January 4, 2010

UNDER THE DOME (Review part 1)

by Stephen King
877 pages, Hodder & Stoughton, 2009

Review by Paul Fenton

Under the Dome, Day One:

I pick up my copy of Under the Dome (henceforth referred to as UTD) from the Waterstones branch near my office, having ordered it online for delivery to the store for a healthy fifty-percent discount.

Fenton 1, King 0.

It is heavy and it is big. I remove the cardboard packaging in the hope that it will be smaller and lighter. It is not; if anything it seems to have gained mass, as though the cardboard packaging housed many small pockets of helium and was keeping it subtly afloat. I jam it into my man-bag and proceed to distribute minor contusions amongst my fellow Underground commuters on the hour-ish journey home (no, that was not a misspelling of whorish, though obviously it did cross my mind).

Bed-time rolls around and the reading begins:

UTD is set in a small town in Maine. I know, can you believe it? Maine, of all places. This Stephen King fellow is clearly free of the geographical constraints other writers are bound by. (Mental note: avoid sarcasm from here on in – Stephen King is a god among writers and you are merely a foot-servant, or on a good day an altar boy) A seemingly normal day starts to slip off-kilter when a woodchuck is sliced in half by the sudden appearance of an invisible barrier around the town of Chester’s Mill. Then a light plane smacks into it. Birds in Maine are either considerably less intuitive than their cousins in other states, or are as unable to detect the barrier as the unfortunate plane, and pretty soon there are widespread feathery markers to map out the dome’s boundary.

As this is all happening we are introduced to the cast of UTD chapter-by-chapter. We’re forewarned of the likelihood of extended periods of character development by both the book’s size and by the cast list at the beginning. No problem at all, I’m cool with that. Does rankle me a smidge when some of the characters die just as I’m developing a mental picture (This is Jill, she likes watercolours and musicals and driving really fast on country roads and … Jill, watch out for the dome!), it’s like making friends with pound puppies a week after Christmas, but I remember I shouldn’t expect rainbows and unicorns from Stephen King. Well, maybe unicorns – tell me you wouldn’t shit yourself if you saw Black Beauty charging at you with a metre-long blood-crusted bony ice-pick jutting out of her forehead.

One of the main characters seems to be shaping up in the form of Dale Barbara, an Iraq war veteran who moved to Chester’s Mill to work as a fry cook and who has not yet been killed by his author. I glance back to the dustcover summary and see him mentioned there, so I think I’ll be seeing him for at least another seven hundred pages. Why King decided to nickname him ‘Barbie’ I’ve yet to learn, though I hope it wasn’t based on a weak Ken/Barbie gag early on. The role of Chief Antagonist looks to be taken by Big Jim Rennie, a corrupt old-boy bully who keeps bringing to mind Boss Hog from the old Dukes of Hazzard TV series, though meaner. With the lengthy cast list and the initial good-evil dichotomy being established rather openly, this feels like it might be treading a similar thematic path as ‘The Stand’.

It gets late. My arms grow tired, and my wife makes her point by asking me where her eye-mask is, knowing full well she doesn’t own one. There ends Day 1.

Under the Dome, Day 2:

Crikey, this thing seems to have put on weight overnight. I consider my options for commute-friendly reading material, and go for something much slimmer and lighter than UTD; and coupled with a late finish at work, there ends Day 2.

You can see my dilemma, it’s not a new one: big book + rush-hour commuting = unproductive pain. You try reading a phonebook in one hand, holding it at shoulder height to keep it in a clear space – if not your own personal space then at least some kind of neutral zone – while trying to maintain your grip on an overhead handhold, as vicious scrums of city workers assemble and disassemble in random mercenary patterns to such a degree where the motion of your legs is no longer something you control. Then try to turn the page with the edge of your thumb, only to drop the thing on the foot of the only person in the country wearing sandals in December.

For a minute I thought about buying a Kindle, or the Sony equivalent. Just a moment, before I realised I was one more gadget-purchase away from Trouble. It’s all the cords and chargers, my wife hates them. She believes electronic appliances, in this day and age, should draw their energy from the air. Great idea, as long as you don’t sweat too much.

About 95% of all my reading is done to and from work, so this is going to be a review in instalments. Part two coming soon. And if you’re wondering, so far I haven’t seen anything to connect this story with The Simpsons Movie. Yes, there’s a dome, but so far I’ve not seen a single mention of Dome Depot (amazing that I instantly know the jingle for that, yet I’ve never lived in a country where Home Depot had an operation or advertised itself) or the EPA, so I think we can assume Mr King probably started UTD well before Springfield was endomed.

This ‘kind-of’ review was brought to you by Asus Eee PC netbooks, Apple iPod 5G, AKG headphones, Homedics shiatsu massage cushions, and too much coffee after 3pm.

(read review part 2 here)


  1. Sitting in an internet cafe in Ullapool, waiting for my ferry to take me home to my island paradise... Sub-zero temperatures outside but your review has made me laugh enough to crack the mask of ice that was forming on my face.

  2. I like the in-progress review, for the giganto novel. And you'd better stick a copyright symbol on the story of a guy who buys a novel that grows a little bigger each night...