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.