A World of Speculation

Stephen King’s new thriller, Cell, reminds me of how compelling King can be, in a way that leaves me feeling manipulated and used. He shows a deep-rooted “damned mass” view of human nature, even while he displays authorial hate for characters within the story who share a view that’s perhaps not as extreme as his. And in an effort to raise his book from a beach read to something Socially Significant, he ends up spouting tin-hat political slogans that will be pathetically out of date after the 2008 elections (by which time, of course, he’ll have earned more royalties on this book than I will in my entire life, just in case anyone thinks I don’t know the “If you’re so smart, how come you’re not published” response).

My view of King’s writings has swung between disdain at the goriness of it and at his gimmick of taking the friendly and familiar — a car, a dog, a cat, a rambling lodge in the mountains — and making something horrifying out of it — and respect for real talents of storytelling and observation of human nature. His coming of age novel, The Body, surprised and delighted me with its look at the relationships among a group of schoolboys, and the 12-year-old storyteller character gave me a grounding in the adult author’s boyish reveling in the “Oh gross!” After running across The Body, I counted myself a fan.

Cell brings me back to my weariness with the Kinginess of King. He goes back to his attacks on the familiar with the cell phone trick — cell phones are ubiquitous, and a lot of people love them, and a vocal minority hate them, and King with his $80 kajillion in the bank proudly notes on the cover copy that he doesn’t own one, thus showing how morally superior he is. (I know. There are people who are unmannerly about their cell phones. They are also frequently unmannerly about radios, loud conversation and chewing gum. Will King go after these menace also? Justin wondering.)

Even though I couldn’t put the book down, at the end, I felt that I had — in a literary sense — wasted my time and attention. All the same, for a writer, there’s much here to learn.

A certain element of the “page-turner” quality is important in a book. If a reader isn’t curious about what happens next, he may very well put a bookmark in the page and look at the book six months later, thinking, “Maybe I’ll get back to it sometime.” At the other extreme, if the book is just a page turner, when I’m done, I feel as if I’ve just gone through a chocolate frenzy — disoriented, guilty over the loss of time and nauseated.

But how does King pull off the page-turner quality that he does so well? Sharp detail and a lot of foreshadowing. He keeps revealing what will happen later, in terms that leave the outcome open to speculation but that, when fulfilled, leave the reader thinking, “Of course.” King also imagines the situation so vividly that the reader never gets around to thinking, “Now just a gol-darned minute . . . .” For instance, what happens to the cell-phone users is that there’s some kind of signal sent by satellite that fries their brains. So the hero uses a landline to call long distance. Well, aren’t all long-distance calls sent by satellite? And all these people use their cell phones and get their brains wiped, so there’s no alternative source of information? And nobody in the book has heard of the Internet. But he papers over these plotholes with breakneck pacing and one dire circumstance after another.

Dire circumstances bring me back to what I used to hate about King, before I became a fan. It’s a weird thing about movies and literature that an author can commit all kinds of mayhem against people and readers nod and turn the page. When the villain kills a dog or a cat, readers write angry letters to the publisher. I don’t understand it, but I feel it myself, and King shows a man in a business suit, under the influence of the pulse, bite the ear off a dog. King’s POV character says he doesn’t know anything about dogs, with an intimation that he doesn’t care very much, and I wonder if that’s the attitude of the author. Reading it, it comes across as “he doesn’t stop at anything.” Looking back, it seems more like a cheap trick.

The novel I finished before Cell was Notes from Underground. Dostoyevsky is an author who really doesn’t turn back from anything. The speaker tells about a conversation with a prostitute, and the outcome of that conversation is as wrenching in its way — in the destruction of the innocent — as cruelty to an animal. The difference is that Dostoyevsky is saying something deep and heart-breaking about the state of a man’s soul. With Cell, King is exposing readers to the torture of a dog just for effect.

Or maybe for King, it’s slightly more than an effect. His characters later arrive at the conclusion that the cell wiped out people’s minds, leaving the murder that lies at the base of the human mind (soul?). Well, I’ve heard that King was an Evangelical Christian (still don’t know whether to believe it), but this would suggest that he’s at least a one-point (total depravity) Calvinist. He expresses characters’ hatred and author’s hatred (by his one-sided, all ugly, bad, and unfashionable description) for a pushy end-times fundy creep — whose kind apparently demonstrated at abortion clinics in one character’s past — but he never deals with the similarity between said creep, who assumes that the two men have taken the girl for immoral purposes, and the author’s apparent view that if you strip away our self-knowledge and socialization, there’s nothing left but the savagery of a rabid animal.

I tell myself it’s a beach read, and I’m asking too much to expect him to deal with any bedrock issues. But if that’s the case, why the political frippery? What does it add to the story to make a snarky comment about Bush’s “inadequate plan” in Iraq (whether any given reader favors the war or not)? If I were reading a beach book from 1944, would it add to the effect or take away from it that the writer thinks Roosevelt’s plan for the Pacific Theatre was crazy? Or from 1965 and Johnson’s plan for Vietnam? Again, it’s a pose of relevance that has nothing to do with the story and everything to do with an illusion that something Important is happening here.

If you’re a writer, it’s worth a read for King’s techniques of detail and foreshadowing. If you’re a reader, a Batman comic would be a more profound investment of time.