I have a picture in my office of Stephen King and John Irving sitting behind a table at what must have been a writer's conference. The picture is from the mid 90s when both Irving and King were at the top of their games. Irving stares off into the middle distance and studiously ignores King, who sits to his left and gazes at Irving with an expression that may either be hero worship, or hurt feelings. Irving said then and says now that King writes crap and isn't a "real" writer, so what I imagine is that King's feelings are hurt.
Conversely, maybe he's just astonished at Irving's bad manners. King is by all accounts a generous and polite man, and perhaps he's puzzled by what looks like miserliness and rudeness in another, especially from a fellow writer who shares so many of his political and social views. That's probably why I'm puzzled by the miserliness and rudeness of King's latest book, the 1075 page Under the Dome.
Under the Dome is about what happens when a place and the people who live there are locked inside a glass dome: no one can get in; no one can get out. The Place can be any place and it can be any people, but the upshot is that the little place becomes a very Big Place and the people in the Big Place become iconic. The town drunk carries the weight of all town drunks on his stumbling shoulders, the Crusading Journalist becomes all Media, and the corrupt police department is reborn as the Third Reich. Chester's Mill, Maine, the town where Under the Dome takes place becomes the World, and in very short order King lets us know that the World can be a very scary place.
The ease with which King makes Chester's Mill a bad, scary place is remarkable. Although the novel is more than a thousand pages long, King allows not a hundred pages, not even fifty, for the briefest struggle between Good and Evil. Good rolls over and plays dead within the first twenty pages or so, and with the exception of about two dozen folks who form a kind of Underground Resistance--one that is largely ineffectual throughout the novel--nearly all the residents of Chester's Mill roll over and play dead too.
King is not without precedent in describing the apparent ease with which Evil triumphs over Good. Bruno Bettelheim wrote, in The Informed Heart and The Empty Fortress, that many Jews stayed in Germany all during 1932 and 1933 despite the Gestapo's obvious intent to enslave and incarcerate them--which began for real in 1934. The Jews, Bettelheim wrote, refused to rebel against these obvious intentions because the aura of their possessions--houses, rugs, family photographs, and so on--gave them a sense of normalcy, and a sense that there was still time left for things to get better. Similarly, the people of Chester's Mill placidly accept obviously Evil intentions, and go on with their lives; they think that there is time left to reform the drunk, to recall the corrupt police, and to preserve a free press.
A sense of time passing and time taking shape ought to permeate Under the Dome: will Big Jim Rennie's bad heart blow out before he murders Dale Barbara, the novel's good guy? How long will it be before the locked down atmosphere of the dome become too poisonous to breath? When will Jackie Wellington come to her senses and join the Resistance? Yet, these character's walk through King's chapters without really thinking about time. They don't seem to share the reader's anxiety about its passing until it is entirely obvious that time left has become time ending.
Here, Bettelheim and surely most readers' part company with King. King shows no understanding that some of his characters need to possess a sense of time that tells them that now is the time: to rebel, to derail the system, to organize an opposition. The urgency of time now compels action and acts of courage. Instead, King takes a long, scenic route and fakes suspense by allowing characters to pretend that they don't know when something bad is going to happen.
King's deafness to time is most clearly shown in how he depicts organized religion. A monolithic fundamentalist Mega Church controlled by right wing ideologues has succeeded so well in capturing the majority of Chester's Mill Christians that they have no moral sense left, and no sense of time at all; members of this church simultaneously believe that it is End Times and that there is time left, to relax, to remain spiritually unambitious, and to put off reformation.
Failing to counterpoint the absurdity of this church and its followers is simply shooting fish in a barrel. The Republican Party has failed to deliver on even a single promise to the Christian Right, and linking the two into such a silly and conventional literary contrivance is both cynical and cheap. King may have had fun creating such Republican lackeys, but in doing so exhibits about the same courage required to sucker punch a drunk.
Sadly, King missed the chance for a more nuanced and intelligent argument about how mainstream religion might respond to a dome-like crisis by making its sole representative, poor Piper Libby, an Ordained Disbeliever of a failing Congregational Church, responsible for carrying the water for Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, among legions of other dynamic, courageous, and inspired men and women of faith. Such a task is clearly impossible for Pastor Libby, and apparently for King as well; consequently, neither of them even tried.
Responsibility for managing the dome crisis falls to "First" Selectman Andy Sanders, a well-meaning but clueless dumbbell, and "Second" Selectman Jim Rennie, a crooked businessman and, although in the second seat, is the real power of the two and the one who calls the shots. Who might these fish be? Hmm. I thought you might know.
Under the Dome concludes with King's usual non-ending. Often, he can get by with the failure to close because his stories are interesting, his characters are classically likeable or creepy, and because few writers understand the inner life of children better than King. Usually, I give his lousy endings a pass. But Under the Dome is just shooting fish in a barrel. The Pat Robertson's of the world are doing just fine all by themselves: they don't need ten pound pseudo novels to help them self destruct.