Friday, December 11, 2009

Under the Dome, by Stephen King

One fine Saturday morning in late October, Dale Barbara, Stephen King’s requisite outsider-hero, heads out of the small Maine town of Chester’s Mill. Suddenly, a woodchuck gets sliced in half, a plane crashes inexplicably overhead, and “Barbie” and the two thousand residents of Chester’s Mill are trapped inside a dome-shaped force field.

A town isolated by a dome-shaped force field? Ring a bell? Sounds like The Simpsons Movie, but rest assured that King started a novel with the dome idea well before the movie. As a matter of fact, the prolific bestselling author of Under the Dome proved publicly that he had written two versions of the story back in the 1970s under the titles The Cannibals and Under the Dome. Still, some of the novel’s key elements are mighty familiar: the town cut off from the rest of the world (John Wyndham’s story “The Midwich Cuckoos”, later adapted into the film Village of the Damned) and the novel’s thematic focus on the violence that results from paranoia and fear(Twilight Zone episode "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" and King’s own The Mist). (In order to avoid a spoiler, I won’t mention another famous Twilight Zone episode it resembles.)

But when King grabs you with all sorts of shocking disasters, pernicious subplots, and weird surprises and never lets you go for 1,072 pages, you settle back, enjoy the smoothly written read, and forget about the borrowings. Since his early classics, King has developed an inimitable talent for sketching small-town Maine life, creating memorable characters you can like or hate out of stock roles: the outsider, the selectman, the police chief, the newspaper editor, the minister, the town drunk, often fleshing them out by delving into their dark secrets, which King just loves to do.

This talent runs throughout Under the Dome, King’s thriller/science-fiction page-turner. At first, I found it hard to accept the town’s rapid disintegration. King skips over a period of mutual cooperation that is often the case in novels about survival in a small isolated society – a sci-fi sub-genre I enjoy. (My favorite is S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time, in which Nantucket Island gets sucked back in time to 1250 B.C.) In a couple of days, power-hungry town selectman Jim Rennie uses fear of the dome to take control and cover up a whole saga of corruption. He hires “brownshirts” and soon has the town under his thumb. But as an allegory, the scenario works: shades of Hitler – and after 9/11, it didn’t take the Bush administration long to raise the fear factor in America.

While examining how fear leads to social collapse, King also uses the dome device as an allegory for the dangers of global warming and pollution: as the days go by, think what the car exhaust, generator fumes, meth lab, and wood fires are doing to the air quality? In this decade of notable post-apocalyptic movies (I Am Legend) and novels (The Road), King effectively puts his two cents in on that scenario as well, and his treatment of it is superbly written and graphically shocking.

But here the conflicts and issues are the focus, not the science fiction. Not much time is spent on delineating the science of the dome, and sometimes King writes himself into a corner when it comes to technical details. In this novel, he resorts to awkward devices like sheets of lead used to make an anti-radiation suit and car tires used as breathing devices.

Meanwhile, King packs his tome with the needful things he can’t resist: references to music lyrics to reflect his cool taste in music; references to T.S. Eliot to show that he has read classic literature; allusions to his own novels to remind you of what he’s written; aggravating colloquialisms like “two days and change” that are uttered repeatedly by multiple characters; numerous references to pop culture; prolific product placement; put-downs of people not from Maine – especially people from Massachusetts who are called “Massholes;” references to masturbation, sodomy (with every mention of prison), penis size, breast size, and bodily excretions of all kinds (when characteres die they are always pissing and “beshitting” themselves).

But although he can be self-consciously silly and naughty, the King of Horror has a sharp talent for gripping and frightening the hell out of the reader – and he did that for this satisfied reader with this novel. At times, too, he can be quite terse and smoothly eloquent, as he is throughout this epic depiction of society’s tendency to feed on itself. Twisting orange-red petals of fire hung above it in the air, a flower that was still opening, an American Disaster rose.

(Note: With its action, suspense, and sci-fi, Under the Dome seems destined for the big screen – and note the jacket cover illustration (above and below). It is a CG-enhanced image designed by King himself – a ready-made movie poster. Be sure to click on it for a pretty awesome cinematic image.)


FilmDr said...

Do the people under the dome ever try to dig their way out?

Do you plan on writing more about contemporary fiction? I've been enjoying Jess Walter's The Financial Lives of the Poets, which reminds me a little of Lethem's Chronic City.

Jason Bellamy said...

Cool review. I think the last King book I attempted to read was Insomnia. I was suffering from it at the time, so I thought that would be perfect. I couldn't get into it. And I've just never gone back.

But I've enjoyed me some King over the years. I've always felt a particular fondness for Needful Things, which is awesome up until it's horrendous ending (Uncle Stevie struggles with endings), and Gerald's Game.

This is exactly right: Since his early classics, King has developed an inimitable talent for sketching small-town Maine life, creating memorable characters you can like or hate out of stock roles: the outsider, the selectman, the police chief, the newspaper editor, the minister, the town drunk, often fleshing them out by delving into their dark secrets, which King just loves to do.

I think I'd almost rather re-read a King book for nostalgia purposes than read a new one, but this sounds like fun.

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the comments guys -

FilmDr. For 1000 pages I kept wondering why King hadn't mentioned anybody trying to dig out. At the end of the novel there is a brief mention of how deep underground the shield goes. I thought King had made a mistake. Then I went back and found a very brief paragraph in which the head military dude on the outside mentions that they had drilled down a great distance and still had hit the shield. So King had that base covered - but with only a brief mention. The dome is "47,000 feet and change" high - and it goes down proportionately.

With contemporary fiction I pick up what interests me - each year it turns out that I've read at least one of the year's top books - fiction or non-fiction. I haven't read the books you mentioned, but I will look into them. I read a lot - but I am totally motivated by what interests me - and I read a lot of non-fiction and historical fiction before I can find I noteworthy contemporary novel I'm interested in. Another noteworthy book I read this year was Columbine and in previous years The Road - which I reviewed here earlier this year - and Pynchon's Against the Day.

I will review books here as the spirit moves, being an English major and an English teacher, I guess my background is in writing about books.

Hokahey said...

Jason - As I've said, I'm not a big King fan. If the story interests me, I'll read it. Just had to read Under the Dome because I love sci-fi and survival stories - and now it's one of my favorites. You are right, he has trouble with endings - though his ending in this one is good. His strengths are characterizations and dialogue (though the latter can be irritatingly cutesy).

I have read 'Salem's Lot, The Stand, The Dead Zone, The Green Mile, The Mist, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. I recommend The Dead Zone - my favorite.

Hokahey said...

FilmDr -

I looked up those books you noted. They look interesting. I'm especially intrigued by Chronic City since I enjoy books that take place in Manhattan. I recently read DeLillo's Falling Man. As for The Financial Lives of the Poets - it sounds like an interesting premise.