12 December 2009

[lit] Your Spoiler-Filled Overview of Stephen King's "Under The Dome"

2275.Finally got through Stephen King's latest event, the brobdingnagian Under The Dome.

I'm not a Stephen King fan, really. At least I don't consider myself one. I have huge respect for his talent, and I'd say I'm a fan of certain stories of his: The Dark Tower I'm absolutely smitten with, I adore The Stand, and regardless of what anyone thinks of him, American man-of-letters or purveyor of prole lit, he is a master of the novel and if he can't hook you, then you're probably without a pulse.

Ask your doctor about Stephen King.

I mean, he's probably read one or more of his books.

When the buzz about Under The Dome started to circulate, the idea of a small burg cut off from the world and left to stew in its own juices got immediately under my skin. Still, I can't put into words why that is. Certainly I thought that King would tell the story in a way nobody else could, especially since he set it in Maine, his home state, in that curious Faulkneresque part of Maine that only exists in his books. He has a certain angle on the dark side of America and Americans which has such a unique voice, and it seemed as though he was probably going to look at that through this.

So, what happens when a cute, rural New England town that welcomes visitors with legendary Yankee hospitality is forced to turn in on itself? Here's what I found, with blatant, bald spoliers.

If you've not read Under The Dome yet and you don't want to find out what happens, then go no further. I'm giving it all away here, and I'm as serious as Big Jim Rennies arrhythmia here.

Spoilers Follow. Read No Further if you don't want to know how it all turns out. In the following, I've colored certain phrases to blend in with the background. To find out what they say, highlight them with your cursor, as though you were copying-and-pasting, or use your browser to View Source.

1. Chester's Mill is Rotten To The Core.

The town of Chester's Mill, Maine, is run like a traditional New England Town. Town meetings, where everyone in the community goes to decide, are headed by elected officials called selectmen. In The Mill, Andy Sanders is the First Selectmen, and thus the senior elected official, Jim Rennie, the local big businessman, is the Second, and Angela Grinnell is the Third. The real power behind the throne is Rennie, who lets Sanders stay out front as the figurehead and sees to it that Grinnell maintains her OxyContin addiction, thus making the Board of Selectmen essentially a rubber stamp for pretty much anything Rennie wants, enabling him to finance a major meth lab, distribution all over the East Coast, and funnelling off of public funds into his own private schemes. The people of Chester's Mill seem largely blissfully unaware of that their town government is corrupt to the core.

2. The People of Chester's Mill Are Not Admirable

Very few of the actual apparent popluation of the town figure into the narrative – out of a stated population of over 2,000, only thirty to forty people are ever mentioned, even if only indirectly. When the population is mentioned, in the Town Meeting toward the last third of the book, they are wearing blue armbands – showing solidarity with the current administration, being gulled into the "with us or against us" terror being instigated by Rennie and his crew.

3. Almost Everybody Dies

The climax of the book comes not, as you'd expect, when the Dome finally goes away, but when Big Jim's super meth-lab, near the town's radio station, goes up in an enormous explosion, caused by the the character they called The Chef, who had been driven beyond functional insanity.  The area under the Dome, which is as near enough Hermetically-sealed off from the surrounding environment as makes little difference, has almost all of the breathable air consumed in the resulting firestorm. The few survivors – numbering less than thirty by the novel's end – survive by breathing outside air forced through the barrier (which is just permeable) by gigantic fans.

4. The "Dome" Isn't Really A Dome.

It develops that the dome is really a column that goes up about 40,000 feet, and whose shape follows the town line exactly. The word dome is used early on by the characters and sticks. The precision of the dimensions of the "dome" is an early "tell" that the barrier is an artifact, not a natural occurrence. This is confirmed in the middle of the book, when some of the local kids find the object that's generating the barrier.

5. Comeuppance Is Messy – And Somewhat Random

The villains in the piece are not difficult to spot, and they are so irredeemably evil that, despite what few sympathies you might have for them – there is ample indication that Junior Rennie's psychopatic behavior is as much due to a medical condition as it is due to having a father who's a cynical hypocritcal sociopathic bully – you're happy that they get done it. The only thing you might regret is that King doesn't allow his victims to deliver the justice they so richly deserve – but each demise, and espcially Big Jim Rennie's, is typically fitting, because in the end, their own sins come back to eat them alive – and those who allied themselves with them are fittingly casualties.

But the rain falls on the just and the unjust – because "stuff" happens. King really understands this.

6. Even The Good Guys Die Unfairly

See 5. above. When Caro and Thurston and one of the "Dorphans" die, I hated King for a few minutes, and then respected him. Because he understands that life is not only unfair, it's downright inscrutable.

7. The Dome Is Not Of This World. Maybe Not of This Dimension

By interacting with the object generating the Dome, characters figure out that the Dome was put there by, essentially, extraterrestrial children who are playing a game and regard us as we might regard ants we kill with sunlight from a magnifying glass. This metaphor on humanity toward those we regard as "lower" is expressed just that way, and expanded upon, with the extraterrestrials – who one of the characters manage to beg mercy from by somehow communicating with them via the box, resolving the crisis – having to be convinced that the people they are killing are actually real beings.

The beings responsible for the Dome are, it's implied, children of a race with abilities far beyond ours, playing with a toy … in a playroom – literally, child's play.

8. The Dome Is A Classic McGuffin

In the end, the Dome's nature and operation are not actually explained, and the origin only hinted at. Why the Dome is there isn't the point, but what happens to the people there – at least from the story's point of view. Indeed, from the point of view of the Dome's owners, the stories of the people trapped there are less than insignficant until Julia communicates to one of the ETs. The story begins just as the Dome comes down, and ends just as the Dome goes away – a period of only about two weeks at the most. In that time, Chester's Mill goes from being a well-mannered, neighborly New England town to all but a fascist hell-on-earth, with a villain who sees nothing beyond the chance to consolidate his hold on the town, dimly confident, in the back of his mind somehow, that he will figure out a way to explain away the carnage if – and when – the Dome ever goes.

The civil face of this small town was just a facade, which ripped away within three days of the Dome's arrival

There's a lot of current cultural touchpoints, a lot of message-sending, both intimated and blatant. Take them as you will.

And read the book – it's a corker of a story.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Reader's Digest version. Very was helpful. I am not one to waste the time to read a thousand pages.