‘Under the Dome’, Stephen King’s latest 1,000+ page tome, is like a jacked up, bloody-splattered, dystopic-apocalyptic version of ‘Everything I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten’. As appealing as that may sound, I don’t mean it as a compliment.
King writes like a broken water heater, alternately blazing hot and icy cold. His ‘Dark Tower’ septology was one of the most amazing pieces of contemporary literature I’ve read. Alternately, he can spit out the occasional piece of drivel like, and this is just off the tope of my head, ‘Desperation’. Although billed as the “master of horror” and many other similar titles, King’s greatest asset is, in fact, when he’s writing about people, about individuals, about nuanced beings. ‘Dark Tower’ was riveting because the characters were at once as refreshing and as murky as a lake; ‘Under the Dome’, however, lacks this nuanced approach and is written with all the grace of a manacled grizzly bear.
From the first moments of crisis (and even before), as a large, invisible dome is lowered over the city of Chester’s Mill, Maine, the cast of the novel clearly fall on the black-and-white sides of the moral line. The protagonists, primarily a guy named Barbie, are clear, although vague (do not mistake this for nuance, because it isn’t. Instead of giving depth, King instead withholds information to make us guess at characters motives. This isn’t as intriguing as it is maddening, for a better character is one whose history we know and whose motivations are still a mystery to us). And the villains, well, there’s no semblance of subtlety there. Big Jim Rennie, a used car dealer, is our diabolical antagonist, a megalomaniac on a small scale, who sees the dome as an opportunity to extend his stranglehold on the little town. Some of the best moments in the novel come when we are made to question to blindingly pure nature of the villain’s evil, in the case I’m thinking about, his son. Rennie Jr. is equally sinister, although his designs are less grandiose. Even before the dome falls, within the opening pages of the book, he brutally murders a girl and soon another one. For Rennie Jr., motives take a backseat to the pure, gut-twisting brutality that King has worked so had to include in this novel (more on that in a moment), yet the only time when his character is in any way intriguing is when, upon finding two orphans, he displays a moment of tenderness. But King moves quickly away from this fascinating moment, less interested in questions of morality than answers about it. As with the above-mentioned Kindergarten book, ‘Under the Dome’ suggests that we should play nice, share, and be kind to one another. A vapid, albeit noble, sentiment that on its own would hardly satisfy (even if the book were shorter) but, coupled with King’s obvious enjoyment in the story’s brutality, becomes a little harder to stomach.
I understand the “need” for the story’s violence. While I questioned it throughout, by the time I reached the book’s conclusion my questions regarding the necessity of its violence has been answered. Mostly. Since the book is about the dark side of humanity (not exactly a groundbreaking idea; King, in fact, has made a mainstay of this theme) the violence inflicted by certain townspeople upon others makes sense. It can be difficult—a woman’s dog is shot, a girl is brutally gang-raped, a man is bludgeoned to death with a baseball, and another woman has her spine snapped—but, ultimately, serves the novel’s purpose. However, the splatter (something else King is known for) begins long before these moral issues come into play.
As the dome descends a small airplane crashes, strewing the two passengers’ body parts on the ground. A woman, busy gardening, has her hand sliced off and bleeds to death. A car crashes into the dome, killing one passenger and wounding the other; the survivor clamors out, only to be picked up by some kindly motorists who then, you guessed it, smash into the dome again, killing two of three including the first survivor. A farmer on a tractor hits the dome at 15mph (and here, credulity is strained) and flies over the front, breaking his spine as he hits the dome. The body counts pile up and, as much as I could almost-but-not-quite convince myself that these serve a similar purpose to the other deaths, it is impossible to shake the feeling that King is writing these scenes with no small amount of glee. As the book whips back and forth between various gruesome scenes, I could not help but feel that King was a kid in a candy store, overwhelmed with possibilities, only to happy to gorge himself, giving no thought to the consequences.
Those consequences are largely that you care very little for what is going on. People are butchered so very quickly that it’s difficult to empathize and, moreover, some of their deaths are so improbable (in a ‘Lord of the Flies’ multiplied by 100 sort of way) that it’s impossible to accept and, instead of marveling at the darkness within our souls you are left wondering about the physics of a gunshot ricochet and the likeliness of a perfect bounce-back.
All this is merely to underscore the novel’s greatest weakness: you never care. The story itself is fairly compelling—important, since it’s over 1,060 pages long—and keeps you wondering throughout about the approaching dénouement. But there are no stakes. No questions. Death is tossed around so liberally that it ceases to disturb and, as a result, the characters hold little interest. Whoops, she’s dead. Whoops, he’s dead. Disappointing most is the knowledge that there’s a good story buried here and that King himself could have done better. It’s difficult to summarize my thoughts and feelings on such a long book in such a short space, but to say it simply: it was a disappointment, an intriguing concept wasted on a fairly-compelling story wasted on two-dimensional characters wasted on uncharacteristically poor prose.
That last remark about the prose is only meant to mean that King can write quite beautifully, even when the effect is meant to be stark, but in ‘Under the Dome’ he seemed instead to be writing hurriedly, pressed by some non-existent deadline to get to the end of the book. The writing lacked the flair of ‘The Dark Tower’, and even more egregiously, it lacked consistency. As a quick example before I leave you, I point to the young boy Joe McClatchey (probably spelled wrong, but that isn’t important). He was proclaimed by several other characters as well as the somewhat mutable narrative voice to be a genius, a child so preternaturally intelligent that he was just short of being a rocket scientist. Yet, all this said, he does not know that the plural of octopus isn’t “octopuses.” Similarly, his friend Benny is of a much less intelligent makeup, and yet after demonstrating his lack of knowledge concerning even the pronunciation of Al Qaeda and Lemmings, he goes on to quote Laurel and Hardy. This problem of consistency bled over into all the characters to some extent, but was particularly (and painfully) pronounced in the children.
Long story short (again), I expected much more from King, but am not surprised. Sometimes he strikes gold, other times not. ‘Under the Dome’ is, in the end, quite an easy read and, while I fall short of recommending it (there are many better things to read), if you’re ever trapped in the house on a rainy day with nothing else, you could definitely do worse that cracking it open.