Wednesday, September 29, 2010

12 books/12 months: Under the Dome, by Stephen King

This is part 1 of my portion of a book review series brought to you by The Latter Day Bohemian via Middle-Aged Woman. ** This is a re-post from my personal blog - not sure why it didn't occur to me to put it on the word blog until now **

Note: I listened to the audiobook version of this novel over the course of a couple of weeks, during my commute and while jogging. I may mess up the spelling of a character's name or location because I never saw the printed spelling.

Stephen King novels seem to loosely be structured around the same general premise: trap a person or group of people, either figuratively by circumstance, isolation, desire, or something a bit more obscure like a secret, or literally by placing them in captivity or incarceration, and then follow the arc of what each character or personality does in the parameters of that trap.

In novels of his that I particularly enjoy, like The Stand or It, the depth or integrity of each character seems to hinge on minutiae: a selfish character may find their own inner mettle when trapped, and another may find their inner depravity. And the nuances that lead each to disparate action is - to me - King's greatest gift.

His novels always seem impeccable in their detailed scrutiny of human character and the ways in which people think, feel, and act. In that, I compare his writing with the best of others of his generation: John Irving, Margaret Atwood, John Updike. I am not much of a horror or suspense reader, but to me King's novels walk that line between pure horror and better literature because of his great gift in creating believable, breathing characters.

Then, of course, there is the supernatural element of his books, which forever ties his work into that genre. Sometimes his supernatural premise is insidious: a niggling fantasy you had one dark night made horribly real and brought out, wriggling, under the light. In the case of Under the Dome, however, what fails - and fails badly - is this supernatural element (the logistics and the laughable source of the dome of the title barely deserve mention, other than as unworthy of the rest of the novel) and - even more importantly in this case - the supernatural element that wasn't.

In his novels where evil is perpetuated by a supernatural force, like Randall Flagg in The Stand or IT in It or the possessed dog, possessed zombie baby or possessed car, characters who respond to that unassailable evil with their own dark natures seem to be making choices that are, on some level, outside their own control, or at least are seduced by something that may puppeteer or commandeer their actions. The presence of iconic evil, in other words, makes the mundane horror and darkness of human characters more sympathetic.

In Under the Dome, the Dome itself is a bit of a red herring when compared to the actual decay of the town Chester's Mill (the town trapped by the dome). While the dome makes a complex situation explosive, I think King wants to make the point all the dome did was ignite fuses that were already laid.

For Chester's Mill, all of that decay can be traced back to the character of "Big" Jim Rennie. Big Jim is a town selectman, a used car dealer, a drug kingpin, and a born-again Christian. And evil. There is not one human or empathetic vision of Big Jim in this novel: before the dome came down, he was already a murderer, a thief, a drug lord, and an abuser of power and people. Subsequently, Big Jim's actions once the dome comes down are an escalation of what is clearly one-dimensional narcissism and his constant maneuvering to protect himself and maintain a position of local power. The meltdown of Chester's Mill hinges almost entirely on the results of Big Jim's negative actions, his power-plays and his relentless dark core. While you believe that he is, for whatever reason, evil, those machinations are, from the outset to the end, one-dimensional and flat - primarily unbelievable - and the novel breaks down over this point.

For example, one of the logical effects of the dome (or capsule) enclosing the town is that the power and water lines are severed. People with generators have power; those without generators do not. People with wells have water; those without do not. As the dome shuts out weather fluctuations, this is somewhat neutral as far as heating or cooling systems - initially, but impacts the storage and cooking of food, running water, and other power and water-based resources. Big Jim's drug manufacturing has slowly been siphoning all of the town's reserve propane, so only a few people actually end up with access to the propane needed to run their generators longer-term. Why is Big Jim a drug dealer? Why not: he's evil. Why did he take the propane? Because he can. Why does he cover up this fact? To keep power and hide his drug organization. Why do all the people who NEED that propane and know that Big Jim has taken it do NOTHING to get it back? Because...that's what they do. They do nothing until the logical results of Big Jim's machinations have already become inevitable.

Maybe I don't think this novel is successful because there are too many sheep-characters and too few heroes.

Maybe King sees this novel as an allegory for Nazi Germany, and in creating a purely evil human character and the groups of people who follow that character without scrutiny or a personal ethical core, he is quite possibly making a statement about current politics and/or religion in the US. And this is not a terrible point, but if that is his aim, I think he fails to ever find the access-point that makes the reader both identify with the followers of evil and recognize the horror of that choice.

This is a bit of a grander overview of the book's effect. I liked it well enough, but I don't like novels where fragile characters like children, dogs, and drug-addicts are dangled over the metaphorical flaming pit to make you squirm. Plenty of the more fragile characters in this novel (and, in fact, ALL of the "bad guy" characters) die. It's a bit of an apocalypse at the end. The main heroic arc is fine, if sort-of uninspiring, and I may always think a little differently about how precious clean air is after the end of this novel.

It's no The Stand, and I wish it had been a hell of a lot shorter for the pleasure I took in it in the end, but I am glad I read it. It's B- King, but even B- King is better than the A+ of most lesser skilled novelists.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Book Challenge!

12 Some Books, 12 Some Months Challenge brought to you by The Latter Day Bohemian, courtesy of Middle-Aged Woman, and mixed up a little by me. ** I'm reposting these on my book/word blog - not sure why I didn't think of that until now **

Pick 12 titles from your To Read Pile. These should be titles you currently own have wanted to read for a while, but to which you haven't gotten around.

Post your list in your public space of choice by September 1, 2010 whenever. If you prefer not to post, you can just leave a comment with your list.

Read all 12 titles between now and September 5, 2011 (or, you know, whenever).

When you finish a title on your list, post about it in your public space of choice. If you prefer not to post, you can just leave a comment with your thoughts.

Once a month, I’ll try to post a round-up of the reviews/thoughts posted from that month so that we all know what everyone else has read.

My list (in no particular order):
  1. The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, by Natalie Angiers. Why haven't I read this yet? It's been in my "To Read" pile for at least 2 years. And I'm still totally excited about it, but every time I start a new book, this one isn't it.
  2. I'm Down: A Memoir by Mishna Wolff: A memoir about growing up in a white family that identified most with their black neighbors, this caught my eye when it first came out and I finally bought it (on sale - thanks, Powell's Books!) Now to get it off the bedside table, where it could otherwise languish...
  3. Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl by Susan Campbell. Well, duh. This one practically lept into my arms and said "Your Life! Here! Buy me!".
  4. Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell. I bought this because it's supposed to be a "great novel about coping with grief"...but then I started reading it and realized that it's about 2 women who bonded over dog raising and AA. Both of which are...yeah. And then one died and the other one wrote a book about it. Hopefully the grief-coping part will grab me, because I've been languishing on page 100-something for a while now.
  5. Under the Dome by Stephen King. I've heard this compared to the best of Stephen King's work (The Stand, It) enough to know I want to try it. This one is a bit of a crapshoot, but I am hoping to LURV it.
  6. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. See #1. Same. Exact. Problem.
  7. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I think I've tried this exact same thing before. Everybody loves this novel, and I love the ~theory~ of this novel, but couldn't make it past the first chapter the last 2 times I tried to read it.
  8. The Alchemist by Paul Coelho. I thought I had already read this until my niece blogged about it and then it didn't sound familiar at ALL and I wasn't sure I ~had~. So maybe this will be a quick recognition...
  9. My Fair Lazy: One Reality Television Addict's Attempt to Discover If Not Being a Dumb Ass Is the New Black or a Culture-up Manifesto by Jen Lancaster. I have a lot of guilt around liking uptight, right-wing Jen Lancaster. But...she's funny and sharp and - when she doesn't talk about politics - I like her. I haven't been able to wince my way through her latest book yet, but...maybe this is my motivation.
  10. Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin. I love UKLeG's writing, but this one has been on the bedside table for a while's my chance to reinvigorate my interest in this book. Supplanted by Room, by Emma Donoghue.
  11. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. I'm not sure if I'm kidding about this one. It's sat on my shelves for 100 years because the first chapter is about war and then...I never got to Chapter 2. Maybe this year...
  12. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Jamie loved it. I loved the first 80 or so pages, and then I put it down and then...I don't know what happened.
 What are YOU going to read?