Small Things Become Magnified: Under the Dome by Stephen King

Under the DomePublished: November 10, 2009
Publisher: Scribner
Genre(s): Science Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Length: 1074 pages

Like many of the books in my extensive collection, I’ve owned an unread copy of Under the Dome for years. It wasn’t until I began sorting through my books in preparation for a cross-country move that I decided it time to dive in and read that massive tome so that I could sell it. I was, of course, also hoping to finish reading before the premiere of the CBS adaptation. I wasn’t successful in either goal, however; the book came with me to California, and the series was 3-4 episodes in before I finished reading.

I’ve also been on a bit of a throwback kick recently. I read a lot of Stephen King and Elmore Leonard in high school, and I’ve been reading a lot of both lately. I’ve mostly been reading Leonard’s older stuff, but with King I’ve been focusing on his most recent work. Doing so has caused me to come to the conclusion that King has been doing some of his best work since finishing the Dark Tower series. Joyland is brisk and entertaining, 11/22/63 is easily one of King’s masterpieces, and Under the Dome is a solid small-town epic.

Under the Dome opens with few glimpses of events around town as people are trapped, injured or killed when a mysterious invisible dome comes down from the sky and surrounds the town. King sets up heroes, villains, murderers and a mystery in short order, then gets down to the business of watching a small town viciously turn on itself. In a lot of ways, Under the Dome reads a bit like a fictionalized sociology experiment. The speculative elements are kept to a minimum, and King seems more interested in human behavior under pressure – good, evil and in-between. It’s a concern that has always threaded through his work, but here he brings it to the forefront.

I will admit that Under the Dome didn’t grab me quite as much as 11/22/63, but I think part of that is the difference in focus. 11/22/63 is personal and romantic, focused on one man’s experiences, whereas Under the Dome has a huge cast of characters and a wide-ranging focus. The characters in Under the Dome are alternately likable or heinous, but none of them has the depth given the main character in 11/22/63. In some ways, Under the Dome reminded me a bit of Tommyknockers, with its shifting viewpoints and portrait of a small town falling apart at the seams. However, where Tommyknockers is wildly inconsistent and rambling, Under the Dome is measured and focused, even at an epic length.

Ultimately I thought Under the Dome was entertaining and competently written but comparatively unremarkable. Better than some of King’s older books, but not up to the standard set by his other recent work. I think part of the problem may have been the fact that much of what happens relies on the townspeople being gullible or outright stupid; Big Jim Rennie feels like such an obvious villain that it’s sometimes hard to believe anyone trusts him in the first place. I’m glad I read it, but I’m curious to see how the TV series reconfigures the same elements for a different medium.


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