Is Stephen King trying to write a political allegory? That was the question I kept asking myself as I slogged through the nearly 1,100 pages of Under The Dome, his latest novel. Though he says he first tried to write this story in 1976, the finished version is very much a product of 2009. Many of the characters (especially the bad ones) embrace a particularly vacuous version of evangelical Christianity, the drug of choice is crystal meth, cell phones and the internet are front-and-center, and Bush, Cheney, Palin, and Obama get shout-outs by name.
The protagonist (Dale Barbara) is an Iraq war veteran who witnessed prisoner abuse, the antagonist (Jim Rennie) is a fan of a particularly vicious women's high school basketball player (shades of "Sarah Barracuda"? and the nonsense aspect of that nickname and the person who embodies it is reflected in the muddled, religious platitude-laden, emotion-driven way of reasoning embodied by Rennie and his weak-minded followers), "terrorists" are mentioned repeatedly, and at one point someone is threatened with waterboarding.
As with many King books, the premise here is simple and not particularly original: what happens when a small Maine town is covered by a mysterious clear dome, trapping the inhabitants and separating them from the outside world? I believe this same premise constituted the plot of an episode of The Simpsons (though this isn't a reason to knock it - and I have multiple reasons of my own for saying that). Inside the dome, how will people balance their rights with the need for safety against (perceived) threats? Will Rennie successfully convince the inhabitants of Chester's Mill to give him unbridled power so he can "protect" them? That the dome is clear means that the media can surround it and broadcast some of what goes on inside to people around America and around the world. No real spoiler here, but as the final conflagration approaches, it is easy to see shades of September 11.
Does the allegory work? I suppose, though I'm not really sure it adds anything that we haven't seen or heard elsewhere, and with no distance between the story and today, there's no particular wisdom or insight that comes from looking at the microcosm of society under the dome.
Of course, people don't look to King for societal insight. What I, as a Stephen King fan, look for in his books is the way he can take a simple premise and fill in the details, develop the characters, and expose the nuances of the horror behind any such situation. I'd been looking forward to reading Under The Dome for a while, and deliberately saved it for Christmas week as a treat for myself. And yet I found myself disappointed - not for any one reason. This book just suffers from death by a thousand cuts:
There are too many characters, and some aren't drawn sharply enough. One of King's great abilities, and the reason I think more "literary" types underestimate him, is that he can - with a few sentences - create unforgettable characters. And yet, even most of the way through this book, I sometimes had to jog my memory about who a particular character was. That he includes a list of characters at the beginning seems an implicit acknowledgement of this weakness.
Point-of-view is variable, including several scenes in present tense (the rest of the book is in past tense), a couple of scenes told by an omniscient narrator interacting directly with the reader, and (this is where it sort of "jumped the shark" for me) one or two scenes told from the perspective of a dog (including a puzzling "deadvoice" not explained or referenced anywhere else in the plot giving the dog instructions).
Some of the dialogue seems pointless, hackneyed. The scenes with the three teenaged kids (Joe, Benny, and Norrie) are often cringe-inducing.
This thing seriously could have used an editor. In some places it almost loses momentum because there is simply too much. I found myself thinking: "Oh, just get on with it already!"
In a couple of ways, the plot stretched credulity a little too much. It seems unbelievable to me that U.S. government civilian officials barely make an appearance in this whole book (who represents Chester's Mill in Congress? what about Sens. Snowe and Collins?), and seemed extremely reluctant to reach out to the town leaders. I'd imagine in a real life situation like this there would be almost constant communication.
The conspiracy to take back the town from the antagonist is basically the bulk of the plot. But no one ever considers, even for a second, just trying to assassinate the guy. It seems as though it would have been easy.
Several spoilers follow:
It strains believability that the tiny little town on which the dome descends just happens to house the world's biggest meth lab, all run by a small handful of locals.
Finally, and I really do take King to task for this one, he anthropomorphizes the aliens responsible for creating the dome and their motivations. Having done such a good job creating alien life forms that were truly alien in previous books (notably From A Buick 8), this is perhaps the biggest failure and disappointment of the book - it makes the reason for the whole situation coming to be in the first place incredibly thin. This extraterrestrial thread runs through a number of his books. We know King has read Lovecraft, and we know that the one thing that makes Lovecraft work (to the extent we could say Lovecraft "works", and I know that's arguable) is that he makes his aliens alien. Drop that aspect and we've moved from Cthulhu to Communion, and that is quite sad. King seems to have forgotten that here.
Would I recommend the book? If you're a King fan, yes. I feel like I've taken a hatchet to it here, but it wasn't that bad. I still plowed through it in well under a week. It still had its strong moments. I just don't think it is his best work, and certainly not on par with From A Buick 8, The Stand, Lisey's Story, and a lot of his earlier work.
I was expecting more.