Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Gunslinger

My first thought was, he lied with every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
Askance to watch the workings of his lie
On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford
Suppression of the glee, that pursed and scored
Its edge, at one more victim gained thereby.
-Childe Rolande to the Dark Tower Came, Robert Browning

I can think of only a handful of openings to books that are so memorable that they stick with me for more than a few hours. The Day of the Triffids is one. Dune (or at least the chapter heading) is another. And having had a flick through the first few pages of Endymion, I think that could be another.

There can be no doubt that the opening of The Gunslinger is among these ranks, just for the questions it raises in the mind of the reader. 'The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed'. Who is the man in black? Who is the gunslinger? Why is the man in black fleeing? Why does the gunslinger follow? It's the perfect example of an opening hook.

In its way, the opening line embodies The Gunslinger in its entirety as an opening hook. For this is the opening volume of The Dark Tower, Stephen King's crowning achievement. It's a seven-volume epic spanning much of time and space. It stands at the very heart of King's work, acting as the lynchpin of all his creations. Few of King's works can be said to be essential reads, but if you've ever picked up any of his works you should give The Dark Tower a go. And The Gunslinger is where you'll be starting.

Compared to what follows, The Gunslinger is a slim volume. At 236 pages, it's hardly heavy going (by comparison, Wizard and Glass, book 4, weighs in at a hefty 840 pages). But it packs in plenty. Editions available now are that bit thicker than those available before 2003, when King embarked on a tidy-up and expansion of the book. It's supposedly a bit easier to read - King himself has stated that the original version is 'difficult' to read, and urges readers to give the second book a go where the story 'really finds its voice' - and the discrepancies with later books have been tidied up. For instance, Farson is no longer a town, but a man, as it was in Wizard and Glass.

He's right in saying that the tone of the story is a little different to the volumes which follow. But if he's being honest, he'll have to look at it and admit that, in the context of the journey as a whole, it works. The Gunslinger starts with Roland of Gilead, the last gunslinger, pursuing the man in black on a solitary quest for the Dark Tower, which stands as a nexus of time and space in the heart of all realities. He's been alone for a long time, though quite how long for we're never told. His former friends and allies are long dead, and he appears to have sacrificed his humanity for his quest for the Tower. There's a distance between Roland and the rest of humanity because of this solitude, one which comes across nicely because of the way the story is written. King's style isn't his usual colloquial, easily-relatable style. It's tighter (betraying the novel's origins as several short stories originally published in Fantasy and Science Fiction), whilst also being oddly dreamy. Told from Roland's perspective, a transparent wall is erected between him and the rest of the world.

What really drives home Roland's distance from - and indifference to - the rest of humanity happens in the opening part. He comes to the town of Tull, a place the man in black recently left. The man in black left a surprise for Roland: that of a man resurrected after succumbing to his addiction to devil-grass. In Tull, Roland encounters a woman who becomes his lover - not that he's any closer to her than he is to the rest of humanity - and a woman who preaches hatred. The man in black has set the trap for the gunslinger, and the trap is eventually sprung, leading to Roland dispassionately shooting down every person in the town. There's no remorse on Roland's part. The horror on the reader's part isn't that Roland gunned down every man, woman and child of Tull; it's that he does it without emotion. At this point, he's little other than a monster in a man's clothing.

It's only when Roland meets Jake, a boy from New York mysteriously transported to Roland's world , that Roland's walls start to come down. With human company, he becomes relatable, just as he is relatable as a flawed but oh-so-human teenager in the flashbacks to his youth which start to intersperse the journey. But he's still the same gunslinger who killed Tull. Events later in the book inspire the same horror - the same feeling of Roland being a complete monster - as the death of Tull.

But Roland's inhumanity is somewhat suited to the book, which is ultimately the scene-setter for the other six volumes. In setting up Roland as something both less than and more than a man it provides scope for the changes that would come about in future volumes. But it's also nicely self-contained. The Gunslinger works as a standalone novel in a way none of the others can manage - partly because they follow on, but also because this alone of all the Dark Tower novels has a distinct beginning, middle and end.

So where does The Gunslinger rate for me? Of all the Dark Tower novels, it's perhaps the only one I'm prepared to dip in and out of. I like the distance King manages to put between Roland and the reader because it makes the action so much more compelling. His motives remain a mystery, and therefore we're always left wondering what he'll do next. He seems to flit between humanity and monstrosity (always veering to the monster side of things when it comes to others and big decisions). And that's without mentioning the setting and the pseudo-Wild West feel to the whole thing. There's this constant feeling of a world similar to ours, but just dislocated enough from reality that it jars and becomes unsettling.

 With the exception of Wizard and Glass, The Gunslinger is my favourite Dark Tower novel. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to read a modern fantasy series with a difference.

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