Dark Tower IV and the Power of Performance: A Tribute to Frank Muller

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Wizard and Glass is the best book so far in the Dark Tower series. Romantic, magical, full of mystery, intrigue, and layers of meaning and symbolism - much of which, very rewardingly for me, is from Stephen King's previous work.

My review here is not to mark the so-far high-point of an engaging series, but to mark the passing, of a kind, of an amazing audiobook performer, Frank Muller.

The audiobook series, as a whole, is split between George Guidall and Muller - Guidall taking the first, Muller the next three, and Guidall the rest. Guidall's reading of The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger is perfectly fine, though not transcendent. In that way, he is bound by the source material, which is very obviously a King outside of his oeuvre and seemingly succeeding in ways that surprise him (the details from Gunslinger that become the basis for entire universes of magic and intrigue gain their importance after Gunslinger, not in it - a threadbare foray with first-draft fantasy storytelling more concerned with action and plot than world-building). 

When it comes to schlock, however, King is king, despite his best moments that show what enormous talent he has when he is able to rein himself in. So whatever problems Gunslingerhas that aren't due to his inexperience with fantasy reoccur in latter books, and, as an audiobook narrator, one must rise to give gravity where gravity is meant, even if it is not conveyed entirely in the written words.*

Switching between audiobook narrators between books in a series is always jarring, but I quickly became very attached to Muller's ability to transform even the strangest King phrasing and characterizations into real people. The speaking patterns reveal personalities that the book narration itself doesn't reveal until after a character speaks, showing that the crew making the book, Muller included, are not just reading the text, but performing it, informing characterization with later revelations and subtle tics that inform more than even what King can give the characters in his books. Muller is even able to elevate the dialogue of Susannah Dean, the sole black character in the books, who King, all credit due for trying, nigh unforgivably makes bounce between caricatures of black speech and reveals that the lifelong Mainer has perhaps a diversity problem in his private life. 

My favorite part of Muller's performances, not just in Wizard and Glass but across all three books, is not the characters, as wonderful as they are (a sampling: three teenage boys with very different personalities, one of whom is a younger version of an older character, and manages to differentiate them in tone, pitch, and inflection; a young girl and her aunt, and entire town of people with similar regional accents but different tones and personalities; a lifelong New Yorker; an actual crazy train, and Oy the billybumbler, a dog/raccoon/badger-mix of a creature). While wonderful, rich, and truly compelling, my favorite part is not the performance of the characters, but the performance of the author.

At the end of every book, Stephen King writes an afterword. It is some of his most compelling, human writing, which he might take offense to, but he is, as always, best with what what he knows. In Muller's reading of these, he transforms into the author, which has a slightly different voice than the narrator, and he becomes the Platonic ideal of Stephen King. Wise, smart, hilarious, pensive, and warm. I hear those afterwords, and I believe Muller. And it reveals the magic of the books, the magic of "ka" (a deeply layered and meaningful idea that one could over-simplify to "destiny") and "ka-tet" (a sort of destined, bonded group who shares purpose until the purpose is done or the bond is prematurely broken), is in the writer's vision. The afterword, then, is not really after the word but with it, and of a piece, and Muller's reading illustrates this connection, this threadedness, with the simple fact of his voice.

Around the end of book two, I was so enamored with Muller's reading that I looked to see what else he has done. It was then that I realized he did not narrate all of the Dark Tower books, and seems not to have done anything in recent years. I began to do some digging, knowing that, with the enormous popularity of King's books and the Dark Tower series in particular, I would not be the only one to miss him. The rumors say that Muller had a terrible motorcycle accident after recording Wizard in Glass and is no longer able, or perhaps even alive (reports vary), to continue recording audiobooks. The choice to go back to Guidall, then, makes sense, but I have a hard time pretending that they are equivalent in their talent, and that Muller's voice was just a job to be done and not a singular talent. Moving on to Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla without stopping to recognize Muller and what value he has added to my enjoyment of these books felt unkind and unfair and too much like going along with the way we treat things that mean something to us but that time has come to replace. 

So: Thank you, Mr. Muller, for what you've added to my life these last few weeks. I was eager to hear the adventures of Roland and his friends, but I was more eager to hear it in your voice, with the authorship you added to work that wasn't yours in a way that only increased its art rather than diminished it. I hope others told you the same and closer to your ears than I can.

And now: on to Book V.