Thursday, July 7, 2016

Cell

A few nights ago, I accidentally left my phone on my desk at work.  I don't live very far away, and I could have gone back to get it, but I didn't.

I'd just finished Cell a few days before that.  Coincidence?  Nope.

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Look, I don't actually believe that I could be turned into a flesh-ripping zombie by picking up a call on my mobile.  This is because I don't use my phone as a phone.  As an introvert, texting is a much less stressful way to communicate, without that awkward ending bit where you try to figure out who hangs up first.  My phone is a map, a calculator, a meteorologist, and a shopping mall, but it rarely acts as a telephone.


However, I do feel too reliant on my phone.   I experienced a moment of complete panic when I realized it wasn't with me.  And then I forced myself to breathe through it and keep driving.  I have a computer and a tablet--people can still communicate with me.  I do not need my phone to live, even though sometimes it feels that way.  And I survived the night!  It can be done, you guys.  Life without a phone, even if it's just for a night.

King takes the radiation-fear-mongering of the past to new heights in Cell.  He drops you into the life of Clayton Riddell, a struggling art teacher with a messy family life who's finally sold his first comic series to a publisher.  All of his doodling and sketching and mind-mapping has finally been rewarding.  Now, perhaps, his estranged wife will accept him.  And his son might even admire him.

It's a hot day in Boston when Clay signs his contract.  The kind of day during which even the most jaded adult would find herself stopping and saying, "Boy, I could really go for ice cream."  And lo!  The ice cream truck appears.  Would you be tempted?

And yet it is at this symbol of childhood and play and amusement that the terror begins for Clay.  All around him, people are texting, answering calls, or just plain fiddling with their cell phones.  Suddenly, everything shifts, a great cosmic lurch.  After answering their phones, people become angry.  Incoherent.  They no longer can speak but moan.  And they attack the closest person to them, beating and stabbing and tearing out throats.  From businesswoman to teen girls giggling over their latest text, all of humanity suddenly becomes feral.

After witnessing customers at the ice cream truck rip each other apart, he finds an ally in Tom and a teenager named Alice. Clay is frantically worried about his son, Johnny, who is the only one in his family with a cell phone. For safety. And now Clay exists in this limbo of not knowing whether Johnny used his phone or not; whether Johnny is now a "phone crazy" like most of humanity.

And thus begins the classic hero's quest. Only instead of journeying to destroy the One Ring in Mount Doom or traversing Ye Olde Angleterre in search of the Holy Grail, Clay, is on a journey, as so many horror protagonists are, to save his family. Well, mostly just his son, because his not-yet-ex-wife isn't super high on his priorities list.

Is Clay kind of a turd?  Yeah!  That's what makes him human.

I've noticed a lot of reviews ripping into this book for various reasons that dint make sense to me. Did I love it?  No. Was it enjoyable?  Yes.  But for the Eliterati, Stephen King is like He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named. Heaven forbid a horror novelist be successful!  I haven't read the entirety of King's On Writing, but from what I have seen, King is a thoughtful reader and writer. It irritates me to read complaints that this isn't "literary enough."  What is that supposed to mean? Not enough Freudian navel-gazing or cringe-worthy sexytimes?  Thank goodness! King tells fascinating stories, and just because he doesn't turn his protagonist into himself all the time (hello Phillip Roth!) does not make his stories less worthy of consideration.

Evidently, many people read Cell as an updated version of The Stand, but I don't agree with that. The Stand is an epic examination of humanity versus evil; Cell is a thriller that pulls you along on a gore-fest inspired by George Romero's Living Dead films.  I'm not saying that Cell is perfect--I had several issues with the book--but I also don't believe that King wrote this just to have more likes of money to roll in, as several reviewers allege.  He's not James Patterson, for heaven's sake.

So what didn't I like?  Well, King fridges his one interesting and strong female character (NOOOOOOO!!!), which immediately made me cranky.  Killing off SFCs for shock value or the old tug on the heartstrings is not cool.  King's better than that.

I was also surprised by the complete lack of investiture I had in Clayton and Johnny's relationship.  Usually, King excels at the tortured father/son relationship (see: The Shining) and he writes children really well.  This, though ... Johnny Gee was kind of like Beaver in Leave It To Beaver.  He was there because the story required it but showed no more personality than a piece of cardboard.  Maybe even a piece of soggy cardboard.  It was also difficult for me to consistently get a read on how old he was: the way the Clayton speaks about him, he sounds like he's five.  But then we're told that because he's in middle school, Clay and his wife gave their son a cell phone for emergencies.  And then when we actually meet Johnny, let's just say there's not much to get to know. 

The end game doesn't feel menacing enough.  Maybe I was spoiled by the Walkin' Dude or Charles Jacobs, but the mouthpiece for the zombie swarm, although visually arresting, isn't that scary.  Perhaps it's because he's overtly menacing instead of the quiet, calm, evil-to-the-bones scary that you've got in King's other villains. 

Cell was a fun and engrossing read, but I'd definitely skip it in favor of other books by King. This one is not going to age well due to the integral nature of a specific technology to the plot.  However, if you're contemplating a media fast or whatever they call it, this might be the jump scare factor you need to put down the cell phone and pick up a book. 

2 comments:

  1. I actually enjoy King's essays more than his fiction, believe it or not. I'll pick up a book of his short stories and read the introduction and the blurbs and thoroughly enjoy them before thinking, "Oh, yeah, better read the story..." I once bought a book with his name on it for my library without looking too hard and found it was actually a collection of essays on the history of horror fiction. Well, the kids didn't read it, but I did and loved it.

    As for the "not literary enough" it reminds me of when a student in my year at university had a hard time getting a thesis supervisor for her Honours thesis on Lord Of The Rings because "it's not academic enough"! Boy, would the Professor(Tolkien) have been annoyed! In the end, though, the English professor himself, who was a Tolkien nut(and owned a manuscript in Tolkien's handwriting) offered to supervise.

    Why does it have to be literary anyway? Stephen King tells a bloody good story and his books have become classics, more than can be said for a lot of literary fiction. Most big name literary novelists sell far fewer books than the likes of King.

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  2. PS I love the idea of people's mobile phones turning them into zombies. They do, you know, if not literally - I expect you drive to work, but I take a train and glancing around a carriage, there are usually a few people reading books, but the rest are playing on their phones, not looking at anyone else, not talking, not even on the phone! At the bus stop, the tram stop, at the station... phones. My phone just makes calls, sends texts and does the occasional photo, that's all. I do take my iPad, but it's mostly to read the papers or books or write a blog post - no time to do much else on the way to work. One guy whom I see occasionally on the train said, in response to my "Why didn't you say hullo before we got off?" said, "You were reading a book, I didn't want to disturb you." He assumed that was what I was doing on my iPad(it was the newspaper).

    I'm wondering, from what you say, if Mr King wasn't saying something about people and their phones in real life?

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