Thursday, December 3, 2009

[Book Review] Under the Dome

A book by Stephen King

Stephen King is known as a “master of the macabre,” so it should be no surprise that his latest novel is a monster. I don’t mean that it’s about evil creatures, I mean that it’s FREAKING HUGE! It’s been a while since I’ve read a hardcover novel that was over 1000 pages – I think George R.R. Martin and perhaps Robert Jordan each had a novel this big, and before that would have been my copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, but that’s about it. Still, contrary to my usual procedure with regard to very heavy things, I could NOT seem to put this book down. In Under the Dome, King tells a cautionary tale of humanity at its best and worst that grabs you and won’t let go. Its' often very short chapters seem to whir by like individual frames of a motion picture film reel. I’m probably not what most would consider a “King fan” as I’ve only read a handful of his works, but I definitely liked this one.

Under the Dome is a story about a very small Maine town that, one ordinary Saturday in October, suddenly finds itself completely encased in an otherworldly fish tank that exactly matches the borders of the town. The invisible barrier isolates the town completely. Though the attention of the world focuses upon them from outside, it can’t touch them, can’t affect them in any meaningful way, and so it becomes irrelevant. All that matters are the 2,000 or so people inside and their goals, their values, their desires and, ultimately, their deepest secrets.

Under the Dome examines well-worn themes from the perspective of organisms in a petri dish – wriggling around, going about their own lives, but always observed. In this case, we, the reader, are an observer as people commit horrible crimes from which they are physically unable to escape. We watch as people justify their evil to themselves as being for the good of the community or, worse, necessary because of the “current crisis.” There’s factionalization, as people begin to divide up behind different leaders, and every sort of tyranny from police brutality to state-sponsored terrorism, all occurring very believably in a rural northeastern town in the good old US of A. As you'd expect, there's some heroism and principled behaviour as well, but sadly only about as much as you'd get from real human beings - and much less than you'd hope.

Two of King’s strengths show through in this story. The first is his ability to create impressive numbers of very real-seeming characters who behave like people we might actually know. And even when we’ve never met anyone who approximates a particular character, we imagine that we very well could have, because they’re fleshed out in such a way that they seem very real. There are dozens of key characters in this novel, and I won’t pretend that I often had to stop and think, “Who’s Andy again? Have I seen Sam before? Who’s this gal?” There’s an abridged Dramatis Personae in the front that’s a big help, and I referred to it through probably the first half of the book or more. Part of that’s just my crappy memory – you may wrap your mind around the characters more quickly than that.

King’s other ability is to weave those characters into and through each others’ stories in ways that introduce incredible amounts of stress and conflict into their lives. Both the weaving and the conflict are important. As you’d expect in a small New England town encased in an invisible wall, the characters are constantly treading through each other’s storylines, for better or worse, adding complexity and tension to the tale in very positive ways. From the reader’s perspective anyway – some of the characters could surely have done with less tension.

I started this book over the Thanksgiving holiday and finished it by Monday night. There’s no question that I’ve never plunged through 1000 pages with such vigor, such ravenous need to know what’s next, as I did with this book. I’d love to examine more of it in detail, but there’s very little I can think to say about it that wouldn’t spoil major parts of the book for you. And if you’re going to read a book this big (and this good), you ought to get to come at it fresh, in my opinion. I don’t know if I’d say that Under the Dome is one of the best books I’ve ever read – there are story concepts and characters in other books that engage me more directly and more strongly than those of this book. The characters were, by and large, just ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, after all. By design. But I can’t think of too many books that entertained me the way this one did, so if you’re looking for a book to take hold of your attention and not let go until the ride is over – sort of the fiction equivalent to a really amazing amusement park ride, I suppose – then this book will do the trick. I think if one were to take this book on a plane, for instance, it would be the best way to make the flight seem so brief that you’ll barely notice it at all. I was delighted by Under the Dome and enjoyed it very much. I rate it a very solid A and recommend it highly.

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