Monday, November 30, 2009

Book Review: Stephen King

I just read Stephen King's latest, Under the Dome.

It was awful.

I say this as a confirmed Stephen King fan.  I have been a huge fan of King since the 8th grade, when I read Pet Sematary for the first time.  I went on to devour everything he wrote: novels, short stories, novellas, even screenplays.  I currently own at least one copy of pretty much everything he has ever written.

I am not one of those annoying SNL-style King "purists" who proclaim that everything he has written since 1982 is trash, but there is a definite difference in styles when one considers the different phases of what has been a very long career.  Personally, I think the difference is editing.

His early work was (mostly) stellar: Carrie, Salem's Lot, The Shining, the Stand...these are all masterpieces.  They are also all short.  In the "uncut revision" of The Stand, King confirms that the publishers were much more controlling in terms of editing in those days.  Some semi-stinkers (Christine) and stinkers (Cujo) followed, but beginning in the late '80's and early '90's, King's novels began to routinely run 1,200 pages.  I am estimating, but based on my own recent excursion into noveling, I would guess that puts him in the 400,000 word range, more or less.

In 1999, King was in a serious accident, in which he was struck by a van while walking.  Since then, his work has been markedly different in the opinion of most critics.  He was already losing relevance, however, and most people, including devoted King fans, disliked his newer work.

I loved Bag of Bones (1998, I think).  Other than that, most of his work has been fairly meh.  Last year, for my birthday, Sven got me a copy of Duma Key, which most people hated, but I thought wasn't bad.  It was definitely kept me up a couple of nights, for sure.

Which brings me to Under the Dome.  It is dreadful.  You know a book is awful when, on page 852, you think, "Finally, we're getting somewhere."  This book is 852 pages of setup for a plot that takes about 200 pages to tell.  In other books, King's penchant for delving into the minutiae of characters not only peripheral, but completely outside the scope of the story, is charming (for example, the chapter of the "uncut revision" of The Stand in which King details just a few incidental deaths that occurred after the flu epidemic had passed).  In this book, it just feels like rambling.  We get character after character after character, and I was bored.

The crazy thing about the book is that there is no setup at all.  He doesn't introduce anything, or anyone, at all: out of nowhere, an invisible dome has settled over a town in Maine.  The book opens with the dome settling in place (with some very grisly, King-like consequences) and the story should just take off.  It doesn't.  I kind of got a picture in my head of King thinking, "What if..." and getting going, which has worked before, but it falls flat here.

One of King's strengths is writing villains, and in this the book excels.  The town of Chester's Mill is "under the dome" for only a few days, but it is enough time for a small-town Hitler to create a climate of hate and terror.  The villain of the piece is truly a bad guy.  There is nothing supernatural about him.  He's just a jerk who, when presented with an opportunity, will do or say anything to keep his power.

Another of King's strengths is making the implausible seem plausible.  It is at this that Under the Dome failed spectacularly for me.  Spoiler: highlight to see, don't read it if you want to read the book: about halfway through, someone decides the dome is the work of aliens, then they figure out it is actually alien children playing with them the way human children play with anthills, so to get rid of the dome, they have to beg the children and convince them that humanity/earth is "real." The idea of the dome is intriguing, I suppose, but the real story is the human one: what happens to these people when they are isolated from, yet completely visible to, the outside world?  The pseudo-sci-fi purpose of the dome just muddied the water for me.  I honestly would have preferred no explanation.

I will say I loved some of the characters, though in a King book, an abundance of characters also means an abundance of death.  Lots of death under the dome.  Suicides, of course, but accidental deaths, deaths from illness, and of course murders also occupy these pages.  It is tiring investing so much in a book without a satisfactory payoff.

The payoff I wanted was twofold: a happy ending for some of the characters I was rooting for, and comeuppance for those I wasn't.  I was only partially satisfied.  To avoid another spoiler, I will just say that the ending was far to abrupt for everything that went into the beginning.  If I were Mr. King's editor, I would have lopped off about 100,000 words from the beginning and added about 50,000 to the end.

That being said, I cannot wait for Mr. King's next book, whatever it is.  I hope I will love it.

1 comment:

Kristina P. said...

I didn't know he was still writing! I haven't heard anything from him in years. Maybe there's a reason for that.