The Dark Tower
Song of Susannah
Donald M. Grant/Scribner • 2004 • 432 pages
A Novel Critique
In terms of pacing and tone, the sixth volume of the Dark Tower series is almost the polar opposite of the preceding novel, Wolves of the Calla. Where that book was almost unapproachably complex - juggling myriad storylines, introducing (and reintroducing) characters, creating a history and a threat to an entirely new community of people, and continuing to follow the paths of known characters in their quest for the Dark Tower - Song of Susannahis a straightforward, propulsive experience. The urgency that motivates the story recalls the feel and flavor of The Waste Lands, especially that book's second half and its dual journeys through the city of Lud. In the enviable position of being the penultimate novel in the sequence, Song of Susannah is able to follow the threads left from Wolves without getting bogged down in the details, and is also not saddled with the burden of concluding the series.
Its structure is unique, immediately intriguing. Each chapter is a "stanza," prose concluding with "stave" and "response" verses (in Calla dialect) commenting on the action. While the title Song of Susannah seems initially to comment only on these architectural flourishes, King once again imbues his titles with multiple meanings. Careful readers may recall a song Susannah sang early in Wolves of the Calla; its selection, as it turns out, was not arbitrary. This, like other small details peppered throughout the series (such as the location of Eddie's New York neighborhood) attains greater significance as the Dark Tower novels draw to a close.
Unusually, a single character - Susannah - is the focus of much of the novel, receiving as much (if not more) attention as Jake did in the first half of The Waste Lands. Because she is such a fascinating, layered person, deeper exploration of her does not detract from the book's momentum. In fact, because character introspection is woven through with further details of Roland's world (and possible explanations for its downfall - i.e., why it "moved on"), these sections are vital to a full understanding of the series. We see a resurgence of Detta Walker, the crueler half of Susannah's merged personality. As in The Waste Lands, Detta is used here as a tool for facing difficult situations; it's unexpected to see this former caricature gain shading and nuance. Interestingly, Odetta Holmes also makes quiet appearances toward the end of the novel. We see more of her life as a young idealist and activist and get glimpses of her relationship with her mother ... but we are also offered an exploration of how Mia, the new presence residing in her, was able to hijack her body in the first place. Toward the end of the book, Susannah muses that Odetta may be addicted to multiple personalities, in the way that Eddie had been addicted to heroin. That these character insights come so late in the series reinforces the idea that the Dark Tower books - like most of King's other novels - are far more interested in character than plot.
Further, we learn a great deal about Mia herself, a former spirit given physical form and mortality in exchange for ability to carry a child. Though the explanation of how she and Susannah share the pregnancy - and why the child is also Roland's - is a bit convoluted and confusing, it does serve to connect sequences from The Gunslinger and The Waste Lands to this book. While each novel in the Dark Tower cycle has its own internal feel and personality, touches like this strengthens the notion that this is all a single story, its parts intimately connected.
A clever device King employs in both The Regulators and Dreamcatcher makes a reappearance here. In The Regulators, Audrey Wyler constructs a "safe space" in her mind - a specific happy memory of a place and time where she can go to escape the evil presence of Tak. Dreamcatcher utilizes this concept more specifically: Jonesy, possessed by Mr. Gray, builds a room of memories in his mind, locked against the alien invader. As Jonesy uses this visualization technique in order to slow Mr. Gray's discovery of Duddits, Susannah builds a mental version of Jake's Dogan from Wolves of the Calla in order to take refuge from Mia and to slow the pain and persistence brought on by the baby they carry. Because each of these visualizations are unique in details and methodology, it never seems as if King is recycling concepts, instead adapting basic symbols to the needs of his stories. (Additionally, because both The Regulators and Dreamcatcher have connections to the larger Dark Tower story, it could be argued that details such as the Dogan are borrowed intentionally from these other books, and are meant to be recognized.)
As Susannah struggles with (and struggles to understand) Mia in New York City in 1999, Roland and Eddie are cast into Maine, 1977, into the middle of a shoot-out. It's one of the shortest battle sequences in the entire Dark Tower saga, but one of the series' best. While it doesn't attain the epic feel of young Roland's ka-tet against Farson's harriers in Wizard & Glass or the battle against the Wolves in Wolves of the Calla, its very brevity is a source of tension and excitement. Given the time-skipping nature of the Dark Tower books, many of the men fighting Eddie and Roland are ones they have already killed in the future (yet in theirpast). As with the paradox created when Roland spared Jake's life at the end of The Drawing of the Three, King handles these time-travel incongruities deftly, avoiding getting mired in specifics and allowing the story to retain its forward momentum.
Here, King attempts something audacious and startling: he introduces himself into the narrative. Following the discovery of the physical novel 'Salem's Lot at the end of Wolves of the Calla (featuring Donald Callahan as a character), the reality of Roland, his ka-tet, and their entire world come into question. Eddie and Roland meet a young Stephen King and confront him about his novels, specifically a long-dormant story The Dark Tower. Under hypnosis, King agrees to locate the story and continue work on it. King - the author rather than the character - handles this metatextual intrusion as straightforwardly as possible, forcing readers to simply accept his presence in his novel. For the most part, these scenes are effective. Eddie, like Father Callahan before him, struggles with the notion that he may just be a character in a writer's novel (and contemplates whether the minute differences between the "other worlds" are simply mistakes that editors missed). Interestingly, Song of Susannah never states definitively whether Stephen King is the creator or merely the interpreter of this world and these lives; the character King himself states that a story "just comes ... blows into me ... then comes out when I move my fingers."
Perhaps even more interestingly, we are offered a coda entitled "Pages From a Writer's Journal," a pseudo-autobiographical look at the character Stephen King and his journey through writing. Some of the "entries" in the journal seem factual; King manages to address the issues with The Gunslinger's initial publication as well as the uproar over the cliffhanger ending in The Waste Lands. In a way, this account - however fictionalized - is a rare glimpse into the world of a writer looking back at his body of work, making this section an oddly apt addition to King's On Writing. But readers who know of King's life beyond his books will note that the addresses he references don't correspond to "our" real world; they are either fictionalized versions of real places or completely made up. These subtle clues prepare us for the pronouncement at the end of the novel: that Stephen King did not recover from being struck by a minivan in 1999, and was in fact killed.
King's introduction into the text is tricky, and may not sit easily with all readers. While parts of the earlier novels hint that the world of the Dark Tower is defined in part by fictional influences (in Song of Susannah, Eddie remarks directly, "we've been haunted by books"), the sudden presence of Stephen King himself is unexpected and almost unprecedented (King referenced himself only briefly in the early uncollected short story "The Blue Air Compressor," and later in The Tommyknockers and Blockade Billy). As the Dark Tower series draws to a close, it begins to reveal itself as much about the nature of stories and their creation as it is about the narrative itself, aligning it with King's writer-focused work like Misery, The Dark Half, and "Secret Window, Secret Garden." In this context, and in the context of an epic story that presumably contains allthe worlds in King's fiction, it seems not only apt but almost necessary to include Stephen King as a character himself.
That said, while Song of Susannah raises these weighty (even philosophical) questions, it doesn't much dwell on them. Its function - as with The Waste Lands - is to move the story along. While character building and world building are essential to the novel, they work in service to the book's unrelenting pace. Only two odd narrative choices interrupt the book's easy flow: the first, a phonetic depiction of Japanese tourists' speech patterns, comes across as curiously racist. The second, perhaps more alarming, narrative choice is King's decision to have Jake and Father Callahan hide "Black Thirteen" - a mystic glass ball almost alive with evil magic - inside the basement of New York's World Trade Centers. Callahan's and Jake's glib conversation about the possibility of the Towers falling down on it and destroying it lends an uncomfortable verisimilitude to the novel. Whether King meant this to imply that Black Thirteen is to blame for the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 is unclear. Perhaps it is King's way of making sense of the event, in much the way that the series itself seems King's way of understanding the nature of his work. In any case, the sequence is jarring in its implications.
Despite these minor drawbacks, Song of Susannah is a strong, powerful novel. Character changes that seemed somewhat abrupt in Wolves of the Calla are executed perfectly here, notably Eddie's continued growth both as a gunslinger and a man, and the somewhat harsh look at Jake's coming of age. Susannah is a compelling focus of the book, and knowing all we do of her prepares us for her later adventures in The Dark Tower. Despite the fact that it largely serves as a bridge between two ostensibly more substantial novels, Song of Susannah is the best of the concluding three books, and one of the most satisfying of the series.