Sunday, November 29, 2009

Under the Dome

by Stephen King

King's latest book returns to familiar ground: a small town in Maine.(*) The premise is simple: the town of Chester's Mill has been surrounded by an invisible force-field. No-one can get out and nothing can get in. The town is completely cut off from the outside world.(**) What happens next?

* See also Salem's Lot, The Tommyknockers, Needful Things, and Bag of Bones. In fact, Chester's Mill is located just outside of Castle Rock and TR-90 - the settings of those last two books.

** In fact, Under The Dome feels like a cross between The Simpsons Movie and Lord of the Flies.

The book starts well: quickly establishing the situation and exploring it in clearly described scenes that feel truthful and reasonable. Over the next 200 pages, though, the book starts to bog down a little bit - moving from scene to scene between a vast number of characters; Under the Dome has such a large cast that in the earlier stages I often lost track of who I was reading about or what their story was. I also found myself not caring about many of the characters - something I've never experienced in a 'small town' King novel before. King has a gift for rapidly establishing why a character is worth paying attention to - something which seemed to occasionally missing here.

At some point between pages 200 and 300, however, the story picks up. Characters begin to interact with each other, their scenes and stories begin to tie together. Most importantly, it became clear to me that the first 200 pages had set up a series of questions I desperately wanted to know the answers to. As I sped through the next 400 pages of the book, at first it was because I knew exactly what disasters and crises I wanted to read about and King kept paying them off in better, more intriguing ways than I'd imagined. And then he started to spin the situation into chaotic directions I didn't expect, and as a result I surrendered myself completely to his story-telling.

The middle section of Under the Dome is a pleasure to read.

If I have criticisms of the first two-thirds of Under the Dome, it's that on my first read the deterioration in the town feels too quick. Partly that's because people react in extreme ways very quickly once the dome goes over the town; partly it's because there are a couple of utterly bugnuts crazy people already in the town. Chester's Mill is unstable before the Dome goes up, which is great for creating drama, but not so great for observing what would happen to a bunch of normal people in this situation (which I think is what I was expecting to read).

Which brings me to the end. Under the Dome has to resolve three big questions:

+ What is the Dome?
+ Will they get out?
+ How will the political situation in the town be resolved?

I'll deal with that in the next post.

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