February 25, 2010

Book review: "Under the Dome," by Stephen King

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Under the Dome, by Stephen King

Under the Dome
By Stephen King
Simon and Schuster

Like millions of others, some of the very first grown-up books I ever read when a teenager were Stephen King ones, which kept me an avid fan of his throughout high school and college; but then also like millions of others, in my twenties I grew to have more and more problems with King's writing, especially as I finished more and more examples of truly great books throughout history, leading to me almost entirely dumping his work altogether by my thirties. And that's why, although I've now officially read 31 of his books, all but six of those are from at least twenty years ago if not more; and that of course is also why I was highly dubious when word started spreading a few months ago about his latest, the only lightly supernatural psychological thriller Under the Dome, that many now consider perhaps the best book of his entire 40-year, 75-title career. Because on the one hand, calling a particular book Stephen King's best is kind of like saying that Genghis Khan was the most humane mass-murderer in history (you know, as in, "Who gives a sh-t when they're all so terrible to begin with?"); but then again, I was an avowed King fan for many years myself, and like many I have long held onto the hope that he might go from merely entertaining to truly brilliant late in his career, just exactly like Mark Twain did, and so it's hard not to be intrigued when a growing amount of people start calling his newest the exact brilliant breakthrough I had been hoping for.

So I broke down and checked out the two-pound behemoth (seriously, that's its actual weight) from my neighborhood library last month, and slogged through 75 pages of it every night for two weeks straight until I was finally finished. And what did I think? Well, in a nutshell -- meh. Because yes, this might possibly be one of the best books of King's career; but as I was painfully reminded of starting about halfway through, that's still not saying an awful lot, and is why King is destined to eventually become the modern equivalent of the Victorian Age's Edward Bulwer-Lytton, yet another massively popular author who sold tens of millions of books when alive, but who just a hundred years later is now barely remembered. And that's because King is a master at turning in flashy reflections of our particular day and age, books that are exactly as entertaining when first reading as some generic television show playing in the background of your kitchen when trying to make dinner one night, but that largely fail the test of time just as badly as an episode of Law & Order after its fourth viewing; and although I have no doubt that a century from now, there will still be a healthy audience reading his absolutely most well-known work like The Stand and the "Dark Tower" series, the vast majority of his oeuvre is destined to be known the same way we currently know the vast majority of books by, say, Jules Verne or Jack London, as simply an endless list of unlinked, forgotten titles at the bottom of his Wikipedia entry.

Although make no mistake, Under the Dome has a great high-concept premise, one that's easy to describe but that can fuel a thousand-page manuscript; basically, one day an impenetrable force-field bubble appears around a small town in Maine, over 30,000 feet high and presumably that far deep under the surface too, blocking out everything but a trickle of water and air and utterly unbreakable by any device known to man. So who constructed it? And why? And how long will it last? Well, although King does eventually give a lip-service answer to those questions by the end (for an interesting reason that he details during his recent surprisingly fascinating talk for the New York Times' "TimesCenter" podcast), these aren't really the questions he's most interested in exploring; no, what he's most interested in discussing is what would happen to existing society under such circumstances, under a situation where both basic resources and all authority figures have been stripped away from a modern American civilization, making this King's less-heavy version of such recent high-minded apocalyptic tales as Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

And like The Road, King frames his answer mostly through the filter of what we saw happen to our society during the Bush years of the early 2000s, when we first got a little taste of what such an apocalypse might be like; and like The Road, King's conclusion is that we'd all be pretty much screwed*, that the sheen of "enlightened civility" we pride ourselves on here in the US is in actuality just the thinnest of veneers, and that all it would take is just a few chinks in this armor to turn all of us into snarling, violent, genocidal animals. After all, this is exactly what we saw so many citizens of New Orleans turn into, after the Bush administration decided to abandon the city after Hurricane Katrina, what exactly we saw so many American soldiers turn into once getting the official permission of the Bushists to torture and rape without repercussions; and in this you can add Under the Dome to such other '00s classics as The Road, The Plot Against America, Jamestown, Anathem, The Possibility of an Island, Radiant Days, Rant, The Yiddish Policemen's Union and World War Z to equal by the end an entire class of so-called "Bushist Literature," the disaster-plagued chaos-embracing stories that will teach future generations about the unending misery we all just got done living through (and will soon be living through again, apparently, if the teabaggers have their way, proving again just like the Germans did in the 1900s that sometimes it takes not just one but two giant catastrophies before a fascist society finally learns its f-cking lesson). And in fact King does a nice job here of exploring the details of the Bush years through the microcosm of a small New England town, with various characters in this massive cast standing in for such infamous figures as Bush himself and his evil puppetmaster Dick Cheney, as well as a look at how such glibly religious, self-righteous monsters can so easily manipulate an entire population into mass panic and resulting mob violence, therefore justifying the martial law they wanted all along.

But then this starts getting into the problems I had with this book as well, which is that King felt the need here to push all these stereotypes to the Nth most radical degree: just to cite one good example, the Glenn-Beck-listening city council members who take over in the wake of the dome's appearance are not just corrupt and lazy, but also just happen to be meth dealers; and are not just meth dealers but happen to be the largest meth dealers in the entire United States; and are not just the largest meth dealers in the entire United States but priest-killing necrophiliacs that also just happen to be the largest meth dealers in the entire United States, and who by the way happen to be the corrupt city council members who organize a brownshirt-style takeover of the town's armory after the appearance of the dome. Subtle, King, subtle! And that's disappointing, because this weakens the entire message that most of these Bushist books (including King's) are trying to make -- that true evil in a corrupt society comes not from the tiny amount of legitimately freakish monsters, but rather the petty evils of a million otherwise decent human beings, that the troubles of the Bush years weren't caused by priest-killing necrophiliacs but rather by a hundred thousand cops and security guards and airport security screeners, each and every one of whom added an extra 30 seconds of misery to the lives of every person they professionally dealt with, simply as a way of meting petty scorn on a series of innocent victims who had no means of retaliating or even complaining. As we all unfortunately learned last decade, this is more than enough horror to create a 24-hour national waking nightmare, and it's a shame that King felt the need to gussy this up into the ludicrous extremes seen in Under the Dome.

Now combine all this with what's turned out over the decades to be King's natural recurring problems simply as a writer, weaknesses in his work that have been there since the very first day -- stilted dialogue, for example, an eyerolling amount of casual misogyny, annoying villainous catchphrases that are then repeated so often that you eventually want to beat the author to death with his own freaking two-pound book -- and you can suddenly see why a person might consider this one of King's best books but still be disappointed by it anyway. But then to flip the argument once again, I was tempted to forgive King many times for these exact things I'm complaining about -- because after all, most of the exaggerations of evil seen here are in reality no worse than the actual cartoonish evil that the Bushists really did get away with during the '00s; or to cite another example, if King hadn't made this so big and rambling, people wouldn't be talking so much about it in the first place, making its excessive size both necessary and unnecessary at the same time.

So when all is said and done, then, I found myself with a whole plethora of emotions when it comes to Under the Dome -- gratitude that King was so willing to stand up to his conservative fans like this, amazement that the mouth-breathers have so passionately fallen for it anyway, yet disappointment that it wasn't better than it was, and a sort of tired resignation over the fact that all a Stephen King book has to be is merely okay for it to get labeled The Greatest Stephen King Book Of His Entire Career. It comes absolutely recommended to existing King fans, but with only a lukewarm endorsement for those who aren't, a book that I'm very glad exists but that I don't think is necessarily worth everyone's time. It should all be kept in mind before picking it up yourself.

Out of 10: 7.5

Read even more about Under the Dome: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*And by the way, a final observation about this book that I found no good place for in the main review: that the last hundred pages now stand as the single greatest piece of disaster pornography in the history of the genre, a boner-inducing catastrof-ck that alone almost completely justifies the 900 so-so pages that come before it. It's true what this book's most diehard fans say, that you shouldn't judge Under the Dome until you've gotten to the very last page, and that you shouldn't assume you know what the ending will be just because you're getting a good sense of it two-thirds of the way through.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:57 PM, February 25, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |