I finished Under the Dome a few days ago. I haven’t seen the mini-series, nor do I want to for a good while. That has nothing to do with the negative comments I’ve heard about the aforementioned adaptation and everything to do with one simple fact: I don’t need to see a filmed version.
Because the mental version of the book is still unspooling in my mind.
Sometimes you hear a lot of hype about a book, but the reading experience falls short. Sometimes, a book is about what you expected. There are occasionally those glorious occasions when the book exceeds the hype. For an example of this, check out Norman Partridge‘s sublime Dark Harvest, which I’d heard about for several years but never read until a couple months ago. That book knocked me on my tookus.
And then there’s Under the Dome. This novel catapulted my entire body into the air, propelled it through the window in a maelstrom of shattered glass, and sent it tumbling and broken into the lawn. Then, when I staggered to my feet, the darn book rose up from my bedroom floor, blasted through the window, and flattened me again.
I’ve read more than fifty Stephen King books. Under the Dome is one of the top five.
I’ve read plenty of criticisms about it. Too many points-of-view, unsubtle characterization, an anti-climactic ending.
I think those folks read a different novel than I did. Or I’m just crazy.
Because I adore lists, here are just a few reasons why I consider Under the Dome a modern classic:
1. Big Jim Rennie: I love it when a villain takes over a story. The nastier the villain is, the greater the danger to the heroes and the more powerful potential catharsis there exists in defeating him. The Shark in Jaws. The warden in The Shawshank Redemption. Dolores Umbridge in the fifth Harry Potter book (seriously!). Big Jim Rennie is as vicious and calculating and eerily real as any villain in modern fiction. I absolutely despised him. But whenever he was on stage, I couldn’t look away.
2. Baaaarbie: Dale Barbara was an unlikely protagonist, or at least he sure seemed that way. At first, I thought of him as a military Larry Underwood (if you’re wondering about my favorite King book, it’s still The Stand), but as the novel wore on, I realized how much I’d underestimated him—both his capacity for good and the depth of his sins. Plus, he had those three crucial traits: grit, wit, and It.
3. The Twists and the Straightaways: When I thought I knew who would live and who would die, I was often wrong. I never would’ve guessed what Andy Sanders would become. I had no idea I’d end up liking (or at least caring about) characters like the town drunk and the resident meth-maker. Sure, there were plot twists I saw coming; King never sacrifices plausibility for sheer shock value. But the things I did see coming fit beautifully into the framework of the tale, and King still found a way—via his technique, his timing, or even his word choice—to render those foreseen developments fresh. The intertextuality with his own works or the works of others—particularly William Golding’s Lord of the Flies—was so deftly handled that the novel would have been diminished without it.
I could write about this book for days, but I think an imperfect analogy might work best here. When Michael Jordan—the best player in basketball history—returned from retirement for the second time, it was with the Washington Wizards. Jordan had lost a step or three, and he no longer aired like he once did. But there was still magic in his shoes, and though his last team never did much, he certainly flashed moments of the old brilliance.
But in one amazing game Jordan again surpassed the fifty-point mark, including an astonishing thirty-four-point first half. Watching Jordan out there performing his wizardry (sorry), it was obvious that all his accumulated knowledge and experience had been distilled into something transcendent. He pulled up for mid-range jumpers, he knocked down threes. He even threw down a thunderous dunk. Watching Jordan that night was like watching him in his prime, only it was somehow greater. He had defeated time. Or at least spun back the hands of the clock for one marvelous night.
Reading Stephen King’s Under the Dome was like watching Jordan work his magic that night. Only King’s brilliance lasted for over a thousand pages (1348 pages on my Nook), and King never let up. Here was King scaring the hell out of me. Next was King breaking my heart by describing the death of a character I loved. King created a villain, and then another one even more monstrous, and then he threw me a bone by killing off a minor villain. Then he walloped me with some poetic setting descriptions before making me belly laugh at a shockingly crude joke. In other words, it was all there. The whole amazing repertoire. But that doesn’t begin to describe this book.
I said the Jordan comparison was imperfect, and it is. Woefully so. Because King never really retired the way Jordan did. King never had a game like the one Jordan had prior to the explosion alluded to above (Jordan only scored six in the game before the one I described; the worst games King ever played, Rose Madder and Insomnia, were still twenty-point/six-rebound/four-assist performances and far better than most writers could ever dream of mustering). And unlike Jordan was that night, King is not—in my opinion—immersed in the twilight of his career.
No, I don’t believe King’s almost done. In fact, I believe, like the great Elmore Leonard, Stephen King is going to be producing amazing books for at least a couple more decades. I base this on the fact that he’s a relentless self-improver, and if you don’t believe that, compare his early stuff to Under the Dome. Sure, I love his early stuff. ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Dead Zone, and of course, The Stand are all among my favorite books by any writer. Putting Under the Dome next to the aforementioned titles shows that King has retained the pure storytelling magic that enthralled audiences back in the seventies, yet he hasn’t ceased to grow. Looking at his recent writing, it’s clear that his mastery of point-of-view, his eye for detail, his ability to orchestrate such a mindblowingly complex plot are even more impressive than they’ve ever been. These traits are the hallmarks of an individual who has never stopped learning, who has never gotten lazy.
So yes, I loved Under the Dome. And I love Stephen King’s work. I wrote a letter to him a few weeks ago, a letter I’ll probably never send because I’m afraid he won’t get it, and if he does, I’m afraid he’ll think I’m either trying to ingratiate myself with him or worse, that I’m an obsessed fan.
But friends, let me just say this. From the moment the dome came down until the very last word of that book….I was under that dread barrier too. I shuddered at the atrocities some of the characters committed. I fretted for the safety of my fellow townspeople. I came to fear Halloween and whatever else the premonitions foretold. But most of all, I hoped there would be a few good-hearted souls who would stand up for what was right.
I stood with them under the dome. And if you haven’t yet, I’d strongly encourage you to stand with them too.