03 December 2009

Under the Dome by Stephen King

Stephen King's new novel, Under the Dome, is a tremendously entertaining and often emotionally affecting story about, among other things, cruelty and pity. King has called Lord of the Flies "the book that changed my life", and its influence feels especially strong here, where a Maine town is turned into an island when a mysterious, invisible dome suddenly covers it, and adults begin to behave like the children in Golding's novel. There are political overtones to the book, with the main villain, "Big Jim" Rennie, sounding an awful lot like Big Dick Cheney; with crisis turned into political opportunity; with fear used as a tool for consolidating power; with brutality replacing sense. These connections to the world outside the book are important, sometimes amusing and sometimes even insightful, but they're also obvious (intentionally so, I'd bet). More complex and interesting is the novel's narrative voice and how it relates to the revelation of what created the Dome.

(It is here, dear reader, that you should depart if you have not read the novel and do not want to learn important details of plot and situation, for I shall soon be writing about some of the primary mysteries of the tale........)

One of the ideas propelling the narrative of Under the Dome is that it is a rare person who will not, under the right circumstances, behave in a cruel and brutal way. There's nothing particularly profound about this -- we all know about the Milgram experiments, after all -- but it's one of those ideas that proves particularly fruitful for storytellers. In Lord of the Flies, Golding found a powerful template for such an idea, and King has extended it to the world of adults, although the adults who are self-reflective and try for decency often think back to the shames and cruelties of childhood. Shame for the decent people usually comes as much from complicity as from the commission of crimes: Dale "Barbie" Barbara, the primary protagonist-hero of Under the Dome carries tremendous guilt for having stood by while soldiers under his command tortured and killed a man in Iraq. Barbie's shame mixes at the end with the very different shame of the other protagonist-hero, Julia, who helps evoke a sort of pity from the alien child controlling the Dome by projecting her memories of abasement at the hands of the children who had attacked her in elementary school along with Barbie's memories of Fallujah, and the effect is to cause the alien child to lift the Dome: "She took pity," Julia says, "but she wasn't sorry." The shame wasn't enough to bridge the gap of species and create empathy, but it is enough to evoke pity and a sort of mercy.

There are more implications in the novel's exploration of such emotions as pity, empathy, and remorse, but the one I found most striking was how the reader becomes implicated by the narrative. The people who get their news of the Dome from CNN are observers, just as the aliens are observers, just as we are observers. We take pity and are not sorry, because this is our entertainment. There's a Hitchcockian element to it all -- reading the book, we share some qualities with the aliens who have set the Dome down on the town of Chester's Mill. The Dome is there in the narrative for our entertainment. The characters suffer and die because we read the words that equal their suffering and death: we create that suffering and death in our minds, and we take some sort of pleasure from the imagining. Julia hears the alien child say, "You aren't real," and "How can you have lives if you aren't real?" Julia tries to convince the alien otherwise, screaming out that she is, indeed, real:
--Prove it [the alien child says.]

--Give me your hand.

--I have no hand. I have no body. Bodies aren't real. Bodies are dreams.

--Then give me your mind!

The child does not. Will not.

So Julia takes it.
The moment can't help but be metafictional. The words we have read are tools that let us imagine a character named Julia, and that imagined character, like all the other characters in the book, has, indeed, taken our mind. If we have read this far, we want her to live. We have developed more feelings for her than the alien child has, though, because we are capable of more than pity -- our minds have turned the words into characters and situations, and those characters and situations have evoked emotions. We have reached the point in the narrative where we want the tension to be released, where we are ready for an end, and so the Dome lifts ... and a few pages later, the book runs out of words.

Thus, King has made us complicit. We are the alien children. Storytelling is an experiment in cruelty. We could have stopped reading at any point. We did not need to imagine the suffering and horrible destruction -- we could have stopped it. But we wanted to see what happened. We wanted to be entertained, amused, to pass some time with this toy of a tale. Fiction is a safe way to enjoy all sorts of things we'd rather not enjoy in life, because it's all make-believe. How can the characters have lives if they aren't real? It's just a story.

The narrative voice supports the metafiction -- it is not invisible. From the earliest pages, the narrator tells us of things that will happen in the future. By page 37 (of the U.S. hardcover) we can't ignore the narrator, who suddenly steps forward:
We have toured the sock-shape that is Chester's Mill and arrived back at Route 119. And, thanks to the magic of narration, not an instant has passed since the sixtyish fellow from the Toyota slammed face-first into something invisible but very hard and broke his nose.
If the narration has been transparent, it has now revealed itself to be, like the Dome, very hard indeed.

The narrator, being a good storyteller, encourages our fun, popping in now and then to let us know that everything is going to get much worse. If we keep reading and are horrified at the carnage, we cannot say we were not warned.

The citizens of Chester's Mill aren't like ants being tortured and killed by sadistic children, as the survivors think. They're like characters in a novel: their misery is the stuff of someone else's entertainment.

Maybe Aristotle was right, and great tragedy produces some sort of purging of pity and fear. If so, Under the Dome is a great tragedy about great tragedy. Scholars have argued for centuries over who benefits from Aristotle's purgation -- the creator, the characters, the audience? We could argue the same for Under the Dome. For centuries, too, people have debated the uses of art and imagination, the morality of imagining suffering and horror, the complicity of narrative voyeurism.

And yet few of us desire stories where the characters do not face obstacles, do not struggle and suffer, because, alien children that we are, we can't help but want to set down Domes and see what happens.