Read a Book, Why Don’t You: Under the Dome
I want to like Stephen King. I really, really do.
He’s undeniably an important writer, at least insofar as he’s written a ton of books that have sold enormously well, and become virtually synonymous with “contemporary American novelist”. He’s managed to remain successful even in a terrible downtime for fiction, and even if you’re a detractor, those sales numbers cannot be ignored. But sales numbers aside, he’s got a lot of respectable, even admirable qualities: he’s prolific, hard-working and intelligent; he’s generous, politically involved, and very active in a number of worthwhile causes; he tries his best to be socially relevant, which is a positive trait even when it doesn’t pan out; and he seems like a very decent person who it would be worthwhile to know in private life. He’s an advocate of literacy, and he’s got a lot of opinions about writing — some of them are even good ones, although I often wish he’d follow his own advice, or better yet, the advice of others. Still, many writers are more attuned to the faults of others than they are their own, and I am certainly no exception, so I can’t throw stones in that regard.
Notice, though, that I haven’t said much about King as a writer. That’s no coincidence. It’s not that there’s nothing to say about him in terms of his literary talents: he’s very creative, he’s done a lot to make genre fiction more respectable, and, as we’ll get to in a moment, he demonstrates a mastery of one particular aspect of writing that is astonishing, even unparalleled in the world today. It’s just that his shortcomings so outweigh his strengths that it’s easy to become frustrated with his books, to the degree that I’ve begun to wonder if he’s so successful these days that no one even bothers to edit his material. I re-approach his work every half-decade or so just to see if I’m missing something vital — a tendency I often indulge with popular art that doesn’t immediately appeal to me — and so I just finished his most recent major novel, Under the Dome. Again: I wanted to like it. I really, really did. I’ve liked King before, if never truly loved him (‘Salem’s Lot, Carrie and a number of his short stories are favorite examples of making the most out of genre), and The Stand comes very close to greatness. But Under the Dome is so full of clunky moments, so shabbily put together, so totally indulgent of King’s worst tendencies as a writer that I question how anyone can call it a good book.
I’m not going to bother going into much detail about the book — there are a million sites that will do that for you. (I’ll also refrain from doing as some critics did and pointing out that the basic plot — a small town becomes trapped under a mysterious and impenetrable force field — has been done before. Originality of idea is hugely overrated. It’s originality of execution that is wanted.) Instead, I want to talk about what King does well, and what he does badly, and why I think these things matter to his overall reputation. First, let’s discuss what he does well — what he does, in fact, so incredibly well that I think it’s probably blinded people to how poorly he does just about everything else. Stephen King knows how to keep a story moving. Once the mechanics of his plots, however rickety, get moving, they never stop, and the effect is to create an illusion of constant motion, even when nothing is really happening. His stuff pops. He is, to get all literary, an undisputed master at creating what Roland Barthes termed the proairetic sequence — the combination of actions and sequences that give a narrative drive, and create in the reader an almost physical need to find out what happens next. King is quite aware of his gifts in this area: in Misery, his authorial stand-in discusses the “gotta”, the quality that turns a book into a page-turner and makes the reader stay up into the night because he’s gotta see where the story is going. He would likely reject the intellectual framing — King is no fan of post-structuralism or literary theory in general — but he is nonetheless precisely describing the proairetic code, at which he is staggeringly adept.
The thing is, though, the proairetic sequence is not enough. It’s valuable; it’s perhaps even of paramount importance. But if it’s all you have, your work is incomplete and flawed. Do you know what art form is the most accomplished at creating proairetic sequences, at hooking its readers so that they compulsively return to the text to see what happens next? The soap opera. And there’s a good reason nobody claims the title of high art, or even good art, for soap operas: because creating these sequences, these little scenarios of build-up and revelation, are all they can do. They lack almost every other quality of great fiction. And while it hasn’t always been this way, so, too, do the novels of Stephen King. One of the reasons he might want readers to rush through a thousand-page book is so they don’t notice what’s missing.
And what’s missing in Under the Dome? Almost everything. Let’s start with style: Raymond Chandler, who knew a few things about it, called style the single most important investment a writer could make with his time. But Stephen King — perhaps the most well-known writer in the world today — doesn’t have a style. One could not reproduce him stylistically, because he does not have a stylistic signature. Everything about his books is plot, plot, plot, but he never approaches a sentence as something beautiful, something to be crafted and loved. Try and quote a line from a Stephen King novel; your memory will betray you, since he does not write sentences that are memorable. He can turn in respectable dialogue, but it is almost entirely functional, a product of the massive amounts of exposition his plot-heavy novels require. Instead of style, King has tics and tendencies. Where other writers produce work that can be identified by its unique flavor, King simply shows off his range of tics: a tedious belief in the deep moral character of dogs. A love of corny regionalism and hokey as-my-old-granny-used-to-say phrases. A love of heroes who are writers and villains who are popular teenagers. (Under the Dome is a particularly heinous example of this one; Big Jim’s fascist police force is filled with callow, dumb jocks for no apparent reason than King has never gotten over his 50-year-old loathing of the type.) An addiction to citing name brands. And, for all his massive investment in plot, an inability to avoid freshman plotting mistakes.
This is perhaps the most striking element of King’s writerly qualities: he’s (correctly) highly praised for his ability to string together action sequences in the semblance of a plot, but he gets away with sloppy construction that an 11th grader would be taken to task for. He’s worse at ending his stories than that other Big Steve, Spielberg; he rivals M. Night Shyamalan in his ability to throw an out-of-nowhere plot development into the latter part of a story, completely defusing all the conflict that came before; and he’s developed a gift for the anticlimax that’s downright staggering. The Stand at least earned its apocalyptic non-confrontation between good and evil; the ending of the massively overhyped Dark Tower saga was simply pitiful, with a final showdown that would have seemed weak and inconsequential in the first book of the series, but in the last, was tantamount to an insult. And in Under the Dome, we learn nothing about the origins of the force field until well past halfway through the book, and then we learn almost nothing more for the duration. The ending is, essentially, a major character convincing an alien that humans are people too, at which point the completely unexplored extraterrestrial turns it off and goes away. I exaggerate not even a little, and after a thousand pages, if you’re not feeling ripped off by that ending, I wonder what other joys you get out of reading.
That King populates his stories with nothing but plot, and then makes the plots clangingly dumb, rushed and incomplete makes his other sins seem less dire, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. The stories are frequently utterly implausible, not because of the supernatural elements, but because the characters don’t behave in any recognizably human way (Big Jim’s degeneration into a small-town Hitler makes no sense in light of the fact that it plays out in front of the whole world with massive media attention; it would have been much more sensible if communication with the outside had been cut off, especially since that communication plays no other worthwhile part in the story). He’s never been good at listening to the way people really talk, and that only gets worse as he gets older (the scenes between Joe McClatchy and his friends are unbelievably embarrassing as representations of the way actual adolescents converse). He’s created a handful of memorable characters, most of them villains, but the only time I find myself re-reading his books is to look up characters’ names, because I can’t tell one from another based just on their portrayals. He doesn’t seem to have any interest in portraying the great themes or conflicts; he will frequently toss in a heavy-handed metaphor that doesn’t tell us anything new (the government is incompetent, powerful people are not to be trusted, ugly things lurk behind kindly facades), but one searches his work in vein for an interesting idea, a unique moral position, or a genuinely powerful observation about human nature. Indeed, his books have little re-read value at all; it’s all to tempting to wonder if the reason people praise his “readability” is because his books are so easy to read.
I could go through Under the Dome chapter by chapter to complain about how disappointing it is, but I haven’t the time and you haven’t the patience. (I will single out the introduction of Chef, the chapters starring Joe McClatchey, and the final five chapters of the book as especially egregious.) But it all ads up to this: Stephen King possesses, of all the desirable qualities of a good writer — plotting, theme, tone, characterization, dialogue, setting, scene, beginning, ending, and so on — only one in abundance. Everywhere else he is deficient, and has more or less been deficient since the 1980s. His novels are unconscionably padded and crammed with pointless and meandering detail. His work contains much business, but no insight. That he is one of the most important writers of his age is indisputable; that he is not a good writer is increasingly hard to ignore.