Under the Dome – Stephen King

It seems the more book reviews I try to write the harder they get, but I wanted to try anyway. I read this book in slightly more than three weeks, 1070 pages. I’m not a fast reader so it’s quite an achievement for me. I didn’t even expect to read it whole. As I’m used to do, I usually just read the beginning, and, when satisfied, put it away to read fully later on. Especially because I had the Infinite Jest task at hand and I didn’t want to risk of losing track on that. Instead I started reading, curiosity pushed me past page 100 and at that point I just wanted to see what was next and there was no return.

This book is a real page-turner. With incredible constancy I kept reading way past my own target for that day. I told myself I’d finish the chapter, then read the first lines of the following to see where it was going next and continued for another thirty pages. It’s superbly readable. It’s also worth pointing out that I’m not exactly a Stephen King fan. I only read “IT” and that was many, many years ago. So I don’t know how this book compares to his others, or if he’s back to form, or whatever. On the internet there are mixed opinions. What I say is that this book is written really well. Something I didn’t expect.

I should make a distinction between the “what” and the “how”. Between the craft and the material. Not unlike the review I was trying to write about A Game of Thrones, it’s the craft that shines here. The book is masterfully driven and always under control. In books with a so high page count and large cast of characters there are always a number of diversions. I remember from IT that King loved to give his town its own story, and explore it fully, with patience. Plenty of stories to tell, interesting characters that demand their spotlight time. That is all pleasant to an extent, but it’s the opposite of what happens here. The story in this book goes straight on. No looking back, no diversions, no flashbacks taking the story on a different level. The whole thing stays focused, both time-wise and location-wise. It moves linearly onward. The spotlight lights on Chester’s Mill and its residents, never ever leaves them in time or place. This is also the major strength of this novel: it’s all incredibly focused, tight and moving on with unrelenting pace. Only by being very picky I could say that there are two slight passages, one about the middle of the book, another before the end, where the careful domino set-up takes a bit too much exposition time, but this is more due to subtraction than bloat. Things need moving and they are a bit downplayed in respect to others so that the story doesn’t go out of focus.

The books gives you no pauses even in the way it’s structured. There are bigger titled sections that chunk the story and give it a broad theme, but then the story is written in quick chapters that keep the pages turning and turning fast. There are many characters and points of view, but they never go on their own unrelated tangent that may or may not converge later on. Every story thread and point of view is kept tight to the main story that goes through the book. You are never left longing in frustration for one side plot while the book jumps to a different point of view. When this happens what comes next is closely related to what you left, and when the writer deliberately abruptly breaks the chapter is to cleverly build suspense that is then satisfied shortly after. The book is generous and doesn’t pretend more patience than what it deserves.

What I described is what defines this book. The tight focus and pacing. The only two moments where the action appears to relax coincide with the two I pointed out above, preceding the two major events in the book. Everything else stays on track, moving straight and never slowing down. The book looks huge but it reads like a fresh breeze. It goes down easy and never at the expense of quality. It’s very well handled. One could probably make a kind of book-reality sync and match the way time passes in the book with real time. It takes 1070 pages to tell linearly what happens in a week. Day after day. With absolutely no dull moments.

Now let’s talk about “the dome”. Everyone likely knows what the book is about whether they read it or not. The theme is what sells the book and the theme is that simple. This fancy barrier/dome comes down on a small town and this is the story of those caught within. Will they survive? Will they get out of the barrier? This is obviously a trick (the dome) so that the writer can focus on the real theme: the stories of those characters. Their lives, their emotions. What people do under stress, what they become. This is a story of people. You are meant to connect with the characters and live along with them this nightmare under the dome. Get in close contact with the best and worst people can become. The way the put on and off masks. But one also wonders if this “dome” stays just as a trick, external to the book, a writing device, unexplained, untouched, inviolable, unknowable. A mere artifice that enables the writer to have this huge magnifying lens on the characters, and watch closely. Set them on fire, maybe. Watch them run around with nowhere to go, trapped in there. Which comes to be the cipher of the book itself. I’ll say that, surprisingly, King tackles the theme of the dome itself (even if for 1050 pages the focus is somewhere else, and it is where the book works best). You won’t be left with a mystery and the whole thing will be explained and understood by the end. It’s not really the point, since the book is about what happens under the dome way more than about what the dome is, but the book is generous on this aspect and you will be delivered a decent explanation that wraps everything up neatly. If you were wondering.

Which leads me to talk whether it lives or not up to the task. While I was reading and turning the pages I just loved it, I already said, but I also wondered if the destination was worth it (payoff?) and if my opinion could change once I got to the very end. It’s like if what you read is at stake, because it all seems to have a point a go somewhere. Is this “somewhere” a worthy destination? Well, readers will likely be pleased and deluded. Depending a lot on what you expect. From my point of view the journey is wonderful and engaging, the destination satisfying, but nothing more than that. The moral theme that plays by the end seems on a different note than the rest of the book, and, once again, it’s the rest that works better. The end of the book is a valley after a peak, and it can disappoint. Everything is wrapped up neatly and yet feels like something is missing. I also think that the book works better on its meta-fictional explanation than in its fictional one (because, again, there’s a real end that fills all mysteries).

What readers may feel like a real problem can be summarized with this: everything is as it appears to be. This constantly through the book. The craft is far superior to the material at hand. The story works so great, delivers moment of real suspense, always keeps you on your toes. But it’s also kind of predictable and unsurprising. There are various moments in the book where guesses about mysteries are tossed around, and almost always things are exactly as they appeared to be with the delivery of the very first hint. There’s almost nothing truly spicy to unveil, and yet the book haunts you and makes you read and read on as if your life depended on it. What it takes is some awesome “craft”. King just executes brilliantly (and writes here really well) ideas that on their own wouldn’t hold the book. This also because he can truly realize characters and make them live out the page. None really original, but executed to perfection, a pleasure to read.

The book also tries to kick you in the nuts plenty of times. Lots of deaths in this book and for me some of them are quite hard to get through. A few times I wondered why I was doing this to myself and read a book so harsh. There’s some masochism involved. It’s not an horror, and this makes it harder to bear because the way it starts and moves on (at least 1/3 through) is hyper-realistic. There are no real supernatural elements that may downplay and estrange from what happens, so it’s harder to establish some distance. But, thankfully, the writing helps. King is able to balance things and sometimes he can produce something comical (yet authentic) out of an awful situation. It’s not a book that just kicks and slaps. It’s also plenty fun.

The writing is not my favorite style even if I appreciated it. The writer weighs in explicitly. At various times he’s there beside you, right in the novel, speaking with his own voice, setting things up. I find this way of writing somewhat “untruthful”. Something manneristic and showy. I also noticed that a few times different characters think metaphorically about their situation, and I thought that this was more a typical habit belonging to a writer than what someone usually does, especially since people don’t really have a good grasp of what situation they are in and their metaphorical thoughts in the book are too good and neat to be plausible. I don’t like much this tangible and direct presence and influence of the writer himself in the book, yet it didn’t get in the way and I was still able to enjoy the book.

This is what it is. The story of the people who live in a town, the best, the worst that comes out of them. But then, even more, what turns the town from fine to armageddon in just four days is internal. Triggered but not made by the dome. The dome works more as a reveal than the real immediate problem. People project problems on the dome, but it’s their own problems to surface and take them by the throat. The pace is unrelenting, the focus always tight. An agile and thrilling read. There are various hints that set the story somewhere in the close future. Obama is still president. There’s even a kind of queer endorsement of his health care plan. In the book it is already approved and working but the context seems to suggest that, no matter of good intentions, the Americans will find a way to screw it up. The plot and characters are not overly original or surprising, and King uses tricks to create suspense that have been tried and honed a million of times across different media. But they still work. Everything is splendidly executed even if not entirely new, and reading is a pleasure.

I agree with what Dan Simmons said about this book. It’s a breath of fresh air that you can’t usually expect from a so prolific writer who’s probably already squeezed out all the creative juice. Instead there’s nothing tired about it, nothing perfunctory or superfluous. You can feel the enthusiasm and drive that went in the story and characters. It all seems to come with no effort. To balance all this it also shows a perfect control of structure and pacing and perfect execution all around. I don’t know if it’s the best King, but it’s lively and fun.

There are a couple of big moral themes at play, but I think the most fitting is the dismay about how far and wrong things can go before you can fully realize it. It’s an entirely political concept and it’s the true protagonist of the novel. Unsettling because we are all under the dome, and it doesn’t end by just closing the book.

P.S.
If you are interested in the meta explanation I’ve hinted I can suggest to follow this link.

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