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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 madness.

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 Stand; 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."

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