“…a stone, a leaf, an unfound door…”
So begins the prologue of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, five free-flowing paragraphs of image-clotted prose, without a single plot point or character in sight, and instantly my mind turns to the Dark Tower. Readers of King’s epic will recognize the line—even with the original leaf in place of the rose—alongside the lamenting cry of “o lost” that sounds throughout the story.
At first I wondered why King chose this book to mirror in his series. On the face of it, it doesn’t have much in common with his macabre fusion of oat opera and high fantasy. Far from a genre piece, Look Homeward, Angel is unapologetically “literary” in style and content, a long-limbed Bildungsroman that shuffles sideways through its thin narrative, favoring florid digressions and subtle characters studies over anything as coarse and tangible as a plot.
And yet, as I read the book and sank deeper into its style, I started to see the peculiar ways in which it and the Dark Tower are alike. For Look Homeward, Angel is really a story about grief: grief for loved ones who die, in part, but mostly grief for the past, and for a childhood spent and squandered and inevitably lost. Likewise, the Dark Tower, underneath its industrious world-building and horror fantasy trappings, is a lament for a world that has moved on. And while Roland’s relentless quest for the Tower is driven by a need to restore order, there is a sense of futility that underpins the journey—a point driven home by its divisive ending.
It’s easy to accuse books like Look Homeward, Angel of being all style and no substance, exercises in pretension that wallow in their opacity, verbiage for verbiage’s sake. I’ve read books like that, and I’m not a fan. But there’s more here than simply stylish prose—though Wolfe is without peer at composing sentences of symphonic richness.
The characters are keenly felt, and their flaws and interactions are painted with a storyteller’s eye for detail. Though set over a century ago, much of it feels surprisingly contemporary, if not in its setting or technology, then at least in the problems that emerge in a single house shared by too many people, and the oscillating love and fury that families often excite in one another.
I read Look Homeward, Angel at a comparatively relaxed pace, putting it down partway through to read other books in the interim. I think this helped me more fully appreciate it, as it gave me time to approach it on its own terms. I enjoyed it more the more I read, and though it seemed daunting in its first hundred pages, by the end I found myself feeling sad that it was over—fitting, I suppose, for a book about grieving the past.
O discordia, o lost.