Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A tale tall but thin (The Wind Through the Keyhole)

2012, as I have repeatedly reminded myself, is the Year of the Series Re-Read, consisting of three phases: First, The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss, which was the easiest to tackle because only two books of the planned trilogy have been published, and if forced to choose I would probably have to say that they are the best written of all the books encompassed in the reach of the Re-Read project. Second, The Dark Tower cycle by Stephen King, which I am in the middle of right now (and which is going to inform the bulk of this post, so I will come back to it momentarily). And third, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, which I put off until last because I wanted to return to the source material after watching the entire HBO adaptation of the first book (I didn’t know how long this would take, especially because it entailed coordinating the viewing schedule with my wife, but we raced through it pretty swiftly all in all) and also because I wanted the end of my re-read of the fourth book to coincide with the paperback release of the fifth (and to date most current) volume of the series.

So far, so good, although I’ve hit a bit of a lull with Dark Tower. Re-reading Rothfuss was motivated by the fact that my wife is working her way through the second book, and my buddy Clutch had read both more recently than I had, and I wanted to be able to talk about the finer plot points and whatnot with both of them armed with a steadier grasp of the material. Re-reading Martin, as mentioned, was prompted mainly by a desire to catch up on the series before finally getting around to the most recent continuation thereof (after which I’ll once again be twiddling my thumbs waiting a couple of years for volume six, me and five million other fanboys and fangirls). Re-reading King fell closer to the Martin side of things, as King announced he would be publishing a new middle chapter of the saga, which struck me as a good opportunity to give the whole series another go from start to finish (since, unlike the other two, it really is complete), see how my understanding of the beginning changed knowing how it all ends, and slot in the untold tale in its proper place in the chronology since, at the very least, I’d be bound by my own obsessive King-fandom to pick up and devour that tome, anyway.

Funny enough thing about The Wind Through the Keyhole, though, it’s not a tome at all. It’s pretty slight, especially compared to the latter installments of the Dark Tower, both in terms of sheer page count and in terms of its thematic content. The trickiest thing about it is the nested structure, a story within a story within a story; the gunslinger Roland and his apprentices Eddie, Susannah and Jake have to take shelter to survive a preternaturally devastating storm, and while huddled around the fireplace for the night, Roland recounts one of his youthful adventures, hunting for a killer terrorizing a mining town. During that extended flashback, Roland meets a young boy, the sole survivor of one of the killer’s rampages, and tells the lad a fairy tale that Roland’s mother had often told him throughout his childhood. The fairy tale is about a boy who loses his father, as Roland’s young charge has, and who faced terrible monsters, as the lad must in order to help Roland find the killer. Coincidentally, the fairy tale also involves one of the starkblast storms the adult Roland and his apprentices are concurrently hiding from, as he tells them the entire fairy tale as a component of telling his own story. To hear the whole Scheherazadian outline like this might strain disbelief, but at this point I’ve gotten used to Stephen King’s version of an idealized fantasy world, where even a bleakly taciturn knight errant based on Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name can be capable of spinning great, flourishing novellas when the plot dictates it.

But the fact remains that for all the scary monsters and wicked stepfathers and whatnot, the fairy tale is a fairy tale with a reasonably happy ending. It’s interesting to see what the folklore in King’s invented Mid-World culture looks like, but it isn’t intensely gripping. And Roland’s autobiographical framing device for the fairy tale feels a little lacking, as well. The Wind Through the Keyhole takes place in the saga immediately after Wizard and Glass, which is also predominantly a tale of Roland’s youth as told by the gunslinger to his apprentices, but a much more fundamental turning point in Roland’s life and his destiny. With Wizard and Glass having so recently been in my hands, The Wind Through the Keyhole couldn’t help but suffer in comparison. Wizard and Glass also advanced the Dark Tower quest incrementally, whereas The Wind Through the Keyhole feels like an afterthought that makes virtually no contribution to the overall saga. There’s a reason why King was able to complete the cycle without it.

So, it took the wind out of my sails ever so slightly, enough for me to read a couple of other books and watch some non-cowboy movies, as I try to pump myself up for the final three books. I’m no longer doing homework preparing to take up a brand new volume in the series, obviously, as from here on out I’m just re-reading Dark Tower books until I get to the end. But I’m sure I will, if only to return to the progressively apocalyptic grandeur of the climax after a pleasant but ultimately non-essential sidetrip. Then maybe when I’ve finished all seven-and-a-half books, I’ll write one more post tying up the whole experience. Probably!

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