Wizard and Glass, the fourth installment in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, might have the strangest structure of any novel I’ve read.
The story begins by resolving the cliffhanger ending of The Wastelands, which saw Roland and his ka-tet of gunslingers about to engage in a riddling contest with Blaine, an insane, self-aware monorail. After surviving that encounter, the heroes resume their journey to the Dark Tower, but go astray when they cross from Roland’s world into the version of Kansas decimated by plague in King’s earlier book The Stand. While they search for a way to cross back, Roland tells the tale of his first love, which involves an epic flashback of several hundred pages. Wizard and Glass then concludes with a short sequence that returns the protagonists to their quest. It’s… pretty bonkers.
Let’s start with the jaunt into an empty Kansas. Earlier books in the Dark Tower series laid out how the barriers between the parallel planes of King’s cosmos are eroding, causing elements of different existences to bleed into each other. Roland’s world is the core world, though, and in it resides the Tower, the lynchpin of the multiverse. Roland’s (still vaguely defined) mission is to reach the Tower and halt the galactic collapse. But while previous Dark Tower novels included cameos by non-Dark Tower characters (notably Randall Flagg, the big baddie in The Stand), Wizard and Glass is the first book in the series to meander its main storyline into that of a seemingly unrelated work. “I am coming to understand that Roland’s world (or worlds) actually contains all the others of my making,” writes King in his afterword to Wizard and Glass. I’m not quite sure what to make of this. It’s a wildly ambitious idea, but because most of King’s stories take place in different (if similar) realities, few interact in ways that matter. The strongest connection seems to be simply an invitation into the full expanse of twisted wonderland that is his imagination.
Then there’s the gargantuan flashback to Roland’s youth. This tale within a tale is a decent yarn on its own, and it reveals more about Roland’s character and motivations for pursuing the Tower. But the reminiscence doesn’t move the larger narrative along, and only thinly relates to the final scenes of Wizard and Glass, when King returns us to the ka-tet’s present, story-hopping circumstances. Most authors would have saved such memories for a prequel.
And yet… I still enjoyed Wizard and Glass. It shouldn’t work, but King is king, so somehow it does.
It’s his world (worlds?), folks. We’re just reading in it.