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CellReview - Cell
A Novel
by Stephen King
Simon & Schuster Audioworks, 2006
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Apr 11th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 15)

Stephen King's novels are known for being psychological, generally in the horror or suspense genre.† Cell is no exception.† The book starts out dramatically with its main character Clay standing in line for an ice cream from an ice cream truck on an early October afternoon in downtown Boston.† A woman in a power suit and two teenage girls are in front of him, all three of them talking on cell phones.† Suddenly the woman grabs for the ice cream vendor, who jumps back out of her reach.† One of the girls grabs hold of the woman and bites out her throat, causing blood to shoot out everywhere.† Around them, in the park, there is pandemonium. †Cars are crashing, people are killing each other, and there are huge explosions coming from the airport north of them.†

Soon it becomes obvious that all the people who had been talking on cell phones have become murderously mad.† They have lost ordinary language, only making strange grunting noises or uttering indecipherable words.† Whenever they see another person, they try to kill them.† They show no rationality or thought.† They are driven by pure rage.† In the early stages of the novel, King exploits the most animal caricature of madness to instill alarm in his readers.††

The story is narrated in the third person, but it follows Clay all the way through, and the narrator knows Clay's every thought and feeling.† Clay is a graphic artist, with great drawing abilities and a visual sensitivity that helps him take in details that other people might miss.† He is in his late twenties, and recently separated from his wife.† They have a boy, Johnny, who is twelve years old.† Johnny and Clay's wife are back in Maine, and Clay wants to get back to them both.† Indeed, Johnny is Clay's main reason for continuing as he faces some terrible experiences.†

Clay meets up with two other people; a gay man, Tom, and a fifteen-year-old girl, Alice.† They start their journey together, walking from Boston to Maine.† It is an incredible trip, during which they meet many other characters and go through many unsettling adventures.† The "phone-crazies" group together and take over the daytime, leaving the normal people to travel at night.† The story takes on some supernatural elements, but leaves most of the bizarre phenomena unexplained. The heart of the novel remains in the relationships formed between Clay, Tom and Alice, and their reactions to the end of civilization as they knew it.† We care about these characters and fear for their safety.† Tom's sexual orientation is incidental to the plot, so it is not a big issue, but King brings it in well.† He does not make Tom a martyr or victim, nor effeminate.† Like Clay and Alice, Tom is defined by his humanity rather than any particular features.† While the three main characters speculate that terrorists may have caused the cell phone "pulse," they do not spend much time worrying about what is not in their control.† Their major interest is just in surviving and helping those they love.

King writes with his usual workmanlike vivid efficiency.† He mentions, through his characters, most of the recent films about zombies that have recently gripped the popular imagination, and thus archly shows how much he has carefully planned that this zombie novel should be different from them.† His writing is strong, combining genuine empathy for the suffering of Clay, Tom and Alice with moments of strange humor as they strive to cope with their bizarre situation, occasionally giving a knowing cultural wink to the reader.†

The unabridged audiobook is read well by Campbell Scott in about 13 hours.† Scott's resonant voice adds a tone of seriousness that helps keep the reader's attention -- it would be all too easy to emphasize the silliness of the story with a more showy reading.† His performance keeps the different characters very distinct, and builds on King's convincing dialog to make them three-dimensional.† One small problem is that occasionally there are sentences recorded at a different time that have clearly been edited in to the recording -- these sections sound different and Scott reads them with a more deadpan style.† But these do not significantly detract from the listening experience.

 

Thanks to Marysusan Noll for helpful discussion of Cell.

 

© 2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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