Scribner • 2006 • 384 pages
A Novel Critique
Technology has always unnerved Stephen King. Early works like "Trucks" and "The Mangler" (later collected in Night Shift) explore the horrors of machinery out of human control. Later, longer works like The Tommyknockers and The Waste Lands are more nuanced, looking more deeply at the way people interact with technology that they don't understand. Cell, King's first full-length work of fiction since the finale of the Dark Tower series, examines a different sort of technological horror: the destructive possibilities of mass communication. As the earlier novella "Everything's Eventual" utilized email as a vehicle to hypnotically suggest people into suicide, in Cell, cell phone users are suddenly affected by something known as The Pulse, turning them instantly into mindless, zombie-like creatures: primitive, aggressive, and brutally violent.
The main thrust of the story concerns Clay Riddell, a graphic novel artist and writer who has just gotten his big break before the Pulse hits. He's in downtown Boston, and the only things on his mind are presents for his son and his estranged wife, and an ice cream cone for himself. When the Pulse hits, its result is swift and bloody. A proper woman in a business suit in line ahead of him at the ice cream stand goes ballistic, lurching forward to tear the ice cream vendor apart. At the nearby Boston Common, a man suddenly turns on his dog, attempting to bite its ear off. Small and large pockets of violence erupt seemingly out of nowhere. Clay's only response is to find his son, and to ensure his safety.
Thus, Cell opens up as a quest novel, albeit more compact and with a narrower focus than The Stand, The Talisman, or the epic Dark Tower series. Clay's journey from Boston to Maine interestingly reverses the Heart Of Darkness-esque expedition at the center of King's earlier Dreamcatcher. As every one of King's novels between Dreamcatcher and Cell have taken place largely outside King's Maine, this might be read as a statement of purpose: King would return to his home turf with his following two novels, Lisey's Story and Blaze.
Clay soon bands with other "normals" not affected by The Pulse: Tom McCourt, a middle-aged man from Malden, Massachusetts, and Alice Maxwell, a teenage girl initially too terrified to approach them. These three are drawn with expert broad strokes, always seeming believable without dwelling too much on detail. This is indicative of Cell's almost leisurely writing style: though the events in this novel are compelling, even urgent, there is a relaxed quality to the writing itself, the story flowing easily from one event to the next. While the apocalyptic proceedings and quest structure seem to beg comparisons to The Stand, Cell boasts none of that earlier novel's mythic feel. More than anything, Cell reads like an action thriller, coming closest in tone and theme to the Richard Bachman novel The Regulators. While Cell deals with somewhat weightier themes and Clay's is an ostensibly optimistic story, the books share an essential nihilism absent from much of King's work. It is interesting to note that the central conflict in The Regulators stems from television - another exploration of technophobia.
King's three central protagonists represent some interesting ongoing aspects in King's evolving character work. While creative people remain integral to King's fiction, here he seems to be taking the first steps away from those people being novelists. Clay Riddell, a comic-book writer and artist, points the way toward the more richly developed artist Edgar Freemantle in the upcoming Duma Key. Alice Maxwell serves as an emotional adjunct to Clay Riddell's savior character; in this way, she recalls Mattie Devore in Bag of Bones, a young woman "saved" by the novel's protagonist, only to be brutally murdered. Indeed, Alice anticipates Edgar Freemantle's daughter Ilse of Duma Key - in both her role in relation to the male center of the novel and in her brutal murder - making these three well-drawn young women part of a perhaps unintended triptych of misfortune.
Tom McCourt is unusual in King's fiction both because he is gay, and because his homosexuality doesn't seem all that unusual. Neither Clay nor Alice care much about this aspect of Tom, representing a major step in King's treatment of gay characters. While characters such as the bisexual Dayna Jurgens (The Stand), Tommy Woodbine (The Talisman), and Bill McGovern (Insomnia) are positive - and occasionally heroic - figure in minor roles, characters such as the stereotypically effeminate Adrian Mellon (It) and the subservient Roger in The Shining seem to have been featured more prominently. The fact that Tom's sexuality is briefly addressed and accepted (and that he reads more like a person than a stereotype) suggests a culmination of King's more complex and interesting handling of gay characters begun in the mid-90s, anticipating characters like Curtis Johnson in the later Just After Sunset story, "A Very Tight Place".
Clay's tight group soon meets other survivors, including the last surviving "normal" student (named Jordan) and teacher (Charles Ardai, who shares his name with the co-creator of Hard Case Crime Books, publisher of King's The Colorado Kid) at New Hampshire prep school Gaiten Academy. Through these characters, King theorizes on the intent and nature of The Pulse itself - what it is, where it came from, and who or what caused it. Here, the subtext of Cell begins to surface, as Jordan and the others directly reference the attacks of September 11, 2001. Could The Pulse have been a subtler - and arguably more insidious - form of terrorism? While King offers no concrete answers, the specter of 9/11 looms over the remainder of the novel, carrying over into several concurrent short stories that would later appear in King's Just After Sunsetcollection. (Cell's paperback cover subtly underscores this connection, showing the garish red display screen of a cell phone; the 911 under the cracks in the plastic can be read both as a call for help and as a punctuation of the novel's themes of terrorist threat.)
Jordan further hypothesizes that The Pulse erases humanity from the brains of those affected, leading to a deeper level of technological horror. King wonders if, at base, people are essentially sophisticated computers. If The Pulse can wipe humanity away in one stroke, how different are people from machines? This pessimistic theory allows for some optimism, however: if people can be "crashed," can they also be rebooted? This question - never quite answered - becomes essential as the novel races to its close.
Those affected by the Pulse - known eventually as "phone crazies" or simply "phoners" - swiftly develop psychic abilities, including telekinesis, levitation, and telepathy. These "wild talents" defined much of King's early work, especially in the novels Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone, and Firestarter, which are built around people gifted (or cursed) with them. While minor characters, like Pet Sematary's Ellie Creed or the Dark Tower's Susannah Dean, possessed some psychic abilities, it was only with the The Green Mile's John Coffey that King fully returned to this concept, later devoting much of the recent Dreamcatcher to a deeper exploration into the repercussions of special talents.
Here, Clay and his friends are haunted by a series of disturbing prophetic dreams, further strengthening Cell's connection to The Stand. Following their attack on a "flock" of phoners, the survivors' dreams feature a creature who comes to be known at The Raggedy Man, seemingly a figurehead for the phoners. While King attempts to draw The Raggedy Man as a compelling antagonist, unfortunately his appearance undercuts the mindless terror of the early portions of the book. By giving the phoners a leader, the unpredictable menace of the early potions of the book diminishes. Additionally, because Cell seems in many ways an echo of The Stand, comparisons between The Raggedy Man and Randall Flagg are inevitable. Unfortunately, Flagg has attained a mythic, almost legendary status in King's novels and among readers, making favorable comparisons nearly impossible.
However, while The Raggedy Man falls somewhat short of intentions, Cell remains a thoroughly readable and engaging novel, one of King's most fast-paced written under his own name (only Firestarter and the early Bachman novels approach the swiftness of the narrative). The title is one of King's more brilliant multiple-meaning names, indicating not only cell phones, but also Clay's resistance cell, and the concept that brain cells can be wiped and rebooted. Cell is also King's last book to utilize an ambiguous ending, concluding a series of novels - From a Buick 8, The Dark Tower, and The Colorado Kid chief among them - with inconclusive finales. While the lack of a concrete "ending" can be impactful, lack of closure can result in reader frustration; even King reported that, due to strong reader reaction, his screenplay adaptation for Cell concludes more traditionally. For better or for worse, King's exploration of this controversial technique has, ironically, ended.