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."