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“O Discordia!” The Dark Tower Book VI: Song of Susannah

September 9th, 2011
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Only a few hours after finishing Wolves of the Calla (click here for my review of that novel), I dove right into Song of Susannah, the penultimate novel in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.

Song of Susannah is far shorter than books IV or V, or the finale, book VII.  Perhaps that contributes to the small sense of dissatisfaction I felt when I reached the end of the novel.  The book is a compelling, engaging read, no doubt.  But it doesn’t feel like a complete meal the way all the previous novels did.  I felt like something was missing.  Song of Susannah doesn’t feel like a complete tale, and that’s because it really isn’t.  It’s the middle chapter in the three-book trilogy that is bringing this series to a close.  Now, in a way, none of the previous Dark Tower novels have been complete stories.  Some (particularly book III, The Waste Lands, and book V, Wolves of the Calla) ended on cliffhangers.  Even the ones that didn’t end on such “to be continued” moments clearly left huge swaths of story and back-story as yet untold, to be filled in by the future novels.  But in some intangible way, all of the previous books felt complete, each in their own right.  Song of Susannah feels like the great middle section of an awesome, lengthier novel.

And, I suppose, that’s exactly what it is, and if I look at it that way, I really shouldn’t be disappointed!  Things are really coming to a boil, and long-simmering plot threads are finally coming together.  It’s funny that I should write “coming together,” because throughout Song of Susannah, Roland and his ka-tet (his band of comrades, including Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy) have been separated from one another.  (Perhaps the fact that the book ends with the ka-tet still separated is part of why I felt the narrative to be less-than-complete.)  Susannah has been possessed by the creature called Mia, daughter of none, and trapped in New York City in 1999, only hours away from giving birth to her child.  Eddie and Roland find themselves in Maine in 1977, hoping to obtain ownership of the lot of land that contains the rose that just might be the very center of the universe.  And Jake, Father Callahan, and the bumbler Oy are in New York on the trail of Susannah/Mia, but hours behind their quarry.

Throughout the series, Mr. King has played with alternate worlds and alternate timelines, and that comes to a head in this novel as Eddie and Roland find themselves ambushed in 1977 by the gangster Jack Andolini and his men.  Despite the fact that Eddie and Roland defeated Mr. Andolini in 1987 (back in book II, The Drawing of the Three — and Mr. Andolini actually met his demise early in book III, The Waste Lands), Mia has tipped off 1977 Jack to Roland and Eddie’s arrival, and the gangster is ready for them when they pass through the magic door in the doorway cave outside of Calla Bryn Sturgis.  It’s a twisty, mind-bending notion, and my brief summary doesn’t really do the clever, time-hopping narrative justice.

But, as readers of the Dark Tower novels well know, things get even weirder, when Roland and Eddie meet another famous Maine denizen: Stephen King.  I won’t spoil what goes down during this interaction, but to me it’s a highlight of the novel.  The Dark Tower series has already been cleverly crafted to be a story that, from a certain point of view, could be considered to contain all other stories ever told (different “levels” of the Dark Tower).  And, in particular, the novels have gleefully and repeatedly crossed over with other Stephen King stories (for example, Roland and his band briefly entered the super-flu-ravaged world of The Stand back in book IV, Wizard and Glass, and in book V we met Father Callahan, a character from Salem’s Lot).  So the existence, in the story, of the author Stephen King, who lives in Maine and is drawn to tell the stories of a gunslinger and his ka-tet, is a logical progression of the narrative.  And the meeting of Stephen King and his “creations” is delightful.  As I wrote above, it’s one of my favorite portions of the novel.

(The other day I wrote briefly about Cerebus, Dave Sim’s epic 300 issue comic book masterpiece.  The sequence in which Roland and Eddie meet their author, Stephen King, reminded me distinctly of Cerebus’ meeting with his author, Dave, in the “Minds” story-line from that comic.)

Less interesting to me was the novel’s climax, in which we come to understand why the book is titled Song of Susannah.  In a moment of crisis, Susannah flashes back to her youth in 1964, when she and a group of other activists sung together joyously in a brief moment of peace, and we see how that song (“I am a maid of constant sorrow…”) has reverberated throughout Susannah’s life.  The sequence works fine, don’t get me wrong, but nevertheless I somehow found it a bit disappointing.  It wasn’t quite as revelatory as I had expected.  I didn’t feel I learned anything new about Susannah during that sequence, and her emotional attachment to that song felt a bit out of left field for me.  This sort of encompassed my feelings about the entire book: very, very good, but somehow just short of feeling totally complete or satisfying.

Perhaps this is just the problem of a lengthy, books-spanning saga nearing its close.  OF COURSE things feel incomplete and unresolved, because everything is still building to the final, climactic novel yet to come.  I think my over-all opinion of Song of Susannah will ultimately be decided by how satisfied I am by book VII, The Dark Tower.

Believe you me, I will be starting that LENGTHY novel without any delay!  I will of course be back here soon with my thoughts on the conclusion of the story.  For now, I would say that, despite some niggling disappointments (really the first time in any of the Dark Tower novels that I’ve had any complaints with the narrative), Song of Susannah is a fast, engaging read.  It’s invigorating and exciting to be so close to the climax of the story, and it’s possible that my complaints really have to do with my great anticipation of getting to the series’ conclusion.  The novel still demonstrates Mr. King’s enormous skill as a story-teller.  There’s a sequence, late in the book, in which a charismatic street preacher briefly comes to the aid of Jake and Father Callahan that is exciting and hilarious.  It’s as good a passage as anything I have read by Mr. King.  And I was absolutely tickled how, in the final segments of the novel that follow that interaction, Mr. King’s voice as the narrator begins picking up the inflections of the preacher (can you give me hallelujah, can you say amen).  Such a clever, amusing touch.

Bring on the grand finale!  Commala-come-kass!

Josh’s Dark Tower Reviews: Entering The Dark Tower — The Dark Tower Book I: The Gunslinger – The Dark Tower Book II: The Drawing of the Three – The Dark Tower Book III: The Waste Lands — The Dark Tower Book IV: Wizard and GlassThe Dark Tower Book V: Wolves of the Calla

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