Wednesday Book Club: The Gunslinger

Wednesday, 19 November 2008 — 12:04am | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: The Gunslinger (1982) by Stephen King.

In brief: The first volume of The Dark Tower is an ambiguous gothic western laced with pretensions of genre-crossing, multiverse-spanning fantasy. The concept is promising, but the execution is an incoherent mess. If the rest of the seven-book series is anything like this plodding trudge through a sandbox of unrelated metaphors, consider me completely incurious.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Gunslinger, keep reading below.)

It may surprise some of you, or more likely none of you, that up to this point I had never read Stephen King. I wasn’t avoiding him, necessarily; you can’t go out of your way to avoid someone if you’ve never given him any thought. Though I was vaguely aware that he had a reputation in the imagination of the general public as a Bigshot Author, like many Bigshot Authors with household names like James Patterson and Danielle Steel, I’d be hard-pressed to name anyone of my acquaintance who was familiar with his work and was in a position to recommend it to me. I admired the Frank Darabont films of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, and I remember how King was consistently among the Harry Potter series’ most vocal and sensible proponents in the mainstream press. Other than that, the sum of my exposure to Stephen King was a minute awareness that he makes a lot of money and is filed under “horror”, a genre that I often forget exists.

Now that I’ve given him a try, I don’t see what the fuss is all about.

What is The Gunslinger? Choose one of the following:

  • A five-part serial published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from 1978 to 1981, compiled into a book in 1982, and revised again upon the completion of The Dark Tower in 2003.
  • In one sentence (the first sentence): “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” The man in black is dressed in a hood and cassock; there is some suggestion he represents Death, in case you haven’t clued in already. The gunslinger’s name is Roland, or so his flashbacks tell us, though he answers to “the gunslinger” these days. He’s looking for a Tower. It’s Dark.
  • An extended drive-by allusion to “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”, a poem by Robert Browning based on a line from King Lear.
  • Dull, dull, dull.

The setting has the flavour of an imagined Old West, but with the odd burger joint and the distant piano strains of “Hey Jude”. There is some suggestion that the gunslinger’s world is a cross between a post-apocalyptic afterlife and a fragmented parallel existence, which sounds like the formula for a cosmic joke. His journey is the latest stage of an aeons-long grail-quest for the Tower, the spine of the universe and, indeed, all universes. Somewhere along the way he shoots up a hick town that thinks he is the Antichrist, and a boy named Jake with fading memories of being run over by a car in New York decides to tag along. Near the end, he catches up with the man in black, who pulls out a deck of Tarot cards and tells him that the universe is really big.

In the relative scheme of things, those are the good parts.

I like the idea of experiments in genre recombination, and I like it a lot. The problem with King’s attempt at doing just that is his propensity for arbitrarily tossing tropes into a pot and hoping they mix. (I’m hesitant to call it the “shotgun approach”.) Time and again, The Gunslinger merely invokes a genre, a familiar symbol, or an appeal to Biblical mythology, and takes its entire semantic network as a given.

Yes, it’s a western, and the western has an extensive history as a genre about sin, redemption, and the moral conscience of violence as an instrument of judgment or deliverance or blood-soaked audience satisfaction. But being a western isn’t sufficient to make a novel about the moral order of the universe merely by association.

The whole book is like this: a hodgepodge of common literary tropes that show up, stand around awkwardly with their hands in their pockets, and act like they inherently mean something by virtue of being there. We find out that the number nineteen is important, and that the number three is also important, but not as important as the number nineteen; mythology tells us prime numbers are mystical, QED. And there’s a talking raven that doesn’t do much other than remind us of Edgar Allan Poe, because didn’t he write about ravens?

It’s funny: the dominant stereotype of mainstream fiction by Bigshot Authors is that it might be thin on figurative meaning, and the prose style may be clunky, but at least it tells a clear story that keeps the pages turning. The Gunslinger is the opposite on all counts.

King’s prose is functional enough—atmospheric, even, with keen attention to voice—and he is certainly no hack (though his indulgence in adverbs has made me realize, for the first time, why some literary critics hold a grudge against adverbs). The plot, however, is not the casually coherent procession of decisions and consequences that a novel-reader has the right to expect, but an ambiguous stew of vagaries. Strange as it sounds, Stephen King makes the cubism of The English Patient resemble a declarative, linear walk in the park. I kid you not: Ondaatje is the easier read.

Maybe The Gunslinger sounds a dog whistle of Christian allegory I’m just not hearing—there’s a lot of God this and God that, and the fifth and final segment is a play on the Book of Genesis—but if a novel has little to no significance beyond its allegorical function, I’m not about to give it much credit.

Much of the novel suffers from what comes off as a strict aversion to exposition. When playing in an imagined world, an author has a certain responsibility to tell us what is going on, or at least reveal it in a tandem of questions and discoveries. For most of The Gunslinger, all we get are ad hoc conflicts between characters we neither know nor care about, sometimes in the form of flashbacks. Ambiguous things happen to ambiguous people page after page, and they don’t inspire enough curiosity to compel the reader to string them together.

I see this as further evidence of what happens when one follows the “show, don’t tell” mantra for beginning writers to its logical extreme while ignoring the complexity of how literature empirically works—an odd thing for King to do, as he is evidently well read. It is a tremendous relief to reach the last chapter and listen to the man in black give a speech on where we are and what we just put up with for 250-some pages, a device that would be hackneyed in most circumstances but is here an unfortunate necessity. Not that there’s much of a payoff: as we know, the story doesn’t end here, and Roland gets to do it all over again for six more books.

I don’t know if The Gunslinger is representative of the Stephen King oeuvre. I don’t even know if it is representative of The Dark Tower. In many cases, early works are uneven, and authors improve with age. But I closed the book with the impression that King is, for my reading purposes, an inconsequential author to whom I have no desire to return. There’s no doubt The Gunslinger overflows with ambition, but I already know where to look if I want to see that ambition fulfilled: in some re-read combination of Philip Pullman and Cormac McCarthy, which would have retained everything that works in King while amounting to a better use of my time.


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6 rejoinders to “Wednesday Book Club: The Gunslinger

  1. Daniel Kaszor

    I don’t think The Gunslinger is a great work to judge King by. In many ways it’s more of a hodgepodge of ideas that came spewing forth from his many years of writing.

    It’s a bit better if you imagine that all of the fictional worlds and influences in King’s head had to burst their way out onto the page. (And I’m told that this idea actually becomes part of the narrative later in the series. I’m also told that the work gets more linear and exposition driven as the series goes on.)

    I think that The Gunslinger is a product of a writer who regiments himself to write 10,000(!) words a day. If you keep doing that eventually you get something personal, experimental and post-modern that doesn’t quite work perfectly.

    For a more indicative example of King’s work read The Shining. It’s quite different from Kubrick’s movie, so you shouldn’t go in with expectations.

    Alternatively you should read King’s non-fiction Danse Macabre, which one of the best books about horror (and genre in general) I’ve read.

    Wednesday, 19 November 2008 at 12:33am

  2. The Gunslinger bears almost no resemblance to the rest of the Dark Tower books, so you can’t use it as a representative sample. King literally started writing it as a young man before he cut his teeth and really became a writer. He then set it aside for decades and came back to it as a springboard for his desire to do something epic. It’s like it’s written by a totally different author. The second and third books are easily the best, with the last few just kind of getting wonky again.

    And actually, I like The Gunslinger. It’s not great writing, but it’s a fun experimentation with genre mixing and style. Roland is that archetypal Western badass and it’s fun to just roll with it. But I’m a King fanboy. He’s the only literary vice I have left.

    If you want a better book to use as a sample of his work, I’d second The Shining, or try It or Christine. They’re better books from earlier in his career.

    Wednesday, 19 November 2008 at 8:54am

  3. Yeah – in retrospect, I think I should have picked something standalone for my first sample of King. But The Dark Tower sounded interesting to me (all I knew going in was that it was a genre mash-up), and I figured that if I liked the first one I had something to look forward to.

    I can also understand the justification of why he’s doing a big idea-dump in this book – namely, the relation to the concept of the Tower as an all-worlds nexus across space and time (and therefore genre). That’s my impression, anyway. I’m not surprised to hear that King was out of his usual element in this book; it’s a common sign of youthful writing to confuse ambiguous prose with pretty prose, and it’s not every author who can pull off a style-driven composition.

    Wednesday, 19 November 2008 at 2:39pm

  4. The Dark Tower really isn’t that good unless you’ve read some (dare I say all) of King’s novels that are connected to the Tower. Characters and places you’ve already visited show up throughout the Dark Tower series, which help to give the story a bit more life (unfortunately, King does little to introduce these people and places, relying on the fact that you already know them). At least, that was my feeling during the reading experience.

    The Gunslinger would not be my choice for a starting book by King. While I still haven’t read the recommendations by your other commenters, those are books on my ‘to read’ list. It’s a bit of a beast, but I’d recommend The Stand, or The Dark Half.

    Thursday, 20 November 2008 at 9:20am

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