of the story a mystery. I am sure King would have gotten tons of angry letters and death threats that way, but it would have been a better ending. It calls back to the endings of The Waste Lands and Song of Susannah, with their dramatic climax that sort of has an "Until next time!" feel to it. I would rather not have known what happens in the Dark Tower than have read what King gives us. The Coda, as King warned it would in a very Lemony Snicket Unfortunate Events sort of way, hurts and fails to satisfy.

When the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion ended, fans were disappointed and complained so much that Hideaki Anno presented an alternate ending in the movies where pretty much everyone dies and Anno gives the finger to his fans. I loved the series ending.

I've spoken more on the ending than I would have liked. The point is, that despite my feelings towards the ending, it is a great book. I have my beefs with the introduction of new characters and the exits of older characters, but for the most part I really liked it. In fact, as an ending to the Dark Tower series and to a lot of other loose ends in King's writing, it fits perfectly. All except the actual ending. In a way, that is kind of amusing. Parts of the book got me teary eyed. Parts of the book made me grin. Despite my attempt to enjoy the book slowly, I devoured it. But I still savored it, trying not to be the glutton at a fine cooked meal who fails to stop and taste what he's eating because he's too busy shoving it down his throat. If you read this book, savor it as much as you can. Enjoy the ride as much as you can. The lovemaking is in the pages leading up to the ending, not in the paltry squirt that follows.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

An Angel on the Road

"Is your name really Ely?


You don't want to say your name.

I don't want to say it.


I couldnt trust you with it. To do something with it. I dont want anyone talking about me. To say where I was or what I said when I was there...I think in times like these the less said the better. If something had happened and we were survivors and we met on the road then we'd have something to talk about. But we're not. So we dont."

Names are important in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, in that no character is ever named. The protagonists are simply referred to as the man and the boy. Maybe their names are hidden from us because we cannot be trusted with them, but I think it is more likely that they are hidden because they represent the old life, the old universe, which is long gone by the first page of The Road.

McCarthy's novel is about a man and his son making their way to the coast in a post-apocalyptic world covered in ash. They push a shopping cart filled with supplies that always runs out, until they are "lucky" and stumble upon more food. But finding more food is more of a curse than a blessing because it means they have to carry on, they have to keep trying rather than just laying down and dying in the road. They have to face starvation, thieves, and cannibals.

I started to read this book while waiting to get my haircut at a place in the mall. I read the first 20 pages while I waited, and I had to learn how to get around McCarthy's long sentences and his almost reluctant use of punctuation. Without commas in a long sentence, it is hard to know where to take a breath between ideas. Conversations, as seen above, are not surrounded in quotation marks and characters are not identified every line. Nor is it really emphasized how each piece of dialog is said. But I was still able to get the emotion because of the poetic way McCarthy writes his novel. And I realized, when reattempting the first few paragraphs, that each sentence had to be read like the lines of a stanza: rhythmically, emphasizing each word like in poetry. Sentence length became irrelevant.

Religious imagery abounds through the book. The man calls his son the word of God and an angel. He also says there is no God and they are his prophets. McCarthy calls them old gods. There is a conversation between the boy and the man where they discuss crows (all animals are long gone), and as the boy imagines that crows could fly to the sun, it is like a primitive culture developing mythology. Another part the man thinks about sitting in the ashes, cursing God, and dying, a reference to Job. But God is another relic in this book, part of a long gone world. The man realizes when talking to his son that he is an alien to the child, from another planet.

There is a link between this book and A Canticle for Leibowetz another post-apocalyptic tale. Canticle ends with the world suffering another nuclear war, and only the sharks, those primitive creatures who endured past extinctions, survive in the depths of the oceans. In The Road, the man thinks that in the depths of the ocean squids may still be alive.

The Road is covered with beautifully depressing images. A favorite quote of mine happens early in the book: "By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp." What makes this book unique, what makes it more than just a tale of a depressing future after an unknown force has destroyed all life, a future where soon the last tree will fall, where plants and animals are long gone, where ashes rain down like snow, what gives this book life is the tale of the man and his son. Simple moments like where the man has the boy put his cold feet against his father's chest to get warm assures us that love prevails. But whether prevailing love is a blessing or a curse, much like finding more food on the road, that is unknown.

Says the old man, the one the man and his son encounter on the road, the one who calls himself Ely:

"When we're all gone at last then there'll be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He'll be out in the road there with nothing to do and nobody to do it to. He'll say: Where did everybody go? And that's how it will be. What's wrong with that?"

*I saw the film for The Road before reading the book. In terms of adaptation, I think the film gets the feeling of the book right, even though it merges some events and jumps around. The theme of father and son in a barren wasteland and the issue of whether to end their lives is still there in the movie.*

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Finish your business as soon as you can.

Stephen King's dedication at the beginning of Song of Susannah says, "For Tabby, who knew when it was done." If Tabitha King, Stephen King's wife, is responsible for the pacing and cliffhanger ending of Song, then I must say, "God bless you please, Mrs. King, Jesus loves you more than you will know. Oh oh oh."

There is so much right with the sixth book of The Dark Tower series. Many of the imperfections of the previous volumes (at least what I felt were imperfections) have been ditched here. This is just great storytelling.

It is one of the shortest books in the series (544 pages compared to the previous The Wolves of the Calla's 921), but it certainly doesn't feel too short. It escapes the long-windedness of some of the previous volumes. As a result, this book feels more like one story with one theme and central plot, unlike some of the others which were going in too many directions at once. And although the plot sidetracks us from the Dark Tower a little, it mainly functions to serve it. After all, all things serve the Tower. A quote, on page 12, summarizes this succinctness of this novel:

"Her eyes looked at him calmly. She still had hold of his left hand, touching it, culling out its secrets. 'Finish your business as soon as you can.'

'Is that your advice?'

'Aye, dearheart. Before your business finishes you.'"

I also love the way that the character who is the central focus of this story, Susannah, doesn't pop up for 60 pages or so. It is very much a detective story.

The action sequences in this book are just what I've been longing for in this series. There is a shootout with Eddie and Roland in Maine that involves a storefront and an overturned log truck that had me flipping to the next page almost before I finished the previous. This is the sort of high octane, Western inspired material I wanted but didn't get from Wolves and even Wizard and Glass.

King's explanation of how technology has become a poor replacement for magic, and the machines are failing, is something I think few other authors address. In this society, we assume magic and science are the same, but King asserts, much the same way I do, that they are far from the same. One is a weak imitation of the other that eventually runs down as mandated by the rules of Entropy.

If there's one criticism I have of the book, it's the scene in the hotel lobby full of Asian tourists described as having yellow skin, cameras, and King even notes they all look the same! The way they talk, as written in the dialog, is almost as uncomfortable as Mickey Rooney's role in Blake Edwards' Breakfast at Tiffany's starring Audrey Hepburn.

I admit, that those sort of 1960s stereotypes work sometimes, like Peter Sellers in Murder by Death, but not often. Often they're the sort of bad jokes a friend might declare loudly in front of a giant group of people, only to be met with dead silence. Who feels more awkward in that situation? You, or the friend?

There's a lot more of King working himself into the story, and I am still out on whether or not that actually works. I'll have to read the last book to know for sure.

This book ends with a cliffhanger much like The Waste Lands did. There's mention in Song about readers getting angry over the ending of Waste Lands, but I loved it, and I loved this ending. Maybe it's because I don't have to wait for the next volume. It's already been written; I just have to pick it up.

Bring on The Dark Tower!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Goodbye, Mr. Salinger

J.D. Salinger, January 1, 1919 - January 27, 2010

I received J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye for Christmas during high school, and it is one of those precious books that had a true impact on my life. I've often said that if you're not a teenager and you try to read The Catcher in the Rye, you probably won't like it. I was fortunate enough to read it at the exact right time in my life, and as a teenager I was sucked into Holden Caulfield's mind and universe.

I devoured the book in a couple of days during winter break. I remember staying up late into the night reading, and the chill I got not because my parent's house was always as cold as a fridge, not because there was ice on the windows of my room, not because I could almost hear the snow crystallizing as it froze outside, but because of one passage from Salinger's book. I don't know if I was tired from it being so late and having read so long, or if I had been transported to a strange emotional place because of the book, but that moment has stuck with me, when my whole body and being was unsettled by these words:

"Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd be the catcher in the rye."

There's nothing creepy about that passage, and in fact it almost invokes happy images of protected children in a field where the sun streams down in golden rays, but at that moment when I read it, I felt very weird. I felt moved, to be sure, but to a dark place. Maybe, if I had time to psychoanalyze it all, it was because a part of me realized how alone, how much of an outsider Holden was, and how I could be that. We all could be that. And though we want something that seems pure and honest, at the same time it is something impossible, impractical. We can't protect all the children from the cliff no more than we can protect ourselves from it.

But I don't want to psychoanalyze. I merely want to comment on how much of an impact Catcher had on me, how much I was moved by Salinger's words which were poetic in their use of teenage language. I wanted to comment on Mr. Salinger's death, and how a legend has passed away.

Many news sources have written insightful and interesting little pieces on his life, on his impact. Pieces that are much better than this one. But all those guys, they're phonies.

A last little piece of cynicism to wrap up this post: it is quite likely that right now deals are being made for a Catcher movie. Salinger refused to sell the film rights of his book while he was alive, but now that he's dead there's no stopping Hollywood. And knowing Hollywood, they'll do it wrong. "We love the piece, we do, but nothing happens! It's three hours of a kid walking around New York and that don't sell tickets. We modernize it. Set it in present day. And hey, what if Holden was on the run from the law? Now wouldn't that spice up the third act?!"

The truth is, even if you had the best in film-making behind the adaptation, your chances of making a good film out a piece that is so internal, so focused on inner conflict is slim to none. As Robert McKee says in his book Story, "The purer the novel...the worse the film."

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Mocking the Devil

"Music and silence – how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father entered Hell – though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light years, could express – no square inch of internal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise – Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile – Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end...The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end...

"In the heat of composition I find that I have inadvertently allowed myself to assume the form of a large centipede. I am accordingly dictating the rest to my secretary."

What makes C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters relevant, despite its World War II background, is that it addresses temptations that are still very present in our society. Told in a series of letters from a senior demon named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, Lewis depicts humanity's faults, and conversely, humanity's best qualities. In each letter, Screwtape points out our weaknesses, and elaborates how Wormwood can exploit those weaknesses to capture our souls.

What is timeless about this piece is that these same weaknesses exist in us today. Lewis comments in the forward that he simply looked at his own temptations and shortfalls for inspiration.

What prevents this book from being preachy is that it criticizes all poor human behavior, especially those of overly pious Christians. Included in my book was "Screwtape Proposes a Toast," a speech given to a graduating class of demons that concludes with Screwtape raising a glass of Pharisee. This wine is composed of self-righteous humans who practiced a religion of hate rather than what Christ really taught.

What really makes this book stand out is Lewis' perspective on demons. Rather than black batlike creatures, they are like businessmen sitting in bureaucratic offices, calmly and coldly coming up with ways to capture us. They aren't part of some diabolical pursuit of evil like a cartoon villain, but they want our souls as a sort of food. Their demon bodies are constantly hungry, greedy for more to devour. And while there is a lot of humor in this book, it's a dark sort of humor. After you laugh, you pause to think about the truth of what Lewis has written, and shudder a little.

But it is important to laugh. Nothing loses power faster than after it has become a joke. Two quotes Lewis provides at the beginning sum this up better than I ever could. The first is from Luther: "The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to text of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn." The second, from Thomas More, is slightly more succinct: "The devil...that prowde spirite…cannot endure to be mocked."

A closing note: Walden Media is supposedly adapting the book for the screen. I'm not sure how this would work without adding a whole other storyline around the human Wormwood is tempting, but it could be interesting to see.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Repetitively Redundant

"'...the shooting will happen so fast and be over so quick that you'll wonder what all the planning and palaver was for, when in the end it always comes down to the same five minutes' worth of blood, pain, and stupidity.' He paused, then said: 'I always feel sick afterward.'"

I would say that quote sums up Stephen King's fifth Dark Tower book Wolves of the Calla, but that would be too harsh. I never feel sick after reading his books.

However, I do wonder what all the planning and palaver (important conversation) was for. In my Wizard and Glass review I mentioned that much of the book was flashbacks, and that King is attempting to tie all his works together. Wolves of the Calla is the same way, but I'm afraid that all the flaws of Wizard are more pronounced in Wolves.

Without giving away too much, King brings back Father Callahan, the priest who mysteriously vanishes at the end of 'Salem's Lot. A lot of Wolves is Callahan recounting what happened to him after he left 'Salem's Lot, all the while Roland twirling his fingers in a "hurry up and get to the point" fashion. I found myself twirling my fingers in much the same way.

See, Wolves is set against a town where most of the children are twins, and where monsters known as Wolves show up every so many years and take one child out of every pair of twins. The children are returned later, mentally and physically ruined and doomed to a short life. Roland and his ka-tet are meant to fight the Wolves in a Knights of the Roundtable meets Western sort of way, but this makes up very little of the actual story, and it shows. This part of the tale is filled with undeveloped characters and painfully obvious and simple plots.

But man oh man did I love finding out what happened to Callahan! The only annoying part (besides it having relatively little to do with the book) was Roland's constant finger twirling. Stephen King repeated it so many times. He repeated it so many times. He repeated it so many times.

Added to that, the number 19 or 99 or 1999 gets used to death as well.

A final criticism: tying everything together. King is starting to tie together not only his own works, but Harry Potter, Marvel Comics, and Star Wars. I've often said that King could write about a killer stapler that could talk and it would convince me, but there are moments in Wolves that are stretching it, even for King's great talents. I can cut him a little slack, though, because this idea fit into my own philosophy about writing. In On Writing, King compared writing to digging for fossils. A large part of me has always believed that what is written, by King, or myself, or other writers, is true is some strange sense. An alternate world? I don't know. But there are stories that are always there, waiting for us to find them.

Despite this book's flaw, I want to read the rest of the series. I want to know what happens to Roland and his ka-tet, and I want to see the connections that King will make. He's managed to write a book with a thin plot and a LOT of exposition that kept me interested the whole time.

I don't know how he does it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

My prejudice towards Jane Austen

You can't judge a book by its cover, or by the first few hundred pages in the case of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

I had this book sitting out at the studio I work for, and one of our actors stopped by, picked it up, and asked aloud, "All right, which one of you is being forced to read this for school?" I admitted that I was reading the book. Not only that, but I graduated two years ago and decided to read Pride and Prejudice for the fun of it.

Why? he asked. Because, I replied, I wanted to give Jane Austen a chance. I wanted to see what the big deal was, why women love her books so much. So here's the question, did I get lured into her romantic tales of middle class England?

Nope. Reading the first hundred or more pages of Pride and Prejudice left me wondering why women found this romantic? Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth barely play a role in the first two parts of the novel. Instead, we're subjected to a plot revolving around Elizabeth's older sister Jane and a failed marriage proposal. We get glimpses of Darcy and Elizabeth, and they are totally uninteresting as characters. Minor characters like Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Collins, and Lady Catherine are funnier and more interesting. They stand out as characters with personalities, often comical in nature.

And man, I can't believe how boring most of Pride and Prejudice is. Oh, I know, I'm a guy, of course I think love stories are boring. But nothing happens for chapters at a time! I kid you not, I read a whole chapter that involved the characters taking a nap and reading. While I understand this is a representation of life back then, the story could use a little more trimming to get to the point.

Add to that the fact that Jane Austen doesn't write dialog. She'll write the first two lines of dialog exchanged between characters, and then follows it with a summary of what those characters talk about. I don't want to read a summary; I want to read the actual conversation. As Alice says in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: "What is the use of a book without pictures or conversation?"

All this was true until I came to Part III of the book, and this is where it suddenly picks up with unbelievable speed. Elizabeth's little sister Lydia (another interesting, but minor character) runs off with a hooligan and the father trying to hunt her down and the family is on the brink of embarrassment. Mr. Darcy's feelings for Elizabeth come out, and both of them start having real emotions and turmoil and drama. Added to that, there is a real conversation between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine that is dramatic and well written. It's the only real conversation in the whole book.

In otherwords, Part III almost makes up for the slow and dry Parts I and II. Reading Pride and Prejudice is sort of like Elizabeth meeting Mr. Darcy. At first, you get one impression that isn't terribly flattering: it is uninteresting, incomplete, and more often than not, irritating. Then in the final third you get a revelation that makes you fall in love. Well, I'm exaggerating, but my point is that it took me weeks to read Parts I and II and a day or so to read Part III because I couldn't put it down.

If only Jane Austen had chopped down the first two thirds of the book, or at least given them the same flair as the final chapters.

Maybe the movie is better. I'll have to check it out.