There are no novelists in Under the Dome. I spent many pages waiting for a novelist to show up, but such a character never manifested, and this was one of the earliest signs for me that Under the Dome might actually be a good Stephen King book*. Finally, after many years, a good Stephen King book.
There’s another thing missing from Under the Dome: a van that injures or kills someone. In fact, a van plays a major role in saving the heroes of Under the Dome; maybe Steve has finally made his peace with that van that clipped him so many years ago. What he hasn’t made his peace with is the Bush Administration; in fact the entirety of Under the Dome reads like a totally on-the-nose critique of Bush and America in the months after 9/11. Which would be a really major problem if the book wasn’t also good – good enough that you’re able to give King a pass for his well past the expiration date outrage.
Speaking of past the expiration date: this review is exceptionally late, but I felt honorbound to write it.
See, I’ve been quite down on King for years, and I’ve written lots and
lots of stuff that disparaged the guy. I thought that if he did
something I liked, I should be just as vocally positive about it.
A strange forcefield encircles the entire town of Chesters Mill (yes, in Maine) one autumn day. It comes suddenly and it is invisible; the first people know of it is when a plane and a truck crash into it. Later they notice the dead birds and the animals split in half by the Dome, as it comes to be known. The Dome goes thousands of feet into the air and possibly thousands below ground; it is slightly porous to oxygen, but little else can pass through it. The government is aware and gets involved almost immediately, but the folks inside the Dome find themselves caught in a rapid downward spiral towards violence and fascism.
The first few hundred pages of the monstrously thick Under the Dome thrill non-stop. King is in fine form here, creating an entire town and its population, setting them up in the first hours beneath the Dome, putting people into position for the conflict to come. And he’s fairly meticulous in regards to the science of the Dome – what would happen to a place that is totally cut off, meterologically and environmentally speaking? It’s fascinating stuff, and the quickly-progressing environmental issues lend the story an urgency.
It’s an urgency King doesn’t need because he brought his own. The book is relentlessly nihilistic and his view of humanity seems to be slightly less cheery than Todd Solondz’ Happiness, and so in Under the Dome it takes less than a week for the citizens of Chesters Mill to end up under a violent, fascist regime. Things will fall apart, I agree, but they fall apart with whiplash-inducing speed in this book, and that speed tends to undermine drama a bit.
The speed of decay is surely hastened by the fact that King has populated the book with a cast of cartoon characters. Long gone is the complexity of the characters in his finest work, The Stand (of which Under the Dome is almost a reboot) and in their place is a group who fall directly into obvious positions. The guys who look bad at the start are in fact bad, and they’re pretty much all Christians and Republicans. The folks who seem good and thoughtful and progressive are pretty much the heroes (although he does make one hero a Republican in name, she ends the book transformed into a big leftie. Other characters actually comment on this). When the lines get drawn in town everybody’s position is pretty obvious, and this makes the middle section drag a bit. There’s no question who is going to follow which character, so why does King spend 300 pages moving them into position?
Thankfully most of those 300 pages are good. King hasn’t really improved much as a writer over the last few decades – the book is filled with shitty lines and overwrought sentiment – but he remains a master storyteller. For a while I thought he had lost even that, but his ability to weave a tale is what keeps Under the Dome afloat, especially in the almost-terrible final hundred pages. He also is incredible at world creation, and so the totality of Chesters Mill feels complete, if a little familiar – it’s essentially Stephen Kingtown, filled with the sorts of characters we’ve seen in a dozen previous King novels.
My biggest gripe about King’s writing style is how King it is. The book sometimes reads like it was written by someone trying to consciously mimic Stephen King from the 70s and 80s, and it’s filled with King-specific tics that feel exceptionally outdated. There’s the fact that every single character seems to have a thing for rhymes when they’re thinking; this is especially true of crazy characters (as always in King books), but it goes for just about everyone in this novel. And the cultural references feel simply stilted, like King is checking with someone younger than him. A pivotal plot element hinges on people in their 30s buying blank CDs… and the book is set three or four years in the future!**
Possibly the darkest bit of this very dark book is how little faith King has in the people of Chesters Mill. In The Stand the survivors split into two clearly defined camps; in Under the Dome there are two clearly defined camps, but each is made up of a handful of people each. The vast majority of the folks of Chesters Mill are just sort of there, easily swayed by the rhetoric spouted by evil Town Selectman Jim Rennie (how evil is he? He’s a Christian, he doesn’t swear and he’s the mastermind of the biggest crystal meth ring in American history). There’s cynicism and then there’s cynicism; it seems to me that the cynicism that King shows about these folks – the kinds of regular Northeastern folks who he was always affectionate for, even when criticizing them – is the exact same cynicism that Bush et al showed about them post 9/11. King believes, just as he thinks Bush did, that these folks are easily led sheep and idiots. And that’s disheartening, because eight years after 9/11 it’s become obvious that the people are just easily tricked, not easily lulled. Bush’s numbers plummeted, and John McCain couldn’t get elected on the Bush platform of fearmongering; it feels like the world has already written the counterpoint to everything King is saying in the book.
The biggest storytelling mistake that King makes is one he’s made many times before – his build-up beats his finale. Reading the book you can almost tell when he runs out of steam and moves in to just finish things off; instead of doing anything interesting with the fact that a small group of Chesters Mills residents are preparing for an armed uprising against the corrupt folks in charge, he simply rushes to the end – an end you see coming hundreds of pages before, and even earlier if you’ve read The Stand. And that abrupt ending means that King knocks off a number of characters without fanfare, even ones you’ve spent plenty of time with. But more frustrating than that is the fact that he doesn’t spend enough time at the end with the survivors you’ve come to know; once the book reaches page 900 King has focused himself on about six characters, and everyone else is simply tossed to the wayside, invisible in a crowd around the folks we are following now. I don’t know if there’s some kind of engineering issue with making a book longer than Under the Dome, but if he had brought the storytelling chops to the second half of a 2000 page version that he brought to the first half of the 1000 page version, I’d have read it all.
The revelations about the Dome were also wholly unsatisfying for me, but by the time they rolled around the book was wrapping up and I was much more disappointed with what King had done with his long slow build-up. It might have been wiser to leave the Dome’s creators unknown or unknowable, but I understand what King’s (heavy handed) point was as it pertains to religion and faith and the order of the universe. Saying much more would be a spoiler, and there may be some who embrace the identity of the Dome’s creators.
There’s not much room for argument on one point: this is King’s best book in years. But it’s not one of his best books; none of the characters sing the way folks like Stu Redman or Annie Wilkes or Bill from It do. And the outcome of the book – including who lives and who dies – feels telegraphed from an incredibly early point. But considering King is a writer I had completely written off for more than ten years, the fact that it’s a good book is saying something. It’s saying that King has it in him still, and I hope that Under the Dome marks the end of an era of declining quality that began way back in 1996 with The Regulators. A quick, often gripping read that holds together for an impressive 900 of its 1000 pages, Under the Dome has done what I thought no modern King book could do – made me look forward to what he has coming next.
* Yes, I’m well aware that many great Stephen King books have novelists as the protagonist. It just seems like in the last fifteen years ‘novelist’ has become the lazy default lead character for King.
** The book is set sometime after 2012, possibly as late as 2014. I could not for the life of me figure out why this would be the case, as the year makes no difference on events in the book. Anyone with any insight is welcome to share it with me in the comments, on our message board or in an email.Buy Under the Dome from CHUD!