Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Thoughts on Stephen King's "Cell"

*Spoiler Alert. This blog reveals key story points.

So I just got done reading Stephen King’s “Cell”, and I really enjoyed this book (as I enjoy most King). There are a few qualities which attract me to King’s stories again and again. The first thing is what I would label the “meta-fictional” qualities of the writing. I became such an avid fan after reading the entire “Dark Tower” series, and its interrelated texts. The inter-textuality of his works makes it so interesting. Certain themes and symbols are given multiple embodiments, which allow the reader a deeper “relationship” with these things. The meta-fictional qaulities project the work into reality, sucking the reader into the tale in the process.

It is a bold and interesting move to assume another writer’s symbols, or objects in one’s own work. Clearly, and King has stated himself, the tower of King’s “Dark Tower” is based on the Barad-dur, the base of the Eye of Sauron, in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Ring”. Now I won’t ruin the end of the “Dark Tower”, but it is sufficient to say that by the end of that series “King’s tower” is unique and its own. I often reflect what is the ultimate purpose, and affect of this shared symbolism?

I know from my reading that this appeal to other works is not a device unique to King, but an act done by other writers and poets. I think of T.S. Eliot in this regard, which raises an interesting point. What makes the assumption of another person’s work good? I mean it is easy to imagine some hack assuming another text’s creation in a cheap, whorish way. Obviously it is a matter or authorial ability and intent.

The tower symbol pops up in “Cell”, towards the end of the book at the fair-grounds, in the parachute drop tower, which has a blinking red light on top. What are we to make of this recurrent symbol? Why is it always the scene of climax in these stories?

“Cell” begins right in the action, from the perspective of Clayton Riddell, a graphic novelist who has just got his “big break”. He is walking the streets of Boston when a zombie infection begins, passed through of course cellular phones. “The Pulse” as the event is called is never properly explain, one of my “frustrations” with the book. The pulse is blamed on a group of terrorist who have somehow have infected cell phones. Intentionally or not, this raised the question in my mind is King mocking the Western “go-to” explanation of terrorism. At other places in the novel, gossip is shown as unreliable and comes from antagonistic elements.

As always, the reader of a novel brings their own predispositions. I certainly could be accused of reading too much into literature. I reject this accusation whole heartedly and I don’t like its malign implications. To me the type of reductive readings which the accusation would promote is a significant force in the zombification of modern peoples, more dangerous than the pulse.

This leads me to consider the moral or ideological position of King’s work, specifically in the “Cell”. The basic feeling one gets in this text is that we’re all screwed. This is a feeling which permeates much of King’s work. I almost want to label this attitude as “conservative”, meaning that the past is seen as superior to the present, or future.

Included in this thought is the problem of protagonist vs. antagonist. To put it simply, the distinction between the two vanishes in King’s work. With King, we always become attached to the protagonist characters, but ultimately we become very uncomfortable with this relationship. Often the person we thought was our hero becomes a villain. This upsets and offers a paradoxical morality. What I wonder is it symptomatic of a larger moral, ideological, paradox which exists at the present time in our culture? Have we lost our heroes? Here’s a large quote which influenced my perspective:

His last thought before sleep took him was that maybe in the long run, the phoners would have been better. Yes, they had been born in violence and in horror, but birth was usually difficult, often violent, and sometimes horrible. Once they had begun flocking and mind-melding, the violence had subsided. So far as he knew, they hadn’t actually made war on the normies, unless one considered forcible conversion an act of war; the reprisals following the destruction of their flocks had been gruesome but perfectly understandable. If left alone, they might eventually have turned out better custodians of the earth than so-called normies. They certainly wouldn’t have been falling all over themselves to buy gas guzzling SUVs, not with their levitation skills (or with their rather primitive consumer appetites, for that matter). Hell, even their taste in music had been improving at the end. (342)

Here Clayton is forced to consider the ambiguity in the situation, compounded and perhaps founded in the fact that his son Johnny, is currently a phoner and his future remains uncertain. What I like to ponder and find more interesting is, what does this expose about King’s psyche himself? Further, and most important what does it say about our own individual psyches, or a collective psyche, more generally?

I have studied Nietzsche and just recently started reading “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. In many ways I find ideas from him are finding an allegory in “Cell”. We can understand that to some degree, from the passage above. Here I am seeing a connection between Nietzsche’s concept of the Ubermensch and King’s phoners. The comparison is not forced, as Nietzsche found the source of this “super-man” in our primordial urges as people. I am reminded here of a specific passage from Zarathustra:

Truly man is a polluted stream. One must be a sea to receive a polluted stream without becoming impure.

Behold, I teach you the Ubermensch: he is that sea; in him your great contempt can be submerged. (10)

For this me this recalls the figure of the zombie. The zombie becomes a vessel by which us non-superman can project our own “failures”, failures, to use King’s concept, which are of the “normies” who are unable to rise above societal pressures and to bask in the revelation of our “true self”.

I want to end this with a personal anecdote, which I often recall when reading King. I was around nine years old and my mother said something gossipy about the son of one her friends. She explained that her friend’s son had been getting into a lot of trouble, and gasp, had been reading a lot of Stephen King.

I remember even at that time reflecting, and I didn’t think of it as exactly in these terms, that the author was being made into a scapegoat. Even then I reflected, maybe it is because of his lack of a stable Father, or because of his carousing Mother, that he acts out.

At that point, I had not read any King, but looking back now I trust my observations even more. There is a profound philosophy in the works of King and to see it as mere horror renders us one step closer to zombies. Ugh, I have barely scratched the surface of my thoughts here, but it was fun never the less. I would love to do a more thorough research project on these concepts, among many others. At the least, I hope I have provided some evidence that within King’s work there is a profound social commentary taking place.

*Note. My Nietzsche quote comes from the Barnes & Noble Edition of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra"

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