Scribner, 2009, 1074 pages, C$39.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-4391-4850-1
Frankly, there’s just one thing you need to know about Stephen King’s Under the Dome: It’s big. It’s really, really big. Count the pages and recall the two other King novels of similar heft: The Stand and It. The page count shows that Under the Dome is King’s third-longest novel, and it certainly feels epic.
The premise is simple: When a small Maine town is cut off from the world by an invisible but impassable barrier, its residents struggle to understand what’s going on and survive the experience. But such a plot summary glosses over the totality of King’s presentation of the event. He’s got two thousand viewpoints to play with, and if the action wisely focuses on half a dozen main protagonists, at times it feels as if the omniscient narration gives us a glimpse of every single citizen of Chester’s Mill. The first chapter alone takes a kaleidoscopic view of what happens when the dome falls, with crashing vehicles, cut-off body parts, interrupted streams, accidents of fate locking some people in or out and other assorted phenomenon. The omniscient narration can be chatty, but it also goes quiet when it’s time to focus on the main characters.
Because there’s a lot more to Under the Dome than a town physically cut off from the rest of the world: Chester’s Mill has its share of bad apples, and they control the place. When media attention brought on the city following the fall of the dome threatens to expose secrets that the guilty would rather keep hidden, the dome itself becomes less dangerous than the people inside … Psychotic murderers, crystal-meth entrepreneurs, power-crazy policemen and panicked citizen all show their true colours during the days that follow the fall of the dome.
But it’s the details through which King tells his story that make Under the Dome such an impressive and frustrating book. On one hand, there is enough time and space here for elaborate plotting, reversals of fortune, copious inner monologues and ample character growth. When King activates his omniscient narration, it’s like floating above a small town and having direct access to two thousand minds in all their diversity. On the other hand, that amount of verbiage slows the action down and frequently makes readers wish for the next plot point. King pulls a bit too obviously on familiar plot threads about religion, serial killers, corrupt authority and civil unrest to avoid a feeling of familiarity throughout much of Under the Dome.
There is, however, quite a bit of allegory going on under the surface of the text. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see the parallels between an isolated and paranoid Chester’s Mill and Bush-administration America. The division of power between a ruthless sheriff and incompetent politicians has real-world parallels, and much of the popular hysteria cuts a bit too close to headlines of the last decade to be entirely accidental.
Where Under the Dome doesn’t do so well is in its ultimate justification for the Dome. It moves the novel from the Horror to the Science Fiction genre. This is not by itself a bad thing, but it will make a number of more rigorous readers cringe given the thinness of the premise and the somewhat arbitrary way the novel is resolved.
Still, that ending is preceded by an apocalyptic sequence that leaves few people standing, so it all evens out. While Under the Dome can occasionally be exasperating, annoying and underwhelming, it’s also a novel that disappoints because it attempts so much: Even if he misses a few targets along the way, King still manages to hit plenty of them. The result may not have the quasi-mythical heft of The Stand or the tight focus of “The Mist”, but it’s the kind of wide-screen horror/thriller that has become a bit too rare lately. King being King, it’s also a book written with clean prose, compelling characters and a thicket of plot developments. It is, in short, a perfect book for those who want to sink into a lengthy reading experience and blink their eyes back to reality a long time later.
In its own four-pounds fashion, it’s also a powerful advertisement for ebook readers.