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.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Inner Circle, by T.C. Boyle

T.C. Boyle stumbles in this flaccid dramatization of Professor Alfred Kinsey and his sex research team.

I was pretty excited to get my hands on this book. A friend in New York was cleaning out her apartment, and I was about to hop a plane to San Francisco. Boyle is a master of contemporary American fiction, almost without equal, and his past explorations of historical fiction have produced some of the best writing of the last 20 years, including The Road to Wellville and World's End.

So my expectations were high when I cracked open The Inner Circle, Boyle's fictionalized imaginings of the research team under Alfred Kinsey, narrated in the voice of John Milk, the professor's first research assistant. Milk first meets Kinsey when he signs up for the professor's "Marriage Course" at the university, and later in the library stacks. The professor first conscripts our narrator to help with his gardening, then to assist him with sex research interviews and statistical analysis, and soon after as a reluctant partner in Kinsey's own "inner circle" of wife swapping and carnal adventure.

Perspective was the first flaw I found in this story. Milk tells his tale--a confession, really--from the secluded guest bedroom of his home, getting drunk and maudlin before a tape recorder just hours after Kinsey's funeral. It is years in the future from the events that make the focus of the book, but Milk continually jumps from the present to the distant past, forward again to the present, back once again to the more recent past, and back again to find the thread of the original story. Playing with time this way can sometimes imbue a book a greater sense of shape and dimension, but here it inspires confusion, a sense of fracture, and worst...boredom.

John Milk is another problem with the story, a virginal, idol-worshiping, lukewarm ninny who reminds this reader of a skittish dog. His courtship and early marriage to good-girl Iris are complicated by Professor Kinsey's (Prok's) demands for his time and attention, but Milk is too swept up in the research and infatuated with his boss to set personal boundaries. A Washington Post reviewer pointed to the significance of Milk's initials, JAM, as indicative of some sort of metaphor for the narrator's spineless and saccharine character. Too often in the book, I found it inspiring thoughts of "milquetoast," timid, weak, and unassuming. Describing the effects of a bourbon-drinking session, he apologizes to no one in particular: "it was a fifth and it got both of us pretty giddy, I'm afraid." Writing about his state following that session, he says, "I woke sometime in the night with a dry throat, a condition that often afflicts me when I've been drinking." Such mousy characters just don't drive great reads, or even entertaining reads.

Milk is swept up in the undercurrent of Prok's field research trips and casual sex, and it's no surprise where this is leading: marital tension, alienation, and more whining in front of the tape recorder.

I gave up on this read when I felt whatever payoff was coming at the book's end wasn't worth the tedium of the remaining 122 pages. Other reviewers have fawned over this book, quite intelligently, perhaps seeing something I didn't. Jennifer Reese at Entertainment Weekly lauds this book as tale of moral ambiguity, and Boyle's characterization of Kinsey as a creepy "grotesque" force within that spinning compass. My take was closer to Michiko Kakutani's at the New York Times, who aptly identifies the book's "monochromatic prose" and calls this story a "tired chronicle." As much work as Boyle has invested in bringing salacious detail and personal angst to the book, perhaps we live in a time where, when porn has become boring, none of us can be so easily titillated.

Burn After Reading

Here's a blog for people who love to read. I think I read a lot more than some people, and maybe less than a few others, but I'll try to keep this site's content fresh and the reviews coming.

This site is also for people who are itching to share their ideas and feelings about the books they read. I'm a borderline compulsive reader (if I can't find books, I'll turn to the backs of cereal boxes and shampoo bottles), and too often I find friends who just aren't interested in discussing books. We'll be looking at new releases, old titles, the good, the bad, and the terrible--and avoiding the kind of tedious navel-gazing you'll find in some literary blogs and publications.

If you have an opinion on a book mentioned in this site, if you disagree with my opinion, or if you want to recommend a book for review on this site, please speak up and post a response! All comments are welcome. Thanks for visiting. Come again soon.