Although I can’t claim to be familiar with the works of Philip Roth, a bookseller friend of mine in Kaslo, BC, Ian Fraser, pointed out the latest instalment in Roth’s series of novels, Exit Ghost, featuring his protagonist Nathan Zuckerman. Ian found it an interesting read, and for some reason a rant on cell phones made by Roth’s character stuck in his mind. We were able to locate the passage in the novel and I copied it down on a sheet of paper, realizing that the author had perfectly captured my feelings on the current wireless mass hysteria.
I should note that Roth isn’t the first or the only author to comment on the cell phone plague in his fiction. Stephen King wrote a novel called Cell which thinly disguised the author’s disdain for cell phones. In it the phones are used to transmit a particular pulse or frequency that ends up turning humanity into literal zombies, except for those fortunate enough to not have had a phone glued to their heads at the time of transmission. From then on it becomes basically a survivalist story with all the typical King trappings that more or less scream movie-of-the-week. I’ve never been a Stephen King fan, nor a fan of the horror / shock genre in any form. But interestingly, on the dust jacket there was a single line in his bio that jumped out at me: “Stephen King does not own a cell phone.”
In my own yet-to-be-published novel Signs and Wonders, a kind of end-of-empire social satire peopled with gods and goddesses disjointed from mythic history, I carry this theme further. My protagonist, small-town newspaper reporter Roy Breen, is unwillingly drawn into a cell phone resistance group that strangely happens to coincide with an alien invasion. But – spoilers! Assuming my agent has any luck within the coming months, you should be able to read it for yourself – soon!
To set up the Roth quote a little, his author character Zuckerman has retreated to the mountains of upstate New York, partly to escape and partly to complete a new novel. Much of it is apparently a meditation on the difficulties of aging. When Zuckerman returns to New York City for a visit to his old haunts, he finds the city vastly changed. A strange tribe of zombies seems to have taken over…
Excerpt from Exit Ghost by Philip Roth
“What surprised me most my first few days walking around the city? The most obvious thing – the cell phones. …I remembered a New York when the only people walking up Broadway seemingly talking to themselves were crazy. What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say – so much pressing that it couldn’t wait to be said? Everywhere I walked, somebody was approaching me talking on a phone and somebody behind me was talking on a phone. When I took a taxi the cabbie was on a phone.
“For one who frequently went without talking to anyone for days at a time, I had to wonder what that had previously held them up had collapsed in people to make incessant talking into a telephone preferable to walking about under no one’s surveillance, momentarily solitary, assimilating the streets through one’s animal senses and thinking the myriad thoughts that the activities of a city inspire. For me it made the streets appear comic and the people ridiculous. And yet it seemed like a real tragedy too. To eradicate the experience of separation must inevitably have a dramatic effect. What will the consequence be? You know you can reach the other person anytime and if you can’t, you get impatient – impatient and angry like a little stupid god.
“…I did not see how anyone could believe he was continuing to live a human existence by walking about talking into a phone for half his waking life.”
Exit Ghost, Philip Roth 2007, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston / New York