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More on Stephen King’s “Cell”

Reading Stephen King’s novel “Cell” 9 years after its release has been a revelation, with a host of interpretations that have neatly piled up over the last decade, like an archaeologist’s dream, and that just wouldn’t have been available had I read it immediately, back when I was in college. The first entry I wrote about this apocalyptic book – a much more palatable read than the Book of Revelation – focused on its vivid recreation of the world of pre-iPhone mobile phones, with snazzy color combinations and Crazy Frog ringtones, all of which seems like ancient history now that we have devices that come in a limited number of colors and with ringtones that almost no one bothers to change anymore.


Beyond its snapshot of phones without Snapchat, “Cell” also offers an exasperated response to 9/11/01, set in a city – Boston – that would experience its own terrorist-led murders almost 12 years later. I like the description of the book’s main character feeling “dismal outrage,” albeit not at the murderous chaos around him, but at the destruction of his art portfolio filled with illustrations, as he thrusts it in between a stranger and someone trying to stab the man with a butcher knife. “Dismal outrage” is close to my feelings from September 11th, too, and the association is strengthened by a line a few pages earlier:

“They’re using planes again,” said the little man. “The dirty bastards are using planes again.”

It’s not a plane, though, but an ice cream truck that starts the carnage. I thought of Marx’s quip about history repeating itself first as tragedy and then farce. “Cell” seems to skip the tragedy altogether and go straight for farce, replete with primitive mobile phones, portfolios chock-full of illustrations of sorcerers, and Boston ephemera like Boston Duck boats.

But it’s commentary on 9/11 is more extensive than just using the word “terrorism” (“If this was terrorism…”) and invoking a sense of disorder. There’s also hints at the dour post-9/11 world, the one in which cynicism is rampant and idealistic, altruistic people – whether working for “America” or “the greater good” or “the liberal arts” – are taken advantage of by heartless paymasters. The character who saves the man using his portfolio, for example, gets this string of thoughts about his destroyed drawings of mythical creatures:

“His own fantastic creatures, living in the cave of his imagination and poised to set him free from the drudgery of teaching art in a dozen rural Maine schools, driving thousands of miles a month and practically living out of his car.”

This recollection is an accurate picture of being an adjunct, although in my case substitute the car for the Chicago L. What a tightly packed passage overall, though: the idealism, taken to the logical (as it were) extreme of fantasy, of the character’s efforts, the exasperation at the devaluation of the humanities (and education), and the sudden borderline poverty existence even for educated persons. This is the post-9/11 America for millions.

Stephen King’s “Cell” and the pre-iPhone era

Just started reading a Stephen King novel from 2006, “Cell.” Right before 9/11, I went through a phase in which I read most of his 1970s and 1980s work, before my reading time was taken up by more academic novels for English classes. I eventually got back into him in late 2011, ten years later, following the release of his novel “11.22.1963” about the Kennedy assassination.

During my sophomore year in high school, everyone in our English class had to do a study about a literary author. I don’t remember whom I choose, but one of my best friends at the time picked King, a choice that our teacher initially balked at but acquiesced to after admitting that he had produced a “significant enough” body of work. I was jealous. Plus, I agreed with her final judgment – my experience of King superseded whatever criticism I had read about his work.

“Cell,” even in its first pages, reminds me of why King is an enduring institution. There’s the distinctive, seen-it-all-before narrative voice that comes off as both grizzled and humorous, as well as the sharp cultural observations. “Cell” was released on the eve of the first iPhone and it captured the peak of a different mobile era, when phones were all very different from each other, with fanciful designs, custom ringtones, and dramatically different apps depending on the manufacturer and carrier:

“The peppermint-colored phone played the opening notes of that Crazy Frog tune that Johnny loved – was it called ‘Axel F’? … The two girls had exactly the same haircut above their iPod headphones, but the one with the peppermint-colored cell phone was blond and her friend was brunette; they were Pixie Light and Pixie Dark.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. Peppermint-colored? Crazy Frog (“who” topped the charts around this time, with a ringtone)? They became relics almost overnight as the iPhone and its imitators made standard-issue ringtones and a limited selection of design options – black or white; silver/gold/space gray in the iPhone’s case – the norm. Phones, from 2007 on, became part of the tradition that Andy Warhol once identified:

“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”

The president’s iPhone and your iPhone are essentially the same, give or take storage capacity differences and coloration. There’s an attractive egalitarianism and homogeneity there. What I like about the above passage from “Cell” is how it hints at what’s to come: there’s the “exactly the same” haircuts, conveniently about the “iPod headphones,” which had already done to the MP3 player and headphones markets what iPhone would do to phones. Then there’s “Pixie Light and Pixie Dark” – it’s like “Cloud White” or “Midnight Blue” or “Space Grey” or “Gold” when buying a phone.

Excited about this book already. Expect a few more entries, especially about its premise of mobile phones spreading an apocalyptic disease.