The Dark Tower, Chiastic Something or Other, and Existential Blue Screens

So, we hit the 10-year mark on the last book of The Dark Tower series this year, but in case you, like me, are a F/SF fan that totally missed the whole thing because the bookstores file it under Literature with the rest of King’s work (WHY!?), I will alert you that yes, there are decade-old spoilers straight after the cut.

For those of you that haven’t read it yet, all you should know is that it’s good to read, and that King does manage to wrap it up with a satisfying-yet-not-satisfying ending. I want to talk about that ending.

The ending King leaves the reader with, if the reader ignores the narrator’s warning to not follow Roland to the top of the Tower, is a great example of chiastic (specifically circular) storytelling. The best other example I can think of is from the graphic novel “The Watchmen” by Alan Moore, and I’d say King’s usage in the Dark Tower ends up being much more complex and nuanced.

For context (in case you’ve been away from that novel for a while, or you don’t care about spoilers because you skipped my first two paragraphs), Roland climbs the Dark Tower’s stairs, seeing instances from his life, and finally reaches the door at the top. He feels a moment of dread and absolute clarity that he has done this a thousand times before. He begs for an end to it, and is pulled back to the point where he first knew that his quest for the Tower might not be in vain.

Roland feels the oppressive heat of that great desert, reaches down and touches his horn (which a few chapters back, he mentions regretting not having) and wonders what had caused him to fade out. And then the final line:

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

The same as the first line, all those pages ago, back in The Gunslinger.

I put the book up, thinking that this was the biggest cop-out ending ever, but that King had warned me that the joy was in the journey, and not in the end. I didn’t fume at all, but I felt a vague sense of disappointment. I filled the hole left by The Dark Tower with another book to read, and with my own stories.

About five days later, as I lay in bed struggling to sleep, I started thinking about The Ending again, and realized that this really was the only ending that made sense.

Think about Roland. What is he? He’s an indescribably old, indescribably badass dude with a quest he’s willing to lose everything for. Of those characteristics, what is his core? I suggest that it’s the quest. Roland is his quest for the Dark Tower. With his quest completed, he becomes unidentifiable as Roland, and so the most merciful thing that King could do, no matter how Roland protests, is to send him back on that quest again, like Mario starting back at World 1-1 just after having saved Princess Peach.

So I’m thinking about Roland’s essential Roland-ness as I laid there really just wanting to get to sleep when the real genius of King’s ending hits me like a hammerblow (notice I didn’t say wrecking ball, and if someone suggests that might have been a nice glib pop culture reference, I swear by Old Glory, I’ll train a bald eagle to enforce a Promethean punishment on them.)

…Wait, where was I? Oh yes, horrified realization. Roland’s horrified realization. See, Mario never looks towards the camera and says, “Mama Mia, no~ its-a happening again!” before being sucked into the start-over vortex.

Roland does.

In that moment, he realizes that he’s done this a thousand times before, and will do it a thousand times again, except for a glib promise from the Tower that he might find rest if he can bear just one more cycle. Which is like Player 1 telling Mario that there will be an end to his recursion. But isn’t an end to recursion really Game Over?

Roland realizes that he’s doomed to repeat his actions, doomed to keep trudging onward towards a goal that never seems in reach, towards a goal that we now see has quite truly damned him, and the only comfort is that horn at his side, the only indication that maybe things will be different this time around.

It got me to thinking: Are we all doomed to repeat our actions? Are we Roland without ever realizing it? After all, I can think of so many lessons that I’ve failed to learn, that I’ve repeated over and over and over again, and Roland is the perfect metaphor for that: A man doggedly stuck in his tracks, repeating the same mistakes with only minor variation over and over again.

And that’s horrifying. More horrifying to me than most of King’s straight-up horror novels.

Alternately, King’s commenting on the writing/rewriting process and wondering what that must be like for a character
(“Here we go again”)
stuck with a rewriting author.

Alternately alternately, Stephen King is referencing his later-expressed view (USA Weekend on 2012-01-09 (Thanks Wikipedia!)) that even in its final state, The Dark Tower series remains unfinished:

King said, regarding the Dark Tower series, “It’s not really done yet. Those seven books are really sections of one long über-novel.”

Goddamn it, what a badass.

Alternately alternately alternately, I’m reading way too much into everything, King just needed an ending, and this was a total asspull.

Asspull or not, reading into it much too deeply is way more fun. You should buy The Gunslinger and decide whether it’s worth losing the next 9 months to Stephen King’s masterwork, or if you’re interested in a solid commitment, here’s books 1-4 as a boxed set.

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