Behind the Curve: Under the Dome

While in Georgia I have become completely enamored with audiobooks!  What a great way to keep “reading” while on the go!  I actually started appreciating them a few years ago when my mom and I took a roadtrip together to Easton, PA to drop me off at my summer camp job.  We rented Manhunt, a book about the hunt for John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Lincoln.  It was an excellent way to spend the car ride and I loved listening to it!

Now, with my jet-setting ways, I hardly have time to sit and read a book anymore.  I have a small collection over on the shelf there, but they mostly just collect dust, sadly.  Granted, they’re behind glass and have only been there for a few weeks, so not much dust has accrued.

As I’ve mentioned in the past (usually I would insert a hyperlink on the phrase “in the past,” but no way am I going to dig through ALL my old posts to see where I mentioned this), I love listening to PodCasts.  In fact, I was even featured on a podcast a few weeks back!  I have a wide range of podcasts that I listen to, but Dan Savage’s sex advice podcast has long touted audible.com, an audiobook service with a subscription-based system wherein I get one audiobook per month for 15 dollars.  Judge John Hodgman would be very disappointed with the inordinate amount of buzz marketing going on in this post….

Anyway, I walk a lot.  I walk to work and back every day.  I walk when I have to go places.  I’ve taken the subway maybe twice or three times since coming back to Georgia.  Walking and Audiobooks go perfectly hand-in-hand.  I listen to books on politics, anthropology, history, and the occasional work of fiction.  Right now I’m listening to Nixonland which is tragically not about a theme park.

"You've just won one of the largest electoral landslides in US history! What will you do next!" "I'm going to Nixonland!" "Mr. President, there's no such thing as Nixonland."

Resently, though, i finished listening to Stephen King’s Under the Dome.  I’m not typically a huge Stephen King fan, though I’ve read some of his books in the past (As a Mainer, that seems compulsory).  This one, however, I had heard good things about.  I was mildly intrigued by the premise, too: One day, an impenetrable Dome drops down over the small town of Chesters Mills, ME.

Under the Dome, by Stephen King

The basic plot of the novel is that a mysterious dome pops up out of nowhere one day, cutting off Chesters Mills from the rest of the world.  It causes dozens of deaths and accidents in its first few hours of existence as a plane crashes into it, a logging truck rams it, a woman gets her hand sliced off, and a woodchuck finds himself suddenly cut in half.  Quite a bad start to lots of people’s morning.

Things get worse from there as James Reny, Sr., one of the town’s selectmen, begins his Hitlerian rise to mastery of the town and his nefarious deeds slowly reveal themselves.  His son, Junior, is suffering from a misdiagnosed brain tumor and begins Dome Day by brutally murdering his friends girlfriend.

As the week under the dome passes, controlled chaos ensues with Reny burning the Reichstag, as it were, and slowly promoting himself into a position of absolute authority over the town.  He eliminates nuisances and mongers fear just enough to keep the whole town under his thumb and seem the benevolent patriarch all the while.

The novel’s protagonists, a gradually expanding cast of characters, search for the cause of the Dome–a generator of sorts, they believe–and try their best to foil or avoid Reny’s machinations.  While the US military and Barack Obama attempt to crack the dome from the outside, Dale Barbara, a former lieutenant in the US Marines and a part-time short order cook in Chesters Mill, builds a coterie of adherents and anti-Reny townsfolk to help him in his quest.

Meanwhile, Reny gradually replaces the regular police force with a bunch of high-school aged goons loyal to him, personally.  He has no qualms about arranging for untimely deaths when need be, or even taking care of business himself, if he has to.  Eventually, all of Reny’s plots come to a head and result in a prophesied fireball that engulfs the entire town under the dome and kills 95% of all the characters of the novel (named and unnamed).

Reny and his sidekick retreat to a bombshelter with faulty wiring and Barbara and his companions take refuge against the wall of the dome where some industrial fans blow a smidge of air through to them.  The novel ends on a happy note, with Reny dead (though hardly having gotten his just desserts) and almost all of the heroes escaping the dome.

I went through a love/exasperated relationship with the novel.  Sometimes the book felt hyper-predictable and too-heavily foreshadowed.  King appears to love foreshadowing, often ending chapters with phrases like, “Everything looked like it was going well at the town meeting.  But none of them suspected how horrible the evening would turn out to be.”  Sometimes this worked to build tension, other times it served to needlessly warn the audience that bad things were going to happen.  When the Dinsmore boy accidentally shot himself in the face, the moment was lost thanks to the telegraphing of the punches.  But at the town meeting, it was already obvious that something awful would happen and so the foreshadowing merely heightened that sense of dread.

King knows how to use foreshadowing effectively, though.  Frequently, characters would suffer premonitions.  They were almost always vague enough to be intriguing and they almost always had an immediate enough payoff that the reader wasn’t left in the lurch.  For example, almost every character had a seizure and saw visions of “Pumpkins burning” and cried out, “Stop Halloween!  We must stop Halloween!”  The frequency of these visions was such that it reminded the reader of the impending fates of all the characters without over-explaining it.  When the prophecy finally came true, it did so in an unexpected, and shocking way (though I admit I was disappointed at first).

Halloween came early when Reny’s plots all came together.  He had sent a squad of cops out to his enormous propane-stocked meth lab where two druggie lunatics armed with AK-47s and a detonator for an enormous bomb awaited the “bitter men” and intended on fighting to the death to protect their meth.  At the same time, “Visitors’ Day” was taking place on the other side of town.  Almost all of the town’s residents were gathered at the dome to see their family on the other side.  The dome had become increasingly polluted (it let trace amounts of air and water through, but no particulate matter [possibly the most popular phrase of the novel]) over the course of the past few days, and it had begun to have a greenhouse effect, keeping Chesters Mills toasty warm while the rest of Maine succumbed to late-October chills and autumn frosts.

As the druggies and the cops battled at the Christian Radio station (It all sounds really nuts out of context, doesn’t it!), families pressed against the dome, happy to see each other.  The battle lost, the druggies blew up all the propane and the meth lab at once creating a firestorm under the dome.  The fire swept towards the crowd gathered at visitors day and incinerated them all in front of their family members’ eyes.

After listening to this portion of the novel I thought, “What a cheap way to create drama and kill off a lot of characters!  I’m so disappointed!”  But then I remembered that as I was listening to it, I had become completely tuned out to the world around me.  It may have seemed like a cheap plot device after the fact, but in the offing, it was extremely unexpected and moving.  I gotta give the man credit, he knows his craft!

After the firestorm, the air under the dome became so polluted that it suffocated nigh everybody left in the town.  Reny suffered a heart attack when he left the safety of the bomb shelter to avoid the guilt-spawned ghosts of those he had killed.  Though he died regretting his actions, he really didn’t get the raking over the coals I would’ve liked.

The air became more and more foul under the dome and I caught myself unconsciously holding my breath while listening to the characters gasp and struggle for air.  The descriptions of how they pressed their faces against the dome to get the minuscule trickle of oxygen coming through and the sudden and tragic deaths of several of the protagonists suffocating on pollutants was quite effectively written.  I was really empathizing with the characters and gasping for breath myself in sympathy.

The conclusion was slightly anticlimactic, though it did have some pathos and a strong message about not torturing ants.

As for the recording itself, the audiobook features what one reviewer (of another book) described by saying that the narrator “keeps listeners engaged with varying inflections, plenty of personality, and dynamic tones….”  Or, in layman’s terms, he uses voices!

As any child knows, when the person reading to them uses different voices for different characters, the quality of the bed time story skyrockets.  Under the Dome used voices.  Some of the Maine accents were spot on though I found myself scratching my head as to why a Jamaican, a British aristocrat, and a heckuvalot of Southerners would be living together in a small town in rural Maine.  Or at least, that’s what they sounded like to me.

Cultural Importance: 2.  Stephen King has written a lot of really culturally significant books.  This isn’t one of them, in my opinion.  It, The Shining, The Green Mile, Carrie, Misery–all of these are worthy of 10’s on the Cultural importance scale.  Sorry Under the Dome, You haven’t made the cut.

Quality: 6.  It’s not exactly Shakespeare.  It is effective though.  Stephen King evokes all the emotions he wants to, when he wants to.  He does rely on a few pat phrases though and several dei ex machina to get to the conclusion, which is a little bit of a let down.

Ground-Breakingness: 7.  I don’t know that a Dome has ever been given this level of scrutiny.  For that alone, this is pretty original.  It does stick to an allegory of Hitler (right down to a goon squad that wears blue shirts [instead of brown]) and relies on some fairly ordinary plot devices.

Enjoyment: 8.  Some quibbles about the foreshadowing behind, this was an incredibly enjoyable read.  Sure, some of the relationships were a little stilted and Reny seemed almost unbelievably evil, but I really did enjoy it through and through!

Would I Do It Again?: Maybe.  It was 1.4 days’ worth of listening.  So I don’t really have time to listen to it again.  Give me some time, though, and I’d probably like to revisit it with some of the hindsight of a prior read-through.

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