Tuesday, December 29, 2009

And that was the year that was

by Joshua Corin

I love The Twilight Zone. Don't you? Well-written allegory conveyed through the genre of suspense-filled fantasy. What could be better than that? So believe me when I say that Stephen King's Under the Dome is the best Twilight Zone episode that never was.

The premise, for those of you who have been scared away by the novel's 1100 page girth, is simple: town in Maine (natch) suddenly gets enclosed by the world's biggest snow globe, trapping everyone inside (and viciously killing an unlucky few). The town's First Selectman is a bit of a well-intentioned dummy, so the town's Second Selectman, car dealer Big Jim Rennie, has always been the real boss, and now Rennie takes advantage of the townspeople's fear to acquire more and more power for himself. He has those loyal to him deputized. Those disloyal to him begin to disappear. By the by, Rennie also is a born-again Evangelical Christian who uses his indoctrinated faith as a justification for his misdeeds.

Get the allegory yet?

Stephen King is firing on all cylinders with Under the Dome. His storytelling gifts have never been in question, but lately his work has suffered from a certain maudlin didacticism and from a sense of recycled ideas; combined these bugaboos have hampered even the best of his prose (yes, Lisey's Story, I'm talking to you). Here, though, he is back on top, fusing that wonderfully casual voice of his to a fast-paced, character-driven narrative.

For me, genre works best when it employs the conventions of fantasy to offer commentary on reality. By fantasy, I of course don't just mean sword-and-sorcery derring-do. I mean any work of imaginative fiction. A great many thrillers are, to me, works of fantasy. One of my favorite thrillers of this decade, Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island, is a prime example. When a story pushes the bounds of the everyday - what could be more exciting than that? Protect me from ordinary stories about ordinary people, please (unless they're written with extraordinary style a la Carver or Chekhov). Give me a town under a dome.

Is Under the Dome my favorite novel published in 2009? It's certainly up there. I also was quite fond of Steve Hely's How I Became a Famous Novelist, Marc Fitten's Valeria's Last Stand, Rebecca Cantrell's A Trace of Smoke,and Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply. Fantasies all. To be honest, much of my reading in 2009 was restricted to 18th-19th century American literature (for a class I taught at my college) so there are still quite a few novels which came out this year that are on my to-read list. And I look forward to reading them all, and hoping that each will provide me with that perfectly paradoxical combination of escapism and mimesis exemplified by the best episodes of The Twilight Zone.


Sophie Littlefield said...

I have been hearing a lot of buzz about DOME - and honestly, I've been thinking of buying it for my brand-spankin-new kindle (thanks Santa!!) for the sheer novelty of carrying a zillion billion words around in that tiny little digital nothin. (ok, ok, I know the rest of you sophisticated types are all ho-hum over the technology but i still think it's almost unbearably keen.)

I bought LISEY (in hardback!) and never read it. did the trick of landing in the middle to see how a few graphs hit me, and it just...didn't. Am looking forward to giving the new one a shot.

(Pimped out On Writing at nearly every workshop we did this year...)

Joshua Corin said...

Isn't ON WRITING just about the best book on how to write good prose? I love it. And the autobiographical section is heartbreaking.

Jen Forbus said...

I'm not much of a fan of Stephen King and that's not to take anything away from his writing abilities. I just simply don't do horror and by the time he started veering a bit from that genre, I had so much else I was reading that I never really checked into any by him.

This year I did not read much 18-19c. American lit. and I still have many, many books from 2009 I'd like to read! This was just an amazing year for crime fiction. I hope 2010 is equally great if not better...of course, then I'll have even more backup if that's the case, but who cares?!?!?

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Thanks, Josh! I knew there was a reason I wanted you to be my co-blogger (so you could say nice things about my book!).

I loved NUCLEAR WINTER WONDERLAND too, BTW. Great sense of the absurd! Exactly what one expects when a slacker and a Spanish-speaking Croatian clown set out to save the world from a serial killer armed with 12 nuclear weapons.

But really, couldn't you have made the nuclear weapons something more modern, like heroin? :)

Kelli Stanley said...

Josh, I could go on about The Twilight Zone for hours ... SUPERB writing, in a range of genres and emotional resonance. Many of the same writers--Richard Matheson, for example--also wrote for THRILLER, which was more of a horror show, and for my money, the scariest to ever hit TV. Unfortunately, it's not available on DVD.

As for TZ ... Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life" is one of the most terrifying short stories ever--brilliantly done--and "The Invaders", with Agnes Moorehead, is extraordinary. But I loved the gentler TZ moments, too ... like "A Stop at Willougby." And if I remember correctly, "An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge"--Oscar-winning short from France--aired as a TZ episode.

Just remember: "It's a cookbook!" ;)


Evan Lewis said...

Fine review. King's fine prose has been squandered too long on mere horror.

Shane Gericke said...

Mmmm, that book sounds good, Josh. I've been scared away from King books for awhile, for the reasons you cite, but this sounds like he's back in old form. I like your sum-up, too: Maine town in a snow globe.

I read On Writing when I switched over from newspapers to books, and it was the best how-to I ever read. Quick, too, which was even better. Dean Koontz had a dandy how-to out then too, but the name escapes me.

Joshua Corin said...

Kelli - I love those episodes of TZ. Some of the best TV ever.

I think Dean Koontz's book was Writing Popular Fiction or some such. I remember reading it as a kid in my local library, although I have very little recollection of any of the suggestions he offers. But I have very little recollection of any of Koontz.