Thursday, March 4, 2010

Book: Stephen King's Under the Dome

There's an old joke about Stephen King: He sits at his typewriter, pounding out reams of pages for his latest book. He freezes for THREE SECONDS and then starts typing like mad again. "I hate writer's block," King mutters. Okay, I didn't say it was funny. Forgetting this joke about his prolific ways for a second (he's written/co-written over 65 novels, short-story collections or works of non-fiction since 1974 - I've read over 30 of them), I think that Stephen King is the Charles Dickens of the late 20th/early 21st centuries.

Both were/are successful populists, both wrote/write about societal ills (Dickens' set in a version of the real world of England; King's generally from within the horror or science fiction genres), both were/are always concerned with writing a good story that would appeal to the largest number of readers. Most of Dickens 20+ books have never been out of print and to date neither has King's. I predict in a century they will still both be widely read and studied. Why? If you want to understand the era these books were written in, I submit you will come away with a better understanding reading Dickens or King than trying to wade through most literary fiction or history books published at the same time.

Which brings me to King's latest endeavour, the 1074-page long Under The Dome. The premise is simplicity itself: one fine autumn day in the little Maine town of Chester's Mill, a huge, impenetrable invisible glass dome descends over the town cutting off everybody within it from the rest of the United States. As with the best of fantasy, horror and science fiction, this isn't about it's premise or setting, it's about what happens when a group of people are isolated from the rest of society and forced to fend for themselves. It is a situation where the best and absolute worst will come out in people. The narrative of this long, never dull, heavy (as in literally heavy: it weighs about 15 pounds) book only covers a little over a week, yet within that time, King brilliantly illustrates how civilized society can unravel and opportunists and petty dictators can arise.

Again like Dickens, King works with characters he's explored before. His hero, Dale Barbara, a stoic, Iraq-War vet/loner who ends up being a natural leader, is a variation on Stu Redman, the stoic hero of The Stand. A deranged character, Phil Bushey, is similar to the crazy Trashcan Man in The Stand. Yet, also like Dickens, he's not simply repeating himself. King takes these types and explores them from angles he'd never conceived of in his earlier book. His dialogue and pop culture references are as sharp as ever.

Politically, I don't share the same space as King anymore (he's left of centre), yet I can still appreciate what he has achieved with this intriguing novel. His 'big bad', Big Jim Rennie, is a right-wing small-town politician, used car dealership owner and mild religious zealot. Rennie -- clearly based on populist American politicians of the past, such as Huey Long and probably George W. Bush -- wastes little time seizing power, rounding up or killing others who will not bend to his will (Dale Barbara and a small group of resistors are Rennie's principle targets) and rallying the frightened and gullible citizens to his point of view. Yet, King is dealing with a scenario that could easily have been approached from any political point of view (Rennie may be based upon Long and Bush, but he's also a stand-in for Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Kim Jong-il, Hussein, Ahmadinejad, etc., etc.), and its universality is its greatest strength. The solution to who or what caused the dome to descend is almost completely besides the point. What King is examining here is society's desire to, during a time of crisis, embrace a 'strong man' at the expense of our common sense, and that's a scenario worth exploring regardless of your political stripe.

--David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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