Sunday, July 18, 2010

Another Look: Stephen King's Under The Dome

On March 4th this year, Critics at Large's David Churchill wrote about horror author Stephen King’s latest novel, Under the Dome. He rightly praised King’s vivid writing and lauded the book for being a trenchant, relevant look at what happens when society cuts democratic corners by utilizing a ruthless strongman to do the dirty work it has decided is necessary for its survival. David is right about that, but I think Under the Dome is also indicative of how America has changed and become more polarized than ever before in its recent turbulent history, even more so, I suspect, than back in the 60s, when the generation gap reigned supreme.

Under the Dome, which has just come out in trade paperback, and runs to a huge 1,000 plus pages, has a premise that is brilliant simplicity itself but is anything but simple. As the book begins, the small Maine town of Chester’s Mill has been suddenly encased under a dome, which has cut it off from the outside world. A few of the townsfolk try to resist those who want to capitalize on this unexplained event in order to run the town the way they always felt it should be managed. But very quickly things fall apart and in a manner which makes Lord of the Flies seem Pollyannaish.

This is one really scary novel - a pervasive sense of dread is manifest in Under the Dome - that's up there with King’s best horror: Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Stand, his truly frightening novella The Mist, It and (most of) Cell. His usual strengths, the superb characterization (you always believe the protagonists in King’s books), descriptive prowess (Chester’s Mill comes alive in a way that you can practically touch) and imaginative plotting (Under the Dome is both great horror and ingenious science fiction) are in evidence but this time, there's something new percolating under the surface of his gripping novel: a disquieting political subtext that has bubbled up from current realities.

King has always been a ruthless writer. He’s apt to quickly kill off characters you like and can proffer a darkly cynical, even misanthropic, view of the way some people behave under trying circumstances. This is particularly true in his apocalyptic SF novel The Stand, where echoes of the Holocaust return to the fore, and in The Mist, where religious fanaticism threatens to undo the fabric of a town under siege by monsters. Under the Dome ups the ante in that regard, offering up either nascent fascism or communism, depending on your politics, and not one but two villains who are born again Christians. That’s probably one such bad guy too many, but considering how often King has been the target of censorship by evangelical groups, it’s an understandable prejudice. More significantly, Under the Dome is both a lament for a stable small town way of life that has been lost, perhaps forever, and a condemnation of the ignorance and intolerance that has always run deep within its soul, a stark observation that King has never addressed in quite this straightforward way before.

Chester’s Mill, as one character points out, is hardly a model of cultural diversity, encompassing at best about a dozen Jews, who have no synagogue of their own and have to go to the nearby town of Castle Rock (a King setting in several of his books) to worship, one token Asian American and no African Americans at all. (One black family left recently, possibly, it is implied, because they were forced out.) It’s also a place, the town’s (Republican) newspaper editor/publisher observes, indicting herself in the process, where the majority of its residents have turned a blind eye to much of the corruption and shady dealings undertaken by its elected officials, until the crisis with the dome forces some of them to not look away anymore. Economically as well as morally, Chester’s Mill is bereft, with its one movie theatre shut down years earlier, a ski resort about to go under and no Starbuck's or McDonald’s at all, a sure sign in America of a lack of a successful capitalist infrastructure.

Now I’m not trying to sound like Naomi Klein here – God forbid - and I recognize King’s own Liberal/Democratic impulses, which he freely, cheerfully confessed to in Toronto when interviewed after receiving the 2009 Canadian Booksellers Association’s Lifetime Achievement award, but I couldn’t help thinking of Sarah Palin when I was reading/devouring Under the Dome. It’s not that anyone exactly like her appears in the book, though the evil Selectman Jim Rennie, Chester Mill’s putative dictator, shares her politics, but that the United States has become a country where someone as myopic, uninformed and crass as Palin can actually be considered by so many of its citizens to be a viable candidate for President: a state of affairs that didn't exist the last time we had such an unintelligent person aiming for the nation's highest office.

Back in 1989 when Dan Quayle -- the ‘joke’ who became Vice-President -- was in office, not too many people really thought he was fodder for the country’s highest office, even when he ran for, but lost, the Republican nomination for President to George W. Bush in 2000. (Some would say Bush Jr. was no better/smarter than Quayle but, whatever his weaknesses as President, he was a reader of history, fluent in Spanish and, as governor of Texas was admirably bi-partisan. That’s hardly the mark of a dumb politician.) Quayle was never taken seriously by most of the political establishment, particularly when, in 1992, while still VP, he weighed in and attacked the CBS comedy Murphy Brown for, in his words, contributing to a “poverty of values” in America by featuring as its central figure, a single, unmarred mother. That intemperate comment made him the butt of much humour –- I still remember reading a letter sent to Time magazine by a reader who wished Dan Quayle was fictional and Murphy Brown real -- and likely cemented his demise as a credible polictial candidate. Palin, however, who has similarly lambasted American popular culture –- though she was a good sport about being lampooned on Saturday Night Live and even appeared on the show, she demonstrated a decided lack of humour when she was the butt of late-night host David Letterman’s’ barbs –- disturbingly has a cachet that Quayle simply never possessed.

Not Tina Fey.
Palin has deep support in real towns that are just like Chester’s Mill, towns which are deeply suspicious of outsiders, like Under the Dome’s hero, Iraqi war vet Dale “Barbie” Barbera. These are places which are still culturally, religiously and racially monolithic and are almost uniformly Republican (Rennie loathes Barack Obama, who, in the book at least, is re - elected as President). One of Palin’s most consistent political tactics is to claim that ‘ordinary’ Americans are being consistently ignored and slighted by the Washington establishment, and she’s not shy about getting them riled up by virtually anything that Barack Obama does, says or puts into motion. She shares that rabble rousing with virtually the entire Republican Party, which almost to a man and woman refuses, despite Obama’s bi-partisan outreach, to deal with the president on any issue but are quick to blame him for any problems, such as his handling of the Gulf oil spill, that arise.

And this is where Under the Dome deviates most explicitly from anything the prolific King has ever written. While the small towns in some of his books, Carrie, The Stand and Needful Things, have been presented as places which harbour bad things or bad people, usually he’s cast them as bastions of civility, albeit flawed ones, populated by those who often display the best traits of humanity. That point of view is virtually non-existent in Under the Dome. There are still a few good guys around, but not many. Mostly, Chester’s Mill is a town whose citizens are quick to turn a blind eye to the injustices in their midst and when forced to look around them are just as quick to find ‘scapegoats’ to blame for their problems. In that symbolic light Under the Dome, for all its obvious pleasures as entertainment, and they are many, is a disquieting harbinger of things to come in America, in this fall’s elections and beyond.
-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.

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