Owing to certain personal anxieties (impending birth of child, loss of employment, chronic gigantism of the penis), I am presently having trouble finishing books. (Not to mention writing blog posts: this is my first in two and a half weeks.) Starting books is easy; on a good day I can start up to four or five books. Finishing them is a different story, as my concentration span shrinks, my interest wanes, and the books end up being added to the teetering bedside pile, each with a bookmark a hundred pages or so in, before ultimately being returned to the shelves or library unfinished. This time last year I had read nineteen books. The 2006 tally stands at seven, and although that figure comes with some pretty good excuses attached, it still feels a little pathetic.
Desperate to actually finish reading an eighth book before the month is out, I picked up Stephen King's new novel, Cell, at my local library. I hadn't read King since I was a teenager, and even then I wasn't a huge fan, but Cell looked like just the thing to chase away my reading blues. For one thing, it is about zombies, and zombies are always cool. It's even dedicated to Richard Matheson and George A. Romero. Also, I hoped that by reading King I might be inflicting some kind of cosmic misery on Harold Bloom. But mostly I just wanted something undemanding and fun, trashy but not crap-trashy, with no pretentions attached, and if that doesn't describe Stephen King's oeuvre then I don't know what does. (Although I suppose "juvenile horseshit" might be a valid alternative.)
Cell lived up to its promise - sort of. Unlike most King stories, this one doesn't require several hundred pages of creeping dread before the horror is unleashed. (Why is horror always "unleashed"? And why is dread always "creeping"?) Cell gets right down to tin tacks, if by tin tacks you mean everybody using a mobile phone suddenly getting their brains rewired and becoming savage, unstoppable zombie-things. One minute the hero, Clay Riddell, is minding his own business in a Boston street, the next all hell has broken loose (as all hell is wont to do) and senseless violence has become this year's black. Naturally, Clay hooks up with a motley crew of fellow survivors (Cell is full of playful/obvious nods to zombie genre convention) and sets about making his way home to see if his estranged wife and son have gone all undead and shit.
Now, at sentence level, King is not a very good writer. He improves at paragraph level, gets a bit shaky at chapter level, but at part-and/or-other-subdivision level he is not too shabby at all. By which nonsense I mean that for all the sloppiness of his prose (which admittedly is less distractingly energetic than it used to be; somebody has obviously had a word to him about all those ITALIC CAPS), King is very good at keeping you turning the pages. So although the story and characters are straight out of the manual, the dialogue terrible and the constant attempts at humour disastrous, Cell starts out exactly as I had hoped - fast, violent and engaging.
Of course, about one hundred pages in, King fucks up. Incredibly, for an author who is feted as a master in the "craft" of popular fiction, King squanders his own set-up by bogging the story down with all manner of pointless sub-adventures and idiotic conversations whose sole purpose is to draw out the books "deep themes", which are about as deep as the gene pool in the average royal family. By the time the fellowship of the King shack up at a New England private school - complete with a dignified old English master whose vocabulary just happens to include phrases like "murderous motherfuckers" - I was utterly fed up with Cell. It will be returned to the library post haste, leaving me to ponder the question: if I can't even finish a Stephen King, what the hell can I finish?