The third volume in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, The Waste Land, is built on duality. From its structure to its characters, the novel is fixated upon binaries, the spaces created between two extremes, and the often-flawed methods used to bridge that divide. Spoilers for The Waste Land begin after the jump.
Almost evenly divided into two books, the binaries of The Waste Land begin with the novel’s structure. The first book, “Jake,” concerns the temporal paradox created by Roland when he prevented Jake from being murdered by The Pusher (for more information, read The Drawing of the Three, because attempting to summarize a time travel story is a fool’s errand). The second book, “Lud,” sees our heroes arriving at a post-apocalyptic city in search of transportation towards their goal. From there, the novel reads like an exercise in epicurean halving: each of the two books has three subsections, and each of these has a pair of nouns as a title – “Bear and Bone,” “Bridge and City,” and so on.
The plot for each section echoes the recurring duality, as well. In the first section, Roland and Jake are each haunted by the memory of two separate timelines – the original timeline, in which the Pusher murdered Jake, and the altered timeline, in which Roland saved Jake’s life. With their sanity threatened by the paradoxical duality of their histories, both characters must work to bring Jake from his world to Mid-World, thus uniting both timelines into a single whole.
But even this process is one defined by duality. There is the gatekeeper on Jake’s side, located within an abandoned house in New York City, and the door in Roland’s world, located in a summoning circle in Mid-World. In order to cross from one world to another, Jake must face the demon in NYC at the same time Roland and the rest of the Ka-Tet faces the demon in Mid-World.
The demon in Mid-World is one driven by sexual energy, a foe Roland faced in the first volume of the series – but in another instance of duality, the demon’s gender has inverted, and it is no longer female (as it was in The Gunslinger), and thus must be fucked into submission by Susannah rather than Roland. However, the duality still hasn’t been exhausted, since Susannah’s single personality is a portmanteau forged from the ruins of two separate individuals that had previously occupied her mind.
Once Jake has reached Mid-World and the Ka-Tet has been completed, they proceed towards their goal of the Dark Tower. While a considerable portion of the first book involves the bustle of 1970’s New York City, the second book has a dark reflection of NYC – the post-apocalyptic city of Lud. Strikingly similar in appearance to New York City, but ravaged by centuries of intense civil war, Lud even has a twin of the George Washington Bridge.
In the spirit of crossing the divide between one side and another, the Ka-Tet attempts to cross the dilapidated bridge, facing conflict when they nearly fall halfway across. They soon become embroiled in the war between the Grays and the Pubes – two factions that have formed based on age. Eventually, our heroes reach the train station, where one of two trains is still operational. However, this train has two voices – one timid and reasonable, one loud and insane. Nevertheless, the Ka-Tet escapes the city on the train, and the book ends as they head towards the next stop on their journey.
Binaries occur throughout The Waste Land, and on virtually every level, from the thematic concerns to the nature of the plot. Published only a few years before King’s first collaboration with Peter Straub, The Talisman, it is a book deeply concerned with duality.