Wednesday, 29 December 2010

REVIEW Under The Dome by Stephen King

"Big Jim was in the saddle now, and once guys like him were in it, they tended to ride hard. Sometimes until the horse collapsed beneath them."

Under The Dome is an extraordinary novel. Epic.

On The Beach; The Road; Z for Zacharia; Lake Wobegon Days; Dylan's Lily, Rosemary and The Jack of Hearts; First Blood; Escape from New York; King's own The Stand;  Blood Meridian; Cool Hand Luke; 1984; Animal Farm; All Quiet on the Western front; the stories of John Cheever; the siege of Leningrad; The Moon is DownThe Rise and Fall of the Third Reich ... All of this and more flitted across my memory as I read this giant book over two days. This is a novel that makes you think. Big style.

I'm a Stephen King fan, and have been since the 1980s. I lost him a bit in the late nineties, but came back into the fold about three years ago. Fooled yet again by reviews, distracted by other stuff, I missed a lot of his books - stuck out in a King-free wilderness, inside my own Dome. Genre fiction dips in and out of streetlights as you get older - sometimes, well, life is scary and weird enough. But I picked up Bag of Bones, re-read a few, caught up on the very recent ones - enjoyed Duma Key and Cell a lot. Hey, he doesn't count as genre fiction anyway! What was I thinking?! After this blast of research and recall I didn't subscribe at all to the idea his powers had waned - but would say I wasn't feeling it as much as I did the first read of Salem's Lot, or Christine, The Shining. No problems with that - if I wasn't as convinced as I was when I was 19 that he was an almighty juggernaut of a writer on a par with Hemingway or Hamsun, I still thought he was, well, basically brilliant. It was good to get re-acquainted.

Then this. Under The Dome. Honestly, this book is an all out stunner - possibly, in fact, one of the best books he has ever written. Possibly one of the most enjoyable books I have ever read by anyone. Under the Dome was even a Christmas present last year, and it had taken me a year to get round to reading it! Too big? Check. Sort of unconvinced by the basic premise? Check? Credit card bills to worry about? Check. Yes, lots of stuff got in the way. This Christmas comes around and I think, enough. Let's read this. Sometimes you just have to trust the guy who built The Overlook.

Even though there is now a sort of general literati acceptance of King ("The greatest popular novelist of our day" proclaims The Guardian on the dustjacket) it hasn't always been so, and I'm not sure whether I completely believe in lots of it still. In fact, I feel a bit ashamed for not sticking with King the whole journey the way I have done with, say, Bruce Springsteen - believe me, The Boss may be a bit of a darling now, but there were times when liking him was not cool, not cool at all. So I do get a sense of some of this Stephen King 'The Dickens of Our Time' stuff being, well, ever so slightly unsure of itself. You think, do some of the people who say this stuff know all his work - have they even read Pet Sematary and love it like I do - or are they just responding to the mega, mega sales figures? Sometimes you read things and they don't seem to be describing Stephen King - not the one you know, at any rate. A Stand by Me King, a Shawshank King, maybe - but the Arnie Cunningham King, the King that brought back the cat?

Then you read something like Under The Dome, and you think, get over yourself - whether they believe it or not doesn't matter, because what they are saying is true of itself, and it's absolutely necessary that something we've known all along is at last more widely declared. Sort of like Apple computers being the best, except without the steady rise in BS from the source itself.

Under the Dome is so huge in scale, yet so intricately put together, so overflowing with characters, yet so detailed and moving in the telling of their individual stories, that I'd like to think it will have some of the literary "establishment" slack-jawed in wonder. This man really can tell a story, he can marshal an army of characters and events and links in the telling of it, he can direct them like a General, and he has the ability to connect us deeply with his imaginary people - so deeply that sometimes the tears will stand in your eyes. Sure, he hasn't quite managed that so well in recent books, but bloody hell, he does it with this one. And then some. It is a thing of awe really, how well all this is put together.

That basic premise, I mentioned? A small town in Maine is inexplicably enclosed within an invisible but virtually impermeable dome of unknown construction - tens of thousands of feet high, and similarly deep. After the initial chaos and destruction wreaked on fast moving traffic on the land and in the air, the town settles into a siege like mentality - while the forces of US Army and Intelligence muster on the other side of the structure to figure it all out, and try increasingly desperate methods of breaching the dome. Meanwhile, encased from the outside world, the inside turns rotten. Under the despotic rule of Second Selectman, Big Jim Rennie, the little town of Chester's Mill is plunged into a darkness of mayhem and corruption. Only a small band of revolutionaries, led by an initially unlikely spokesman, are left to try to fight back as the town descends the abyss, while the atmosphere in the dome heats up, heats up and heats up ...

As the despair and depravity takes hold, you start to realise that what is causing the Dome is not so important as your initial concerns about the premise might have suggested. It still isn't, for me, even now that the book is finished. Because, somehow, I think that would be missing the point. The Dome is just taken for granted, disbelief suspended, within pages. It just is. Its invisibility - at least until the atmosphere gets bad - is hugely important. Stephen King understands small towns - he really, really does. He knows that to a large degree they live under a dome, in a bubble, behind walls - anyway. The arrival of an actual barrier only brings out more fully what was there all along - allows the egomania of Rennie to become something much, much worse, for example, allows the good and even the not so good people to take huge brave steps into greatness. We are all under the Dome, under the microscope.

King understands the microcosmic nature of small towns, their almost sociopathological "separateness" from the outside world, while loving the ability of some of their inhabitants to rise miles above it. He gives small town politics a kicking where it needs it - and from here to breakfast time at that - and it is something to rejoice. There he is like Dickens, definitely, championing as best he can the outsider and the downtrodden, lampooning and despising the bloated and buffoonish - or in Rennie's case, the all out abominable. If the Dome was suddenly to disappear, would it stop? Would he stop? What would make it stop, this clawing for power? Who makes the difference?

The same heroes perhaps that you root for all through the final third of this amazing book, as they make do and mend with what they have to run a hospital, as they fight to the last in the face of brutality and horror, as they flee to the hills as the final battle rages below them? As they make sacrifices? I think so. How many characters are there, how many do we know, how many do we grieve for as this massive book rolls on? Too many to count, half a town's worth probably. The sheer skill in the storytelling is that it all hangs together, that even in cameos and vignettes, King creates more genuine insight, more emotion than seems possible to imagine many writers managing to achieve to this scale. The ordinariness of the sorrow is sometimes the most unbearable, because it is the most believable. Real people die here, all the time. All day long. The reader's desire for these people to succeed, to stay alive, drives the page-turning like an addiction.

Under The Dome is now one of my favourite Stephen King books - ever. I loved it.