The Gunslinger (Stephen King)

  Now that I’ve progressed far enough in the 95 Books challenge to feel confident I can read 95 books before the year is out, I decided to take on a sub-challenge: completing Stephen King’s lengthy multi-book epic The Dark Tower (the entire series is not too far shy of 4000 pages).

Great minds think alike, and fellow 95-Book-er William Neil Scott is also reading the series, although he’s reading it much faster than me. His own take on The Gunslinger is here.

Neil calls Roland “relentless” and singles his character out as the most interesting thing about The Gunslinger. I’d agree with everything Neil says on Roland and his overall praise of the book. The Gunslinger is one of my favourite (if not my favourite) of Stephen King’s books. That’s saying a lot, because despite his many flaws as a writer, he remains one of the writers I most admire and enjoy. Not because he’s the greatest (he’s not), but because I discovered King young—I started reading Stephen King and Salman Rushdie in grade school, and in-between King and Rushdie I decided that I wanted to write broad, sweeping, ambitious books as well, books with lots of thrills and chills. My tastes have changed, and I don’t go in for the broad and sweeping as much as I used to (I’m more partial to the focused and stripped), but I still maintain a love for both King and Rushdie—so I’ve decided to catch up on my King/Rushdie reading, since I haven’t bothered to check out much of what they’ve been up to for almost a decade now. Why not start with The Dark Tower, King’s epic? If you’ve read any King, you’ll know that The Dark Tower resonates throughout books and stories that appear on the surface to have nothing to do with one another or the series itself.

I read half of this book and then stopped and went back to reading it from the start—because I was at a garage sale and bought a nice hardcover reissue, the “revised and expanded edition.” I thought it’d be curious to see how exactly King had revised and expanded the book. The idea of going back to a published book and rewriting it is either an author’s dream or nightmare, depending on the day. I tinker endlessly with things but am pretty good of letting them go once they’re published, so I thought it would be interesting to see what was different between the two versions of The Gunslinger, what King just couldn’t leave alone.

It’s a very different book from the original, in many ways. Basically, it boils down to this: the original version is better as a series of related short stories and as a unified, self-contained book. However, the revised version is better as the first book in a series and gives a fuller sense of the story’s world. Neil complains that King seems like he was “making it up” as he went along—and he was. He’s admitted to it in print (aside from having a rough idea of the whole) and it’s obvious if you just go back and read The Gunslinger after reading a few other books in the series (while young I read I-IV, although I didn’t finish IV).

Most of King’s changes are embellishments meant to more fully paint the world of the story for us, now that King has written the other books and crafted the world and isn’t any longer “making it up” as he goes. For example, early on in the book the Man in Black raises Nort from the dead. In the revised edition, he also implants into Nort secret knowledge of what it was like in death—and leaves a note for a barmaid taunting her and stating that if she says the word “Nineteen” to Nort he will tell her of death, and that this knowledge will drive her to madness. This helps to motivate the scene that occurs later, where the townspeople all seem to lose their minds and attack Roland, which always struck me as odd and somewhat unmotivated in the original. Instead of the barmaid Allie begging him not to shoot, she begs Roland to kill her—a real shift that makes his later betrayal of a companion in the book carry more weight since it appears as his first such betrayal.

Other revisions are basically corrections—fixing things in the original that later books contradicted. King cut a reference to Roland reading a magazine, because later books establish that paper is prized and rare in this world, for example. A reference to Roland not knowing where Cort was is changed to a statement that Cort was dead. A lot of small words and references are changed or added to, again, flesh out the world since it’s more clearly defined by the time of this revision.

You can argue that King is a messy writer and nobody should need to make revisions like this. But consider that the series developed organically—King has always despised outlines and even openly despised over-emphasis on plot, unlike most so-called “genre” authors—so this shouldn’t be a surprise or a disappointment to his readers. And consider that he began writing The Gunslinger in 1970, only published it in 1982, and only finished the series in 2004—writing it over a 34-year period and publishing it over a 22-year period. These kinds of inconsistencies are inevitable with this kind of a process, and in fact we should be shocked that there aren’t even greater inconsistencies and that the book doesn’t need more revision.

Should King have had a clearer plan when he began? Probably, but sometimes that’s just not how the stories work or even how they grow and refine themselves. Until I finish the series and reflect on it as a whole, I don’t think I’ll be able to make real judgments on it. However, as a single title, The Gunslinger is, for my money, one of King’s best books and worth reading by itself, even if you never intend to follow the story further.

— Jonathan Ball

Ways of Seeing (John Berger)

Ways of Seeing is a modern critical classic in which Berger proceeds from ideas expressed in Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” to discuss the history of painting, oil painting, and publicity (advertising) as a extensions of one another and as bound up completely in object- and social-relations. The book is a compelling, quasi-Marxist critique aimed at a general reader. The feminist essay on the artistic nude painting is especially clever and concise.

Berger’s fundamental point is an ideological critique and is framed in response to an attack on the ideas expressed in the book (this is possible because Berger’s ideas were first expressed in a BBC series):

We are accused of being obsessed by property. The truth is the other way round. It is the society and the culture in question which is so obsessed. Yet to an obsessive his obsession always seems to be of the nature of things and so is not recognized for what it is. The relation between property and art in European culture appears natural to that culture, and consequently if somebody demonstrates the extent of the property interest in a given cultural field, it is said to be a demonstration of his obsession. (109)

And later:

… we accept the total system of publicity images as we accept an element of climate. (130)

— Jonathan Ball

Names of the Lion (trans. David Larsen) and Game Show Reversed (kevin mcpherson eckhoff)

I’m counting these two chapbooks as a single book (Names of the Lion is 46 pages and Game Show Reversed is about 20, so they’re equivalent to a short book of poetry).

Names of the Lion is David Larsen’s translation of a list of names for lions compiled by the Muslim scholar al-Husayn ibn Ahmad ibn Khalawayh. It’s prefaced by a lengthy essay from Larsen giving information on the ibn Khalawayh, the translation, and the original text (excerpted from a longer work). The list of names serves as a cubist portrait of the Asiatic lion, and makes for a beautiful and strange and at times funny (one of the names Larsen translates as “The Fatty”) list poem.

Game Show Reversed is a transcription of all the sentences spoken on an episode of Wheel of Fortune, arranged in reverse chronological order. This is one of the more impressive of these conceptualist works I’ve seen recently — in arranging this game of luck backwards, it becomes a game of fate, and the already absurd enterprise takes on an even stranger, almost mournful tone. There are some very funny moments, and some very sad ones, and even a very uncanny one:

Try not to hit bankrupt. Seven hundred and fifty dollars, top dollar value for this round. Here we go. All right. Correct. Lynda’s a substitute school teacher, enjoys working with special education children as well… and, playing Wheel of Fortune, I assume. I’m going to put this all in book form.

— Jonathan Ball