of the Three:
Turnpikin’ With Mom
About fifteen years ago, when I was in High School (and had just recently discovered the Dark Tower books) took a road trip from New York down to Florida in a minivan. We were bringing the van down on behalf of my grandmother, who was spending the winter down south and needed her car, but couldn’t sit for such a long drive herself.
This was something we had done two or three times before and it was becoming a fun annual tradition, cruising down I-95, staying in a motel, eating meals at greasy roadhouse diners, and listening to a book-on-tape or two. On this particular trip, I somehow convinced her to give the Dark Tower a shot; I was still on my first trip to the Tower myself (smack-dab in the middle of Wizard & Glass) but I didn’t mind going back and rereading from he beginning if it meant converting a new fan. However, knowing my mom’s distaste for “unlikeable” protagonists, I suggested she skip the first book and start with The Drawing of the Three (advice I’ve seen given out by other fans as well).
I will always associate this book with that road trip, and vice-versa. I loved my mother and I have many fond memories of spending time with her but the times I remember us feeling the closest were the times we were both ensconced in a story together. Whether it was her reading Harry Potter to me, or taking me to see Spirited Away on the big screen, or humoring me and listening to the second novel in a Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Western series I had become obsessed with, we always seemed to bond over narrative.
Stories have the power to forge such connections between us, and to solidify memories that might otherwise be forgotten. However, in order for a story to do that, it has to work properly. If Sai King were a bad writer, I probably wouldn’t remember listening to this book with my mom, just like I don’t remember the name of the shitty pot-boiler murder mystery we listened to on the same trip the year before.
And what makes the difference? What makes a story work or not, be remembered or not? What needs to happen for the audience to embrace a piece of fiction and carve out space to store it in their heart for the rest of their lives? What makes them coming back for more the way that we all come back to the Tower?
Aristotle famously observed that a good ending must be “surprising, yet inevitable” and since you can’t have an ending without a beginning and a middle, I think it’s fair to apply those words to the whole damn story. The causes and effects of the plot must feel objective and meaningless, while the emotional causes and effects inside the characters must create stakes, create meaning.
Sai King—forever on his own personal quest to “omit needless words”—has boiled Aristotle’s “surprising, yet inevitable” philosophy into just two letters: K-A.
May The Ka Be With You
This week’s chapters saw Roland and Naked Eddie go to war with Balazar and his crew. These pages were mostly filled with action and mafia stereotypes, and yet Sai King manages to use this short detour into the mob genre to elegantly demonstrate the most complicated concept in the entire series, the concept of Ka.
What is Ka? I think most people would describe it as “fate” or “destiny” but I’m willing to bet they would also add that there’s more to it than that. Yes it’s fate, but it’s also coincidence. Yes it’s destiny, but it’s also random. It means everything and at the same time it means nothing.
But they didn’t even mention Ka in this week’s chapters, you’re saying to yourself. No, perhaps not, not by name at least. But the idea is on display throughout, as everything that happens to Roland and Eddie in the Leaning Tower hinges on Ka.
Not really wild, the gunslinger could have told Eddie. When you feel the wind of the slug on your cheek, you can’t really call it wild.The Drawing of the Three, p. 150
For example, Jack Andolini gets the drop on Roland, but Eddie manages to hit him in the head with a rock and the bullet misses the gunslinger’s head by mere inches: Ka…
A few seconds later Andolini gets the drop on Roland again, and if the shell in the next chamber were a dud then he’d be toast, but—to quote the entirety of chapter 5.xvi, “it was no misfire.” It was Ka…
And later, in Balazar’s office, Eddie is nanoseconds away from being shredded by a sawed-off when good ‘ol Tricks Postino saves his life by accidentally shooting his fellow mobster. Also Ka…
But the clearest illustration of this universal force is seen in the diamond honey-comb of Balazar’s tower of cards. Like Roland, Balazar is the apex predator in his own ecosystem/genre. And like Roland, Balazar seems to have a healthy respect for this mysterious force. If something disturbs the cards, like a slammed door or a gust of
(Ka like a)
wind, then the whole thing topples over, and Balazar accepts the destruction of his efforts with grace and humility. As powerful as he is, he knows he has no control over the whims of Ka.
“Our lives are like these things I build. Sometimes they fall down for a reason, sometimes they fall down for no reason at all.”– Enrico Balazar, The Drawing of the Three, p. 122
The only time Balazar gets mad about his cards falling is when someone interferes with Ka, like the Irish gentleman who blows over Il Roche’s tower in ‘Cimi Dretto’s quick flashback. Balazar isn’t mad that his house of cards has been demolished, he isn’t even mad that he has been disrespected, he’s mad that the Irishman has disrespected Ka.
The Ghost Is The Machine
But as we know from our previous trips to the Tower, this is all being written by a man on Keystone Earth named Stephen King. It’s all a story. Which means that Andolini’s bullet missing Roland wasn’t a lucky break, it was a selected outcome. Sai King decided which cartridges would be wet and which would be dry. What seemed like luck was really engineered by the storyteller and passed off as chance. That’s what the craft of storytelling is all about.
In many ways, telling a story is like making a watch. A watch has one function: to tell time. A story’s function is similarly singular: to entertain. And like watches, stories are intricate mechanisms of moving parts (character, setting, theme, plot, perspective, etc.) which all need to move in seamless synchronicity for the machine to perform its function. Then the complex marvel of clockwork is encased with jewelry to protect the delicate machine, but also to disguise it as magic. That’s what a story is, narrative machinery disguised as magic.
However, there’s a twist, for even when you remove the face of a watch and look at the moving gears inside it, you see that the magic is real after all. Because unless you’re a watchmaker yourself you can’t conceive of how someone could create such a perfect little engine. The magic of stories is real too. Real enough to help a middle-aged woman connect with her teenage son.
That magic is Ka, not a wheel, but a gear turning inside the clockwork of this story—of all stories—that has been crafted by the storyteller. Ka is fate disguised as luck; destiny disguised as coincidence; design disguised as random chance; the inevitable disguised as the surprising.
Ma & Ka
After the trip she, my mother read the third book on her own and the next year when we made the drive again, we listened to Wizard & Glass (on CD this time). After that she finished off the rest of the series, and borrowed my copy of Wind Through the Keyhole when I finished reading it. To this day, I don’t know what she really thought about the series. She said she enjoyed the books, but beyond that she never seemed interested in talking about them. Now, all these years later, I have to wonder if she never actually cared for them, but only read all those pages because she wanted to know what her son was so enthralled by.
Unfortunately I’ll never know. My mother passed away in 2016 from Pancreatic Cancer (Ka like an asshole, am I right?) and I can’t exactly ask her about it. I do know one thing about my mother though, she definitely believed that there are other worlds than these. If Jake and my mother are right about that then maybe I’ll get the chance to talk to her about it.
“You see this ‘Cimi? For every mother who ever cursed God for her child dead in the road, for every father who ever cursed the man who sent him away from the factory with no job, for every child who was ever born to pain and asked why, this is the answer.”– Enrico Balazar, The Drawing of the Three, p. 122
Until then, all I can do—all anyone can do—is expect the surprising, accept the inevitable, and respect the force of Ka. Maybe it will make a bullet miss our heads by inches, maybe it will give us cancer. That’s the Ka of real life—the magic machinery of existence—and all we can do is keep our cool and continue to stack cards while we can.