Under the Dome
Scribner • 2009 • 1074 pages
A Novel Critique
Under the Dome is a big, hulking behemoth of a novel, intimidating the reader with its sheer heft. Because it's a novel by Stephen King, the pages turn quickly, and the first instinct is to race through it. Resist that instinct. Some King books, like The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon or Firestarter reward speed, but Under the Dome, like other small-town books like Needful Things and 'Salem's Lot, works better if you live inside it for awhile.
The plot is almost simple, because it's the same plot of a lot of those small-town King books: something or someone evil comes to town, and begins sowing discord among its residents. This is a well King returns to again and again because he writes it well, and because he always turns the screw just enough to make the idea fresh and absorbing each time. This time, the something evil that comes to town is the eponymous Dome, an invisible, impenetrable force field that falls over the town of Chester's Mills, sealing it off from the outside world. (Actually, that's not entirely accurate: the Dome doesn't fall so much as is placed. Just who places it is one of the central mysteries of the book … but that comes later.) There are immediate consequences to the Dome's sudden appearance, as well: a woman's hands happened to be in the path of the Dome's descent and were summarily severed. A friendly woodchuck trundling across a road is chopped in half. And, most spectacularly, a small-craft airplane out for a flying lesson crashes inside the Dome, exploding on impact.
These sequences, and more like them, are harrowing … but it's not the short term that concerns King most. The Dome is a catastrophe, and King has always been concerned about how people react to catastrophe. The entirety of the novel focuses on life under the Dome in the days following its appearance. And because it's a Stephen King novel, things start bad and get worse with disastrous quickness, because the evil inside the evil is this book's main thrust. The Dome is simply an object, what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin to get the plot moving. The real horror in this novel is Chester's Mill's Second Selectmen, Big Jim Rennie, a God-fearing Christian politician who believes every decision he makes is for the betterment of the town. Or at least he convinces himself of that, which amounts to the same. Unbeknownst to the town, Big Jim Rennie has made himself and his friends rich due to both misappropriation of town funds and the giant meth lab operation he's running out by the Christian radio station. When the Dome comes down, Rennie almost immediately sees this as an opportunity to not only run the town, but rule it.
Opposing Rennie is Dale Barbara, a former soldier who came to Chester's Mill to hide from a tricky past; he's about to be a former short-order cook when the Dome comes down and seals him in. Once the military gets wind of the Dome situation, they reinstate Barbara (known as Barbie throughout the novel, which is only occasionally distracting) and put him in charge. Almost immediately, though, we learn that life under the Dome is different. Its problems are magnified, its calamities accelerated. Because Big Jim Rennie's main concern is being a big fish in a small pond, crucial issues like air quality and food rationing go unchecked in favor of beefing up the police force with thugs and rapists who worship Rennie enough to be his personal army. Here, then, is the crux of the story of Under the Dome: the authority in Chester's Mill is incompetent, and people respect him because he's the only authority to turn to.
King explained to Time magazine that the story of Under the Dome can be read as an allegory to the state of America under George W. Bush: "I was angry about incompetency," he stated, "Sometimes the sublimely wrong people can be in power at a time when you really need the right people." Along the way, King takes a stab at putting into microcosm hot-button topics like pollution and global warming … but he's clever at not letting them seem like hot-button topics. By narrowing our perspective to that of the Chester's Mill townspeople, King allows us to read Under the Dome a story and not simply a political treatise, avoiding soapboxes at every turn (an area he is intermittently shaky on; see Gerald's Game).
The story isn't simply a tale of smalltown good vs. smalltown evil, either. Almost every character is too complex to be pigeonholed. A murderer with a taste for necrophilia saves a pair of children from certain death. The town minister doesn't believe in God. Smart people make stupid decisions, and minor, bullying characters get sympathetic subplots. Even our hero, Dale Barbara, is hiding from a violent incident committed under his watch; his guilt over his own abuse of power makes a neat counterpoint to Rennie's dark reign.
The storytelling is interesting: several times, King employs a technique he first explored with Peter Straub in Black House, letting the reader "watch" the book as if it were a movie, swooping around the town in present tense and addressing the reader directly. It's as effective here as it was in that earlier novel, perhaps because it is sparingly used. Similarly, King's references to his other novels are judicious. Being back in Maine after some side-trips to Florida in Duma Key and Just After Sunset is both welcome and jarring; Chester's Mill's proximity to TR-90 (from Bag of Bones), Tarker's Mills (from Cycle of the Werewolf), and of course Castle Rock are just that – proximities. Except for one disturbing reference to It, Under the Dome is left to stand on its own.
Problems? A few, but the only serious issue has to do with a file folder whose fate grows so frustrating, it's hard to follow. In some senses, the file folder is reminiscent of Harold Lauder's journal in The Stand, hidden in plain sight if anyone had bothered to notice it. The difference between the journal and the folder is that it's merely a series of coincidences that keep the folder hidden, and its contents from being exposed. Those (and other, more minor) coincidences serve only to work against the story, as similar coincidences did in Cujo.
Despite these minor flaws, Under the Dome more than justifies its weight. King's keyboard is on the pulse of small-town America, and when he chooses to spin a tale of minor apocalypse, he does it with seeming ease. Perhaps most interesting about Under the Dome is that it entirely eschews the cliché of a final battle, instead taking the book in an entirely unexpected direction. While it doesn't quite have the scope of The Stand or the weighty history of It, Under the Dome is an intense and myopic look at how Americans behave when they're scared. On both an allegorical and storytelling level, Under the Dome is a dark success.