When I finished Under the Dome, that’s all I could say. I just closed the novel and contemplated the ending. I couldn’t say anything else but “huh.”
And for me, that’s high praise.
Ashamed as I am to say it, Under the Dome is the first novel I’ve finished since June. I’ve listened to a few audiobooks on my commute, sure, but King’s latest is the first book I’ve physically sat down with in about six months.
Hailed as a sort of spiritual successor to The Stand, Under the Dome is Stephen King’s longest book since his post-apocalyptic jaunt across the States. Sitting at roughly 1100 pages, I was a little intimidated by the novel.
I like seeing my progress through a book, and since I generally only get to read before bed, a chapter/hour a night takes a while to make a dent in 1100 pages. But Christmas break came and once I finished grading finals, I was able to sink my teeth into Under the Dome’s meaty narrative.
First off, the novel is really epic. But not in the way I had expected. Because the town of Chester’s Mill is trapped within its city limits, there is no questing, no journeying, and no jaunting like in The Stand. Instead, there is an increased emphasis on character interaction and politics, which makes the novel not epic in the traditional sense, but epic on a scale that wonderfully fits King’s recent writing style. (Past The Dark Tower, his novels have been about people more than situations.)
The great thing about Under the Dome is that it starts out intense and maintains that intensity throughout the book. When trying to get people to read it, I tell them that an airplane crashes and two people and a woodchuck die in the first three pages. That gets people’s attention. It certainly got mine. While there are moments that drag, I have not read a novel that is this consistently “on” since It.
One of the interesting elements of the novel is that despite King’s notoriety for supernatural horror, there is none in Under the Dome. The horror is entirely dependant on human interaction and how people could react to being confined. There is a particularly visceral gang rape scene that made me feel dirty after reading it because the graphic detail in the novel is classic Stephen King, only instead of vampires and night bumpers, it’s town selectmen and deputy sheriffs.
And that’s really what’s scary to me. King emphasizes that the characters in Under the Dome are just normal people. The most extraordinary of any of them is a military vet who just wants some alone time. But they’re all thrown into a ridiculous situation and chaos ensues. The horror comes from seeing how an ordinary person could react in a terrifying situation.
For a novel that has such a large cast of characters, I found it incredibly refreshing to actually care about a great number of them. I normally attach myself to a single character or two in ensemble fiction, but Under the Dome presented a lot of characters I was rooting for, even though they might have only played a peripheral role in the actual events of the novel.
But the novel isn’t lovely in its entirety. My main problem with the book is how its ending seems tacked on. I am fine with the climax and how events played out, but I have a problem with how tacked-on the explanation for everything felt. While the reasons behind the Dome were hinted at fairly early, when they came to fruition, they didn’t feel thought through completely. I was left with a “wait, what?” feeling instead of the “wow, that was epic” finale I had hoped for.
It was a little too deux ex machina for me.
But that’s a problem with Stephen King in general. As much as I love his work, he has a problem with endings. He’s even gone on record saying that he hates endings. And I’m one of the few Dark Tower fanboys who absolutely adored the way Roland’s journey wrapped up in Book 7. But I still felt that Under the Dome deserved more than what it got. I felt that I deserved more than what I got.
Still, I can’t knock the entire novel for a lackluster resolution. I still sat there when I finished the novel and contemplated themes, ideas, and humanity, which is something I’ve come to realize makes literature take on that big L occasionally.
In the end, though, Under the Dome is a fine novel, maybe his finest in years. I don’t want to rank his newest novels because I loved them all in some capacity or another, but I can tell you that if you’re a Stephen King fan, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not reading this book. If I’m ever lucky enough to teach a Stephen King-centric course, I have no doubt this heavyweight will be on my syllabus.