Under the Dome Stephen King. Scribner, $35.00, 1,074pp.
The last time Stephen King published a brand new, thousand-page horror novel was 1986, when he was twelve years and already twenty books into his career. Everything he’d touched to that point had turned into mountains of cash, whether short novels (Carrie), big ones (The Stand), story collections (Skeleton Crew), novellas (Different Seasons), works pseudonymous (The Bachman Books) and collaborative (The Talisman, with Peter Straub), or even nonfiction and screenplays (Danse Macabre and Creepshow, respectively). Accordingly, the first edition of It looks like the product of a man who has conquered the world in the mid-’80s. In hardcover, It has a spine so wide that distracted passersby might confuse it for a box of smaller books. Pull its wrist-weakening 1,138 pages off the shelf and you’ll see the black-and-white author’s photo that dominates the entire back jacket cover: King, grinning to himself under what appears to be stage lighting, strumming an acoustic guitar. It’s a picture of a man who claims to be a novelist but knows he is a rock star. And with good reason; Viking printed a million-copy first run of It, and like most of his previous work, it outsold every other American book that year and was quickly optioned for a TV miniseries.
If nothing else, King remains an endearing leftover from that relatively luxurious era of publishing, the now-rare author whose every work is packaged both as high-grade shelf candy and later as airport-rack throwaway. His most recent novel, Under the Dome, is a great shoebox-sized brick of text, though it looks scarcely larger than the typical contemporary King novel. Even some of his more revered older ones, like ‘Salem’s Lot and The Shining, have been repackaged in deluxe editions, retrofitted with illustrations and gold leaf more appropriate to Moby-Dick or Leaves of Grass. His 2003 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, awarded by the National Book Association, was expectedly decried by the likes of Harold Bloom, though it was only one of many reputable accolades that King has amassed in recent years, including a 1996 O. Henry award and his 2007 citation as a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. He’s also now an occasional contributor of short fiction to The New Yorker and the editor of the 2007 Best American Short Stories, not to mention a ubiquitous influence on younger novelists like Junot Diaz, J. Robert Lennon, Colson Whitehead, and Michael Chabon.
He used to be an underrated genre practitioner, but King now suffers from a surplus of critical and cultural reverence. Neither reputation suits his work, which is dependably entertaining and, with few exceptions, literarily unremarkable. I came to appreciate his novels as I wrote my undergraduate English thesis; in search of something to burn off my late-night caffeine highs, I pulled a beat-to-shit Signet paperback copy of The Stand off the shelf at the used bookstore where I worked twice a week. I was only looking for something anathema to literary theory, but ended up enjoying the book’s grisly, post-apocalyptic hellscape more than I anticipated—so much so, in fact, that I kept on reading him after graduation, still half-convinced that I was consciously slumming it, resting my reader’s batteries before picking up something worthwhile. And yet there I was, a month later, reading The Shining at the beach, bringing It on the train as I traveled toward my first job, buying a copy of Pet Sematary while visiting my sister in Ohio. And after 3,500 pages of killer clowns and zombie cats I finally grew tired of the addictively unsubtle style, but that rapid-fire introduction to King’s soulful hackwork had its effect; that time spent with his muscular, awkward prose scrubbed the last remaining bits of English-major from under my fingernails, and made me seek out science fiction, classic noir, history, even travel and nature writing. I had had enough King for one summer, but I had also grown, as a reader, to appreciate stylistic immediacy for its own sake.
Under the Dome, speaking of immediacy, bears the taunting date stamp “November 22, 2007 – March 14, 2009″ on its final, 1,072nd page, a bit of improbable braggadocio that chases down the accusation “He’s a typist, not a writer” and stuffs it in a locker. Lest we not get the point, one of the novel’s many minor characters is a sniveling, pampered English professor whose repeated mantra, “I edited the most recent issue of Ploughshares!” sounds like the feyest sentence imaginable in the context of King’s trademark slang- and brand-inflected dialogue.
The professor in question is Thurston Marshall, who has brought a buxom graduate assistant up to Chester’s Mill, Maine, for a relaxing weekend of pot and sex at his old cabin. They become two of several hundred captives inside an invisible forcefield that mysteriously takes shape around the town in an instant. The Dome’s physical properties become clear only gradually: sprayed with water from outside, it releases a faint mist to the captives; it gives out a tiny electrical shock and explodes pacemakers that come too close; and when the U.S. Army eventually bombs it, the rockets bounce off like ping-pong balls, leaving gigantic industrial smudges hanging in the sky.
Like so many of King’s grandly evil creations, the Dome is introduced with great flourish, in an opening series of sketches where it slices through a plane in midair, cuts a woman’s hand off as she gardens, decapitates a woodchuck, and presents a fatal unseen obstacle to birds and cars. The sequence displays King’s gifts for visceral description and collective anxiety, and the first chapter, written in 1974, back before he abandoned that initial attempt at this story, is also quite whimsical, a quality of King’s work that’s not acknowledged enough. The glee with which he trots out these violent miniatures—spousal terror, spurting blood, limbs raining from the sky—is infectious and engrossing. One rarely remembers the specific language that King employs to convey his terrors (unlike, say, DeLillo’s indelible “airborne toxic event,” or Poe’s “Nevermore”), but he’s nevertheless able to instill a nearly physical sensation with words, so that one may remember the experience of reading them, even when the word choices seem perfunctory.
Gruesome Comfort Food
Alas, 1,072 pages is a lot of paper to fill with perfunctory language, and Dome starts to feel repetitive and compositionally malnourished well before the halfway mark. In their marketing and press materials, Scribner take pains to compare this novel to the behemoths, mainly The Stand, that King’s hardest-core fans typically adore most. And admittedly, I volunteered to review this one because I share that adoration; while not quite the Constant Reader that King addresses in his ever-present afterwords and prefaces, I’ve read enough of him to know that I prefer him super-sized. Not only do It and The Stand (just shy of 1,200 pages in the 1990 “Complete & Uncut” version) contain some of King’s most fully convincing heroes and villains, but in their very loose baggy monstrousness they actually play to his greatest strengths as a writer. Despite a professed affinity for James M. Cain, King is the odd pulp writer with a horrible sense of pacing; he can be brilliant in individual scenes, but his relatively trim books, the ones you’d expect to fly by in a tense blur, too often backfire and stall, whether from a preponderance of sentimental romance or his redundant and expository treatment of his protagonists’ internal struggles.
With their dozen-odd central characters and multi-tiered narrative structures, The Stand and It are fueled more by the author’s imaginative momentum than by any real intrinsic page-turning quality, and when King’s imagination is running at full tilt, he’s a peerless creator of images and tensions. In the former, a plague wipes out over 99% of humanity, leading to a religious war among the survivors who gather variously behind a saintly black woman named Mother Abigail and a satanic figure named Randall Flagg. It, while envisioned on a slightly smaller scale, is structured more ingeniously; a group of friends discover that the demon who terrorized them in 1958 has returned in 1985, and King alternates between those years in successive sections, so that by the time the climactic present-day showdown occurs, we’ve only just understood the extent of these characters’ fear and their enemy’s power. Each novel is essentially a series of set pieces, which is just as well, since King is at his best when unfolding an eerie scene over the course of 10 or 20 pages; he spend most of his two major doorstops subjecting his far-flung casts to one individual encounter after another with shape-shifting villains and, occasionally, more realistic terrors like a group of school bullies or a Holland Tunnel filled with corpses. In both cases, a legitimately epic good-vs.-evil plot advances tectonically below the carnage, but the narrative momentum is built on the promise of the individual stories’ eventual convergence, not, as in Cain, on their own innate advancing suspense.
So the litany of gruesome happenings that King unfolds at the beginning of Under the Dome has a comfort-food familiarity. The storytelling is purely imagistic, a collection of rapidly accumulating detail and jarringly rent-apart comforts. But something is also amiss, even in these haiku-quick early sections. The prose is too breezy, the tone too light—most egregiously when the woodchuck’s death is narrated from his own point of view—to hit the perfect King level of mounting dread:
Barbie ran in what felt like slow motion. He saw one of his own feet, clad in an old scuffed workboot, stride out and clop down. Then it disappeared behind him as his other foot strode out. All slow, slow. Like watching the baseball replay of a guy trying to steal second.
It’s not just the clunky, workmanlike prose, which any King fan has learned to accept—it’s the lack of intensity, the way ineffectual verbs like “stride” and “clad” and “clop” are unfairly expected to convey the hyper-awareness of a man running from a fiery explosion. It’s the way that King’s intentional repetition—”All slow, slow”—feels more suited to a bourbon on the porch than a character’s near-death. It’s that painful last sentence, an obvious simile made even more inert by unnecessary words (“baseball”), dispassionate gesturing (“a guy”), and language that would better serve the writer’s cause if reexamined for even a moment: why wouldn’t a consummate baseball fan like King at least say “steal third,” which would summon more danger and risk?
Stephen King writes books that lock you in a sweaty bear hug. His ideas are reliably fun, even inspired, and his eager, unpretentious style is, at best, a kind of means to an end; you learn to forgive the gee-shucks dialogue and the ubiquitous rape and scatology, since it’s all held together by incredible authorial conviction, a sense that the writing is so slapdash because King can barely bring himself to pause as he churns out a new reamful of ideas. In effect, you open up a Stephen King book to see how much of a damn he decided to give this time around—to see how complacent he decided to be with his talents. Since his very first book, King’s method has been to borrow certain emblems of 20th-century American folk culture (small towns, state fairs, suburban alcoholism, proms, junk food, TV shows) and use them to remold the horror genre into something relatable, even populist. Indeed, in cases like Carrie or Cujo, his images have infiltrated our very language as metonyms for entire character types. But that populist streak gives his writing an omnipresent defensive quality, resulting in quips like this, from the embarrassing afterword to Different Seasons (1982):
Most of [my books] have been plain fiction for plain folks, the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries from McDonald’s. . . . Subtract elegance from the novelist’s craft and one finds himself left with only one strong leg to stand on, and that leg is good weight. As a result, I’ve tried as hard as I can, always, to give good weight.
Even in his best writing, King espouses the wisdom of “plain folks” to the point of obnoxiousness, and takes mean-spirited satirical aim at any character, like the professor Marshall, who dares claim class- or education-based exceptionalism. And the reason King’s mediocre books, like Under the Dome, are so disappointing isn’t just that they’re written poorly; it’s that the poor writing itself reveals the limits of this down-home persona. It’d be easier to accept King’s anti-intellectual pose if it didn’t often seem like that pose is just an excuse to not edit himself, to let his books be published with obvious typos and line-break errors, and to write characters, like the cartoonish Marshall, that blur the difference between authenticity and cardboard. After all, this is just a Big Mac we’re talking about, not something pretentious you might study in school. And who are you to think you’re better than McDonald’s?
The Uses of Stephen King
His books’ varying quality aside, however, the most bewildering thing about Stephen King’s work is the imperfect balance he strikes between earnest socio-literary ambition and utter commercial shamelessness—and these two shortcomings are undeniably related, as Under the Dome’s specific failures make clear. By his own admission and self-conception, he writes political books, and takes a generally left-leaning stance on the issues he raises, in his work and elsewhere. When interviewed by Salon on the thirtieth anniversary of The Stand’s original publication, he gladly accepted the sentiment that it is a political work. “I’ve always been a political novelist,” he claimed, before glossing the reasons for his popularity:
Some of it is chronological accident. I’m a baby boomer, and I’m an old baby boomer. I was born in 1947. You can’t say I’m the oldest of the old, but I’m close to it. I was the first in that generation to become a best-selling writer in my own right, so I was the guy, the first guy, I think, I can’t think of anyone else, to become a bestseller and join people from the old guard like Irwin Shaw, James Michener and Herman Wouk. I was the guy who wrote best-selling books who had also marched in demonstrations against the war in Vietnam.
This is a charmingly direct self-assessment, but King’s professed political motivations belie the toothless treatment he affords politics in his novels, and the zeal with which he embraces the same corporate interests that he decries in his work. Under the Dome, in which Chester’s Mill Second Selectman Jim Rennie takes control of the town during a crisis and proceeds to run it like a murderous dictator, is as politically minded as any King book; in its speculative and nearly allegorical conceit, this could accurately be called his 1984. Set in the present moment, with a CNN-led 24-hour news cycle that serves as both the trapped residents’ greatest annoyance and their sole lifeline to the outside world, Dome’s military-industrial trappings and its hero’s prior experience in Iraq are, at first, the stuff of politically conscious pop art. But the plot grows progressively inane just as the characters grow progressively unrecognizable; the initial breadcrumbs of thematic significance give way to a story that just lumbers along, divorced from any social sentiment other than skepticism towards the government and those monsters (e.g. Wal-Mart) who would pave over the character of America’s small towns. Rennie is revealed at one point to have wanted to build a Wal-Mart out on a major highway near Chester’s Mill. It’s a throwaway crumb of back story from another character’s dialogue, and one of many shorthanded ways in which King characterizes Rennie as an irredeemably corrupt, soulless enemy of small-town virtue. It wouldn’t even be worth mentioning were it not for the fact that King was apparently able to muzzle his disgust long enough to sign a few hundred copies at a Baltimore Wal-Mart on his subsequent book tour.
In a way, of course, this is only appropriate; King’s characters have always been surrounded by brands, have always watched network TV and shopped at big-box stores. But he also asks readers to root against any affront, like big companies or manipulative politicians, to precious American iconoclasm: not by accident does Randall Flagg’s dark army in The Stand take root in America’s berserk capitalist monument, Las Vegas, where he presides over the landscape from an “executive swivel chair” in a window-walled office fit for a corporate CEO. This is the central paradox of King’s work: he gives readers a Big Mac that espouses the virtue of the local hamburger joint. He wants us to sympathize with the clairvoyant protagonist of The Dead Zone (1979), who assassinates a xenophobic, Palinesque gubernatorial candidate, but King’s also apparently content to let Dome be used as cannon fodder in the fall 2009 Amazon/Wal-Mart price war, a distinction it shared with Sarah Palin’s own Going Rogue. Side by side in store displays and corporate homepages, these two poorly-edited paeans to folksy wisdom and American “authenticity” seemed like perfect complements rather than ideological opposites, as King apparently conceives.
As Chester’s Mill devolves into a war zone, the resistance fighters’ de facto headquarters is Sweetbriar Rose, the local diner with a name right out of Andy Griffith. And Rennie, in case you find the distinction insufficiently harsh or his hucksterdom too subtly underlined, is—what else—a used car salesman. Painting with a brush this heavy requires, ironically, a softer touch than King seems up to using in Under the Dome. If only it were clear that he employed these clichés consciously, with some humor or self-awareness, the novel might really pulse in the way that its structure—short chapters, ubiquitous cliffhangers, murders like clockwork—clearly intends it to. But instead it’s clear, by at least page 643, that King’s not terribly invested in what’s happening on the page at all. That’s when we get this typical narration:
Twitch looked up and saw Sammy Bushey’s brains drying high on one wall. What she had used to think with now looked like a clot of oatmeal. He burst into tears.
Again, that second sentence could be made less willfully confusing with maybe a minute’s edit—about the same time it would take to recognize and eliminate the spatial redundancy in the first sentence. And every page offers another moment like this, another instance where that ending date stamp—”November 27, 2007—March 14, 2009″—seems less offensive than the implied one: the time, fewer than four months, that passed between King’s last sentence and the mid-summer release of Dome’s advance reader’s copies. Reviewers were afforded more time to read this thing than the book’s editors.
For a book that contains so many of-the-moment concepts, from Iraq to Obama, rural meth culture to mass media, Under the Dome is basically devoid of statements about the contemporary world, and there’s an unavoidable parallel between the novel’s dull language and its ultimate thematic pointlessness. King’s in “giving good weight” mode, not the “I’ve always been a political novelist” pose he’s been able to reputably indulge since becoming a respected elder statesman. He demonizes the people who own Wal-Mart and valorizes the plain folks who shop there, and his language this time out isn’t even sturdy enough to support that false dichotomy.
Scribner, whose parent company first announced layoffs before King’s Dome draft was even finished, can’t be blamed for wanting to fast-track a sure thing during a grim year, but a book this poorly written and edited can’t be glossed over by its author’s reassurance that, hey, he never pretended to be a good writer in the first place. What’s missing here is vision, the kind of intensity that makes his best work, if not exactly thesis-worthy, at least a worthy and addictive alternative to books that are. I value this intensity for what it is; I’ve had my reading habits altered by it, in fact. But for that same reason, I’m unable to lower my expectations for King’s work to the level that he’s apparently willing to accept for himself. It doesn’t surprise me that It, a criminally underrated book and the one where King’s vision and ambition are most equally, amply displayed, took a little more time to compose; its final page reads, “This book was begun in Bangor, Maine, on September 9th, 1981, and completed in Bangor, Maine, on December 28th, 1985.” Granted, King published about five books in the interim, but the point remains: a magnum opus takes time, not weight. If only he agreed, or cared.
John Lingan is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation.
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