King's Highway pt. 23.5: Cell (Revisited)

"Can you hear me now?" 
- Verizon Guy

"'I'll a-babbalah your a-kazzalah, you fuck!'"
- Clay Riddell

Here are some supplemental remarks to my original King's Highway entry for Cell, written four years ago and towards the beginning of my blogging career. (Well, "career.") I hadn't quite gotten the hang of it yet, as that post attests to, so it seemed a good candidate for this here King's Highway Bridges and Infrastructure Renewal Summer Project.

Here's what I wrote for my brief description of Cell from my recently-revamped King's Rankings:  

"If you are at all literate in what King does, you must recognize that this one is the Matisse painting of King's catalog - everything's bold colors and stripped down to its essential lines. Plus, as we go further and further into the internet age, the idea of society descending into weaponized chaos - equalized at last in pure hivemind-y hatred of "the other" - as triggered by some ghost in the machine seems less and less sci-fi and more just like everyday life in 2016."

And after an additional re-read, I stand by both points. Particularly that last one. Couple of bullet-points along those lines:

- Early on, when the first pulse is sent out over everyone's phones, a girl Clay calls "Pixie Dark" receives only a half-dose. As a result, she staggers around, screaming "WHO AM I?" before self-inflicting serious harm to her own face. I hesitate to deconstruct this further as it just seems as perfect a metaphor all on its own. Pixie Dark is half of the online community, on any trending topic, on any given day. It also made me think of the practice of "tagging." Without the external validation of one's identity by others, Pixie Dark loses her sense of self.

- The gibberish of the phoners reminded me of the "I CAN HAZ CHEEZEBURGER"-speak. Remember when everyone went out of their minds a few years back with adorkably-misspelled gibberish on funny cat photos? Is there any real difference? 

- Says The Head at one point: "By using cell phones, which have become the dominant form of communication in our daily lives, you simultaneously turn the populace into your own conscript army - an army that's literally afraid of nothing because it's insane - and you break down the infrastructure." The online mob and the media-academe that feeds it have broken down the infrastructure of network programming, elections, and journalism. 

There's even more, but I don't want to get carried away. I think it's remarkable that the behavior of the phoners and some of the situations that develop in Cell have parallels to everyday online behavior in 2016, and I think it's even worth exploring on a deeper level. But I lack either the sociological or psychological know-how to be the Neil Armstrong of the bunch. I hope someone smarter than myself delves into it. That said, I don't think King sat down to "predict the future" or anything - let's call that a happy (or rather a decidedly unhappy) accident.

"That country (the old U.S.A.) was now out of service, off the hook, so sorry, please try your call again later."

The breakdown of society that follows the first pulse is seemingly as all-pervasive as Captain Trips in The Stand. And similar to that work, the survivors begin to receive visions in dreams as to where they should go: Kashwakamak, as it turns out, a fictional resort town in Maine's lake country first seen in Gerald's Game

There the Stand parallels break down. Clay and his newfound companions (first Tom McCourt and teenager Alice Maxwell; then Jordan, the surviving pupil of the Gaiten Academy, a prep school where they perpetrate their first act of vengeance against the phoners; and finally Denise, Ray, and Dan, fellow "flock-killers") are ostracized by both the phoners (led by "Raggedy Man," aka the President of Harvard) and the non-phoner survivors, whom the phoners telepathically turn against them. (When a pair of redneck survivors don't get the message, they are dealt with brutally as a warning to all.) 

Clay is motivated by trying to find his son on the off-chance that he can save him. Things come to a head up in Kashwakamak, and everyone parts ways. Does Clay find his son? Is his son beyond saving? What happens to the world? In the words of a popular Time-Life commercial from yesteryear, read the book

As always with King, there are several sentences that struck my fancy. Such as "Clay Riddell believed he might be witnessing the first reluctant scurry he had ever seen in his life," in reference to the hotel clerk who reluctantly assists them in the immediate aftermath of the pulse. Or "survival is like love; both are blind."

The only thing working against the novel - and "against" is relative, of course; I actually think they're rather endearing qualities - is its dated-ness. Something tied so specifically to a technology breakthrough that's already undergone so much evolution always runs that risk, of course. (Not for the first time in King's bibliography. Witness the great lengths The Running Man - a novel set in the future - goes to with analog recording equipment.) But I had to chuckle at a couple of Clay's observations:

- While watching someone talk on the phone while at the counter of the ice cream van, he thinks: "He was watching an act which would once have been considered almost insufferably rude - yes, even while engaging in a small bit of commerce with a total stranger - becoming a part of accepted everyday behavior." I can relate to this 100%. I made the same observation to all my cellphone-using friends in the first few years they appeared. I recall vividly the first time someone interrupted our conversation to answer their cell and how rude I thought it was. 

But: I think this vestige of manners from a bygone era might puzzle modern readers. The practice has become too ubiquitous. 

- Also, the idea of Clay being a "cellphone hold-out" is more and more anachronistic with each passing year. I'm still a smart-phone / tablet holdout (more out of habit at this point vs. any sensible objection) and would totally be a cellphone hold-out if such a thing were possible. But I'm feeling the squeeze. Verizon keeps discontinuing their non-smart-phone choices for mobile phones, and even the land-lines you can get now are part of cable bundles, etc. 

Does it matter for the year in which the story is set? Not at all. It's a nice snapshot of the early years of the 21st century. Speaking of: 

- Clay refers to 2004 as "the year the Red Sox won the World Series." Not so fast! Which World Series? The window of time where said year would be nailed down as 2004 was brief, as unfathomable as that sentence would seem to any pre-2004 Red Sox fan.

- Also, Clay remembered thinking "too good to be true" about recordable CDs. Me, too! But hell, a future edition of Cell will probably have to include a footnote explaining what the hell a CD even is.

"Three days ago we not only ruled the earth, we had survivor's guilt about all the other species we'd wiped out on our climb to the nirvana of round-the-clock cable news and microwave popcorn. Now we're the Flashlight People."

Finally, Charles Ardai (the headmaster of Gaiten Academy and a name-check of the founder and editor of Hard Case Crime) has this Glen-Bateman-esque summation of events re: the phoners:

"If all conscious thought, all memory, all ratiocinative ability, were to be stripped from a human mind in a moment, what would remain would be pure and terrible. (...) Although neither the Freudians nor the Jungians come right out and say it, they strongly suggest that we may have a core, a single basic carrier wave, or a single line of written code which cannot be stripped. (...) At bottom you see we are not homo sapiens at all. Our core is madness. The prime directive is murder. What Darwin was too polite to say, my friends, is that we came to rule this planet not because we were the smartest, or even the meanest, but because we have always been the craziest, most murderous motherfuckers in the jungle. And that is what the Pulse exposed five days ago."

Not sure if The Head's use of "motherfucker" is entirely in keeping with his other dialogue, but otherwise I tend to agree. I don't even consider it pessimistic. Like Freud, I find it a fundamentally optimistic pursuit in mapping out the ways in which the human default is irrational and violent, as it presupposes we can figure it out and change it.

Save to System. 

Underrated book and a gem of late-innings King.



  1. (1) Pixie Dark would have voted Sanders. I have zero doubt about this.

    (2) If I'm correctly picking up what you're layin' down, you're positing that "Cell" has become inadvertently prescient in terms of some of the ramifications of cell-phone culture. There's certainly an end-of-it-all feeling running through both the novel and the actuality of 2016. One hopes King was more wrong than right; remains to be seen, I guess. But either way, you're hinting at a major re-examination of the novel through the prism of 2016, and I think that's probably very fertile ground.

    (3) Holy smokes, that Time/Life commercial...! It's fucked-up that a commercial can make me feel nostalgic like that. I wonder if that's going to be the case with commercials of today a few decades from now. Instinctively, I know it will be.

    (4) The tech of this novel is indeed dated almost beyond belief, but I'm with you: so what? I think that actually makes the novel a valuable cultural document of a period that lasted (this phase of it, at least) an incredibly brief amount of time. In that sense, I think this novel is a virtue and not a vice.

    (5) I can remember the days when I swore I'd never get a cell phone. Those days had come and gone by the time "Cell" hit bookstores. I've since become a smart-phone owner, but in many ways, I wish I wasn't. I try to not use it obsessively, but I'm increasingly failing at that, and would really like to go back to my old flip-phone. Ah, well. Progress marches on, I guess.

    (6) Unmentioned in this post, and for good reason: the movie. It suuuuuuuuuucks, boy; sucks ass.

    1. (6) Yeah I intend to treat both it and the "Good Marriage" adaptations as Dollar Babies, and bad ones, and have yet to actually be filmed for the big screen.

      (5) and (2) Technically, my only objection to getting a smart phone in 2016 is that I spend enough time online as it is, and if I had one, I'd be using it to check facebook or twitter and who needs more of that. True I could exercise discipline, but I know myself. (Hell, I'm at work typing this and I've got six tabs open of my various sites. It's just the way we do business these days.) That plus the addition of further data plan fees, etc. to my life. But it really is something when I see people 1) so completely Pavlonian conditioned by their own "pulses" on these glowing rectangles in their hands, and 2) have the most vapid conversations in public places. I'd estimate at least 2/3rds of the conversations I overhear don't seem like things anyone even needs to talk about, much less at-that-moment for everyone to hear. Maybe it's just Chicago. (But it's not. We know this.)

      (3) and (4) and (1) - Absolutely!