Thursday, October 28, 2010

Under the Dome, by Stephen King

Under the Dome opens on the town of Chester's Mill, a sleepy Maine country 'burb that could've been drawn from the margins of a Norman Rockwell painting. It's a crisp and beautiful day in late-October when the boundaries of an invisible force field--40,000 feet high, immeasurably deep, totally impenetrable, and beyond anyone's understanding--descend on the town's borders, dividing the residents from the outside world as neatly as it severs the body of a woodchuck shambling across a field.

There's confusion and chaos at first as the denizens discover the perimeter of their confinement: cars appear to collide with mid-air; people heading to the scene of the accident run face-first into the barrier; a woman taking flying lessons smacks into the edge of the dome and crashes to the earth in a pile of fiery shrapnel, the wreck of her plane leaving a mid-air streak of burning gasoline on the clear edge of the dome.

But the barrier and resulting isolation aren't the source of tension in this story: instead, it's the cruelty, psychopathy, and lust for power King thinks our friends and neighbors will practice when given free reign over the law and a mandate to keep things under control. "I'd say our prime concern--our prime responsibility to the town--is maintaining order for the duration of this crisis," says Big Jim Rennie, Chester's Mill's born-again second selectman and the real nemesis of this book. Adds Assistant Police Chief Peter Randolph, in one of the first of many notes of irony and foreshadowing, "Nobody's gonna get hurt, Big Jim. This is Chester's Mill. If it was New York City, things might be different."

And left to their own devices, maybe no one would've been hurt. But add to the town's sleepy population one migraine-suffering serial killer, one crystal meth factory headed by a well-armed Jesus-freak, and several rapists, and you have a neat recipe for a self-contained holocaust.

There's a lot of to like in this novel. Over the sprawling course of 1075 pages, as I got more immersed in the story and familiar with the geography (King graciously provides a detailed aerial map and cast of characters), I could feel the shrinking confines and deepening claustrophobia. Jedidiah Berry writing in the LA Times, agreed that with folks prevented from coming or going, the small town feels even smaller. When Jim Rennie makes his play for power, "for the good of the town," the people galvanize between sides, and the town cops emerge as a dark, malleable, and very violent force that grows beyond the supply of police uniforms. New recruits join the force from the high school ranks of jocks and thugs, don blue armbands and assault the opposition. Drama and discomfort metastasize until King reaches full-swing: the town is falling apart, good men and women are beaten and threatened with torture, the air grows thick with pollution and hot with greenhouse gasses, and ultimately the town literally erupts in flames. One excellent blogger complained that the novel was so character-driven, the apocalyptic ending felt incongruous with the set-up. But for my money, the Hiroshima-like three-page of narrative describing Chester's Mill in smoldering ruins was fair payoff for 900-and-something pages of meandering dialog and the skateboarder crowd's Scooby Doo-type detective work. It was also a very daring move for audiences that are accustomed to seeing the monster turn back at the very end.

But this book is also mired in the plot devices and literary stunts that used to make King's work feel so original, and now seem rehashed. Children have seizures and paranormal visions of the future. Ghosts of the recent dead come to help the living. There are aliens (though they make only a fleeting appearance), childhood bullies, and dogs that save the day. None of it feels quite as fleshed out as it ought to, but somehow we feel as though we've been down this road before. To speed through the lulls in this behemoth of a novel, King over-relies on 'ticking clocks': the town is going to run out of food any day now; the air temperature and pollution count inside the Dome are rising, and the air will turn poisonous; there's a town meeting scheduled for Thursday, when Big Jim Rennie will lynch the hero; the children keep seeing visions of mass destruction occurring Halloween, maybe even sooner! You expect there to be a slow progression from confusion to panic to mayhem over a period of weeks. In the world of Chester's Mill, this happens in less than 7 days.

Another issue is that Big Jim Rennie, though repugnant, is far from terrifying. "He's the worst kind of politician--selfish, too egocentric to realize he's way out of his league, and a coward underneath that bluff, can-do exterior of his," the town newspaper editor opines. But Rennie's not the sort of man who hacks up his wife and son with an ax, or eats missing children underneath sewer grates, or kidnaps and tortures bestselling authors in his home. Absent also is anything as creative as the terrifying fantasy-scape of Lisey's Story. Over his writing career, King has produced such a vivid menagerie of evil creatures that it's hard to take seriously this overweight, born-again blow-hard. King stated in an interview that he had cast Rennie in the literary mold of the Bush administration, micro-sized to scale for small-town America. Rennie is old, overweight, and has a bad heart. He purposely seeks the second selectman's seat on the town council, to avoid the scrutiny that come to the first selectman. Wonder who that sounds like? Even those of us who lived through the horror story of Cheney's eight years may have trouble seeing Rennie as the monster this story desperately needs to keep it moving at pace.

But it's unfair to judge each of King's novels against the success of earlier phases in his career. Under the Dome stands very well on its own two legs, and is an interesting piece of "What-If" fiction with the power to see this hypothetical all the way to its grim conclusion.

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