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.

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