Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Stephen King: Cell (2006)

At 3:00 PM on a sunny October afternoon in Boston, graphic novelist Clay Riddell witnesses the beginning of the end of the world. As he later learns, an electronic pulse has been sent out over all cell phone lines, turning anyone who is using a phone into a violent, mindless zombie; people who later use cell phones - such as in response to the ensuing carnage - are also affected.

Stephen King exercises his anti-technology muscles in Cell, a 350-page book that would have worked much better for me as a novella. The main plot concerns Riddell travelling on foot to his home in Maine, hoping to learn the fate of his 12-year-old son Johnny.

Soon after the Pulse (as it is called among the group of survivors we follow), Clay meets up with a middle-aged man named Tom McCourt. At first, they wonder if this is another terrorist attack. Hearing huge explosions coming from the direction of Logan Airport, Tom cries, "The bastards are doing it by plane again." King's description of the air full of "fine dark ash" from numerous fires evokes downtown Manhattan on 9/11. The diaspora after Hurricane Katrina is also mentioned later in the novel.

A little while later, the two men are joined by a teenaged girl named Alice Maxwell. The three self-described refugees head out of Boston on foot to Tom's house in the suburb of Malden - and then head further north from there, as Clay is obsessed with getting back to his house near Kent Pond in Maine.

The theory in Cell is that the Pulse has wiped out the minds of its victims, like a virus wiping out a computer's hard drive. However, the "phone-crazies" seem to evolve quickly and are soon acting in concert and roaming around in packs. The Pulse has removed the thin veneer of civilization from many citizens and they have reverted back to a more primordial state. A university professor tells Riddell and the others that
man has come to dominate the plant thanks to two essential traits. One is intelligence. The other has been the absolute willingness to kill anyone and anything that gets in his way. Mankind's intelligence finally trumped mankind's killer instinct, and reason came to rule over mankind's maddest impulses. ... [M]ost of us had sublimated the worst in us until the Pulse came along and stripped away everything but that red core.
Besides the thinness of the plot and some rehashed ideas from The Stand (characters communicating through dreams, being drawn to something or a force they have been dreaming about), King has a number of annoying tics that ruined what little pleasure I took from the book. He has the habit of repeating facts, events, and descriptions of people throughout the narrative, as though he doesn't trust his readers to remember what has happened or who a character is. This happens dozens and dozens of times in Cell, and this one example will suffice as an illustration: On page 126, "a man with a pair of flashlights rigged to a kind of harness [on his head]" introduces himself as "Mr. Roscoe Handt of Methuen". A mere three pages later, on page 129, King writes: "... and by four o'clock they were nearing Methuen, hometown of Mr. Roscoe Handt, he of the stereo flashlights".

King also writes a lot of sentences along the lines of "Clay didn't know why he thought that, but he did." In addition, the characters spitball theories about the "phone-crazies" and sort of agree on one possibility. That is then used for the rest of the book as a proven fact and the crazies act accordingly. I see this as a sly trick to push the plot forward among a group cut off from everyone else, but it isn't very well hidden - and it happens a lot in Cell.

Online reviews of the book were mixed. Blog Critics stated that "Cell represents a refreshing, grizzly, creepy and often powerful exploration of the nature of humanity ... [T]he brilliance of Cell is how King manages to mix exploration of humanity with a powerful and engaging apocalyptic story." Pop Matters published a glowing rave: King "creates a kind of sickening dread that only gets deeper as the novel continues. ... [T]he overwhelming feeling of helplessness, fatalism and inevitability makes Cell one of King’s most potent page-turners."

Others faulted King for "flat characters and flatter dialogue". Although King is usually quite good at creating full characters, I agree with this last assessment.

Next: Lisey's Story.

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