Stephen King’s Under the Dome
Until Under the Dome, I’d only read two of Stephen King’s books, The Green Mile and On Writing, and I enjoyed both of them. Under the Dome doesn’t make me want to rush out and devour all of King’s umpteen other books, but I am glad I picked it up (“hefted it” is more apt: it’s a very impressive tome).
Adam Whitley first mentioned it to me, and he felt the story (a mysterious transparent and mostly impermeable dome comes down over a town in Maine; hilarity ensues) was incredibly timely. Ted Anthony, of the AP, agrees. He says, “Under the Dome is one of those works of fiction that manages to be both pulp and high art, that successfully — and very improbably — captures the national zeitgeist at this particularly strange and breathless period in American history.” I think he captures the feel of the novel really well in labeling it both pulp and high art. It’s most definitely pulp; it’s a thriller, and it thrills. But it’s also, as he points out, a microcosm of America circa 2009, “with all the angst and post-9/11 fear and suspicion of fellow citizens that pervades the entire republic. Add to that the notion of an entire society being watched and watching itself through a translucent bubble — a reality-TV metaphor if there ever was one — and you have novel as cultural document.”
I liked that the story wasn’t really about the dome at all; it was about what was happening underneath the dome to the people of Chester’s Mill. The provenance of the dome is actually really stupid, and the way they get rid of it is beyond ridiculous, but I suppose it’s a testament to King that you really don’t even care at that point. The human drama is what holds the attention, not the supernatural one. As Janet Maslin says in her New York Times review:
All of this — along with the smog that starts to choke off Chester’s Mill and make the Dome as visible as a dirty windshield — is a way of blowing smoke. It gets Mr. King through nearly 1,100 fast-moving pages without his having to answer the obvious questions: what is this thing? How did it get here? Why did it get here? What if it doesn’t go away? “Under the Dome” can’t avoid these thoughts forever. But it can postpone them with an ease that is one more measure of its author’s having placed more value on humanity than on horror.
James Parker’s New York Times review was less complimentary (Why did they run two reviews of the same book? I have no idea.). I agree with him on certain points, like the nuts and bolts of King’s prose style (though he admits, “We shouldn’t be too squeamish about the odd half-baked simile or lapse into B-movie dialogue.”), but how much can you trust a guy who begins a review with a sentence like this: “Now that the town halls have blazed with vituperation, and fantastical patriots are girding themselves for fascist/socialist lockdown, Americans of a certain vintage must be feeling a familiar circumambient thrill.” Sure, James. Whatever.
It seems everything I’ve been reading lately has been compared at some point to Lord of the Flies (except for my brief foray into Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which I read last week), and Under the Dome is no exception. It’s all about what happens to men and women when there is no authority to hold their actions in check. Horrifying to contemplate. C. and I have been discussing the Fourth Amendment a lot lately, and though I take issue with some Supreme Court interpretations, I am infinitely grateful for its protection and I understand why the protection is necessary. I’m not often proud to be an American, but the Fourth Amendment is something to be proud of.
I suppose the reason I have trouble with it is that I am simply unable to imagine a society that’s not governed by the rule of law. Where, as in Under the Dome, LEOs can physically abuse you and laugh about it, where the elected representatives incite riots and burn buildings and murder people. Stories of anarchy drive home the truth of the Ender’s Game quote that resonated so much with C. “The power to cause pain is the only power that matters, the power to kill and destroy, because if you can’t kill then you are always subject to those who can, and nothing and no one will ever save you.”
Or this one, from 1984:
Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain.
Be cautious, brothers and sisters. It’s a perilous world.