Onyx reviews: Cell by Stephen King
Thirty years after he destroyed 99.4% of the earth's population with a
superful virus in The Stand, Stephen King is at it again. While the notion of a
mutating virus obliterating humanity is as relevant today as it was in the
1970s, King has come up with a more contemporary—though less credible—cause for
the end of civilization: cell phones.
On a sunny October afternoon, a pulse is transmitted through the cellular
network that immediately turns callers into zombie-like creatures. Human
programming is erased, leaving behind only murderous intent. Anyone who's driven
near someone blathering on the phone won't find the notion of cell phones wiping
peoples' minds far-fetched.
Once people start killing each other, many of the unaffected who witness the
carnage instinctively flip open their phones to call someone, spreading the
corruption like an e-mail virus.
Until recently, imagining a city laid waste so quickly would have been
difficult. As King says in Cell's prologue, "Civilization slips into its
second dark age . . . with a speed that could not have been foreseen by even the
most pessimistic futurist. It was as if it had been waiting to go." No one
knows whether terrorists or geeks experimenting in a garage created the pulse.
Clay Riddell is strolling across Boston Common when the insanity begins. Until
then, his day was terrific. He just finalized a lucrative deal for his first two
graphic novels and is relishing getting home to Kent Pond, Maine to tell
everyone—especially his estranged wife, who never believed his doodling and
drawings would amount to anything. Within moments, everything he considered
important is rendered worthless.
An unbelievable diorama unfolds before his eyes. A woman in a power suit waiting
to buy ice cream suddenly crawls through the back of the truck and attacks the
vendor. A teenager leaps at the businesswoman and bites her neck. A man chews
the ear off a dog. Cars plow through crowds of pedestrians. Clutching his
talismanic art portfolio, Clay watches in shock and disbelief. Replaying the
scenes in his artist's mind, he pinpoints cell phones as the origin of the
He is spurred into action when a knife-wielding man attacks. He and Tom McCourt—whose
life he saves with his portfolio—make their way through murder and mayhem to
Clay's hotel. They don't waste time trying to figure out what is happening.
Survival is their primary objective, which means getting out of town. The "phoners"—those
affected by the pulse—are homicidal but not very smart.
Clay wants to get back to Maine to check on his son, the only member of the
family with a cell phone, given to him after Clay's wife moved out that spring.
Clay has no other way of finding out what's going on. He muses that in most
films where the world ends, the heroes build it back up again, but Clay is no
hero, and no one knows which technology can be trusted, not even a radio that
might provide news—or could be another conduit for the pulse.
They walk north, joined by Alice Maxwell, one of the few surviving adolescents.
Unlike in The Stand, where the survivors chose between good or evil in the
aftermath, there are no dividing lines here. The "normies" do not band
together to fight off the evil phoners. Instead, they exhibit "a rather
shabby lack of interest in anyone other than themselves." Groups passing
each other on the roads are civil, but express no interest in forming larger
factions. Suspicion and distrust taint every interaction.
Once Clay, Tom and Alice escape the city, on foot because the highways are
clogged with wrecks (we told you not to talk on the phone while driving, King
seems to imply), the book turns into a road trip tale and the breakneck pace of
the opening scenes slows considerably. The trio's first destination is Kent
Pond. Beyond that, they don't know.
The phoners become more organized, moving in flocks. They seem to be developing
psychic abilities and no longer kill each other, only normies. When Clay and his
group fight back after discovering a field full of hibernating phoners they
become outcasts, even to other normies.
Explanations for the inexplicable are rarely satisfying, but can be glossed over
if not crucial to the story. If readers can buy into the technobabble King's
characters spout to justify what happened and how to rectify their situation,
Cell is an entertaining thrill ride. In King's words, like "cheap whisky .
. . very nasty and extremely satisfying."
However, the rationales (uttered primarily by a young genius named Jordan who
joins the group in New Hampshire) strain credibility. It wouldn't be so bad if
this mumbo jumbo weren't integral to the plot and its resolution, but the
characters behave as if it were the gospel truth without considering any
alternatives. The book's success or failure hinges on how far readers are
willing to suspend their disbelief, and King pushes it to the limit.
In spite of this shortcoming, Cell is classic King, harkening back to some of
his grittier, mid-career works. The book's scope is more limited than The
King narrows his focus to examine how a few people respond to catastrophic
events. The worldview is less optimistic, that of an author who has seen much
over the past thirty years. "This is how it goes when the bottom drops
out," Clay realizes. "This is how we act."
Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent 2007. All rights reserved.