Tuesday, December 13, 2011
What I Learned From Stephen King
I also think his book UNDER THE DOME should be required reading, but for wholly different reasons.
Out of mutual writerly respect, I don't usually review books negatively, but in this case, I think Stephen King can take it. And, for the record, there was way more to like about this book than dislike, but there were two glaring problems with this book that I think those aspiring to publish a book will appreciate.
I'm going to do my best to avoid spoilers but they may happen. I'll try to keep my brief discussion as vague as possible.
The short short version of the book is this: A dome suddenly appears in the town of Chester's Mill cutting them off completely from the outside world. Chaos ensues.
What I liked about this book was that King set up a huge cast of characters. He wove in wonderfully unique backstories and built up each event so that all the threads came together in ways I hadn't thought of. I also loved some of the language. Simple stuff really. The way King described these characters, as if he had known them his whole life.
But then came the problems. King was trying to set up the idea that people, in a situation like being trapped under a dome, would slowly go mad. Rational people, good people, would stoop to committing horrendous acts, cruelties they'd never before considered, and that it was only a matter of time before those things occurred. And I agree with his sentiment. People in groups become irrational mobs. However, King moved at an accelerated pace in less than 7 days. It only takes 2 days before the citizen police force, made up of mostly former juvenile delinquents, to begin abusing their power. Raping and killing and acting like a brute squad rather than a police force. It only takes 3 days for the resident sleazy politician to gather all the power to him and become a de facto dictator. And it only takes about 5 days for the climax of the book to occur. If this book was only a few hundred pages long, I could understand the accelerated pace, but UNDER THE DOME was well over a thousand pages. If King wanted to show us the deterioration of a society cut off from the rest of the world, he should have used his book's length to show a realistic timeline. The way the town unravels–even accelerated at they were by the novel's main bad guy–was simply too unbelievable in the length of time of the story.
The sad part about this is that the things that did happen, I could see happening. I could see riots. I could see people committing suicide out of a sense of hopelessness. But not after 4 days. After 4 days trapped under the dome, people begin killing themselves. At that point, there was no shortage of air, food, water. They simply lost hope and killed themselves. And I call bullshit on that.
My second major problem was that the good guys were too virtuous and the bad guys were too vile. King hinted at flaws in our heroes, but never took the time to develop them...which is a real travesty in a book of this size. But worse than overly virtuous heroes are bad guys that are practically twirling their mustaches.
A great bad guys is someone we feel pity for. Someone we can relate to. Someone whose actions we can watch and think, "There but for the grace of God go I." King's villains were so douchey that I felt nothing but relief when they were foiled. They were so ridiculously over the top that I groaned when they did something else. Not content to be corrupt, they have to be the MOST CORRUPT EVER!!! Not content to be bullies, they have to be SUPER BULLIES. In one scene, the earlier rape I mentioned, one of the citizen officers involved was a girl...a girl who egged the rape one. Which I found so utterly unbelievable, I nearly quit the book right there. Now, had King taken the time to show us why a young woman might enjoy watching the rape of another woman–say she hated the girl in question or she herself was raped once and no one helped her and now wants other women to suffer as she did–I might have understood the motivations behind it. But there were none. This character was simply imbued with a boundless cruelty for no other reason than King decided it should be so.
A third problem I had, which related to the character issue above, was that characters often acted in such a way that I could see King pulling the strings. Characters withheld vital information from other characters for no discernible reason except to push the plot in a specific direction. It was maddening to say the least.
At the end of the day, UNDER THE DOME was interesting. It was enjoyable. It also taught me a lot about what NOT to do in a book. Timelines and chains of events must follow believable patterns. A society can break down in under 7 days, but only under very extreme pressure...and King just didn't earn the kind of breakdown he wrote. It was too much too soon. And it's okay to have nuanced characters. Good characters can sometimes be bad and bad characters can sometimes be good and bad guys need to have MOTIVES. Bad for the sake of being bad is sloppy, lazy, and just plain wrong.
So read it if you have time. If you don't, read ON WRITING instead.