Under the Dome by Stephen King
Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum
02 August 2010
There was a time in my life when Stephen King was synonymous with a pleasurable, engrossing read, except that I didn't read his books, I inhaled them. Many of my memories of staying up well past my bedtime just to get to the end of one more chapter involve one of his brick-like novels. It's been a long time since I took that kind of pure pleasure from his work, however, and it's a bit of a toss-up which one of us is more to blame for that fact. I've grown up, of course. My tastes have broadened and matured (and I no longer have the time or energy to stay up reading until the small hours of the morning). But King has also grown older and a little set in his ways. The former master of horror is no longer quite as sharp an evoker of place and character as he once was. His novels ramble a little more than they should, hammer in their points a little more firmly than they used to.
You can certainly sense the perception that King is past his prime in the marketing of his latest behemoth, the 900-page Under the Dome, which vociferously argues that the novel represents a return to form (or, more accurately, that it represents the marriage of King's youthful inventiveness—the idea for the novel was apparently hatched several decades ago—with the maturity of his late career) and compares it to King's best-known epic, The Stand (1978, revised and expanded 1990). Beyond the marketer's desire to sell, sell, sell, there is some merit to this comparison. Both novels are, nominally, science fiction (though that mainly means that their premise is science-fictional rather than supernatural—ultimately, King's treatment of both is horrific) and both focus on people who have to build a working and self-sufficient society from the ground up. In The Stand that's because civilization has been destroyed by a pandemic, in Under the Dome because the characters are completely cut off from the outside world. But the King novel that Under the Dome most closely resembles—to the extent of seeming almost like a more cynical reworking of the same story—is Needful Things (1991), which like Under the Dome is the story of how a small, allegedly friendly and close-knit community implodes under the weight of its members' selfishness, greed, and short-sightedness.
The community this time around is Chester's Mill, another one of King's fictional Maine towns, which he plops down right between Castle Rock (where the events of Needful Things occurred) and the unincorporated township TR-90 (the setting of 1998's Bag of Bones). On a beautiful day in early October Chester's Mill is enclosed by an invisible and near-impermeable barrier, which despite the moniker dome actually follows the town's boundaries precisely, trapping its 2000 residents. Some of the best passages in Under the Dome are the ones that describe the effects of the dome as it materializes, rudely disrupting so many ordinary lives—from a chipmunk cruelly cut in half to various accidents as cars, tractors, and even a light plane collide with the barrier—but King's interest is less in the dome than in what happens after it descends. Chester's Mill, he quickly establishes, is not a bad place to live, but it suffers from the typical maladies of communities too small and insignificant to be of much interest to the greater powers outside of them, and too self-satisfied to seek those powers' interference when their running goes awry. It is largely under the thumb of James "Big Jim" Rennie, a used car salesman and local politician with his nose in every public committee and his gavel banging loudly at every town meeting. And if before the dome drops Rennie's influence comes to no more than slashing the budget for the library or for emergency services, under the dome, with Chester's Mill a world unto itself, Rennie quickly sets about creating his own fiefdom.
For most of Under the Dome's length Rennie, and the reactions of other residents to him, are the focus of the novel, which seems to come most vividly to life when it crawls into his unpleasant, self-aggrandizing, slightly hysterical head. It's a shame, therefore, that he is such a broad, caricatured villain. One doesn't, of course, read Stephen King novels for delicate and nuanced characterization, especially not of their villains, but King's portrait of Rennie isn't simply that of a bad person who sells out their community for money and power. Instead, Rennie is a stand-in for what's wrong with America: a bigot (when the town receives a missive from the President Rennie notes that it has been signed with his full name, "including the terrorist one in the middle" [p. 223]), a man who proclaims his piety in order to use it as a cudgel against those who disagree with him, a Republican who extols small government so that he can cement his power unimpeded. King lays on Rennie's faults with a trowel and misses no opportunity to make him into a liberal's nightmare version of conservatism in power, whether it's the aforementioned bigotry coupled with porn featuring black women in his secret cache (as usual in a King novel, sexual kinks and fetishes are exclusively the purview, and sometimes an indicator, of evil; good people, presumably, like it vanilla), or his oft-repeated statement that the dead (and boy, do they ever start piling up) are eating roast beef and mashed potatoes with Jesus, or his effortless manipulation of the townspeople's prejudices and their fear of those who are different. King's son, Joe Hill, took a similar approach to the construction of his villain in his most recent novel, Horns, and like that villain Rennie eventually gives off the impression of having been constructed from a checklist of everything that King expects his readers to hate most, exaggerated to a cartoonish degree. Long before he starts bashing people's heads in with his desk toys, Rennie is such a grotesque that he warps the fabric of the novel, and when his opponents compare him, in all seriousness, to Hitler, it's hard not to want to reach through the pages, grab King by the shoulders, and tell him to get a grip, and also a big dose of perspective.
Rennie's prominence, and King's preoccupation with him and with the town's willingness to cede control to him, are particularly unfortunate because those parts of Under the Dome that don't concern him are exceptionally creepy. As the dome falls the population of Chester's Mill has an acceptable distribution of intelligent, competent, level-headed citizens in positions of power, but every time they come close to wresting control away from Rennie something, either bad luck or his machinations, stops them in their tracks. Police Chief Howard Perkins is set up in the novel's early pages as Rennie's opposite number, a devoted civil servant who sees the car salesman for what he is and has worked hard to curb his influence on the town, but he dies shortly into the story. So does the town's only doctor, leaving its medical services strained and insufficient. When Perkins's wife Brenda discovers evidence that he was helping to build a case against Rennie for embezzlement and drug dealing, she seems on the verge of exposing him, but chooses to confront him first and is killed for her troubles. There follows a game of find the evidence, which is very nearly discovered several times, then discovered and nearly brought to public knowledge several times. Each time King gestures at the possibility that life will return to something like its regular rhythms, that sanity and civility will triumph as soon as Jim Rennie is defeated, and each time he snatches the rug out from under his characters.
It is also in these chapters that King produces some extremely well done set pieces, zooming out of a single character's head and giving us a panoramic view of the town as its inhabitants grow accustomed to their changed circumstances and sink into fear and despair, or a detailed, moment-by-moment replay of those moments in which the town's situation slides from bad to worse—a food riot, the burning of the local newspaper, a shooting at a town meeting, a visiting day arranged by civil authorities outside the dome, which Rennie deliberately mis-organizes in order to keep his people dispirited. It's in these passages, when Rennie's presence is allowed to fade into the background, that Under the Dome's true theme is allowed to shine through. This isn't a novel about red state America or the Tea Party. It's a more universal story about the human capacity for cruelty and for pleasure in the suffering of others, a capacity displayed by good and bad characters alike. If anything, Rennie's presence serves to obscure and water down this theme by blaming the evil that afflicts Chester's Mill on a single man, a few sadists who flock to him, and several more whose weakness or avarice make them his willing tools, instead of facing up to the more chilling possibility (which the novel in fact gestures at) that we all have it in us to enjoy abusing our power over others.
If Under the Dome were only 800 pages long, or if its final hundred pages carried on telling the same kind of story as the ones preceding them, about a community's collapse into anarchy and violence, I could sum it up with the combination of praise and complaints I've listed above, as a variable work that mixes powerful and affecting passages with cartoonish, plainly manipulative ones. But around the 800 page mark something happens—an event teased and threatened in the preceding chapters but whose full horror doesn't become obvious until the very last minute—that so completely alters Under the Dome's focus as to make it seem like an entirely different novel. It is impossible not to wonder what kind of novel Under the Dome would have been if instead of relating the collapse of Chester's Mill with such obsessive detail King had provided a more minimalistic build-up to the final catastrophe to befall the town, and dedicated the bulk of the novel to its aftermath as he does in the novel's final hundred pages. It would have been a better novel, to be certain, because these chapters are some of the finest and most horrifying writing that King has produced in years, as the townspeople face their deaths from a menace they can't outrun. In the novel as it's been released, however, they have an unbalancing effect. It's hard not to see the preceding 800 pages, and particularly their focus on Rennie, as overemphasizing what should by rights have been mere setup. Rennie is responsible for Chester's Mill's ultimate, gruesome fate, but the parts of Under the Dome that are truly affecting are not the ones that show us this responsibility but the ones that describe that fate. In the end, it doesn't matter that the town fell to Rennie's pernicious influence. The townspeople could have been their very best and still it's likely that they would have met the same end as a result of his avarice.
"My heart is broken," Polly Chalmers says to her lover at the end of Needful Things as they drive away from Castle Rock, which has been destroyed by its citizens' worst impulses—a destruction to which she has contributed. Under the Dome is, if anything, a more brutal version of that story in that it doesn't even offer us the consolation of that final, dramatic statement. The novel lasts almost exactly the amount of time that the dome lies over Chester's Mill, and its few surviving characters barely have the time to process the fact of their own survival, much less turn it into a moral or a life lesson, before the final page arrives. This sudden ending, and the harrowing hundred pages that precede it, are a hint of the novel Under the Dome might have been were it less bloated, less in love with showing off the grotesqueness of its villain—a short, brutal work about cruelty and its attractions. It might have been one of King's best novels. Instead, it contains that novel. Which may mean that King still has an excellent book in him, or that he's permanently lost his touch. I suppose that the latent King fan in me will keep reading to find out.