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Recent Reading: The Passage by Justin Cronin - Mo's Journal
August 29th, 2010
10:27 am

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Recent Reading: The Passage by Justin Cronin
This is a book I have strong feelings about - strongly mixed feelings. My friend Leah says that when she's reading for pleasure she has three requirements for a book: "it made me laugh; it made me cry; it didn't keep me up at night." I often rate books on the Leah scale and for me this one was zero for three. Still the reason that it kept me up at night is that I found it truly compelling, even as there were things I felt like yelling at the author for. And it has kept me thinking about it since I finished. I would so love to discuss it with folks who have read it. So ultimately I do recommend it.

The Passage is a hugely popular (and huge - 770 pages, I think, although I read it on my phone so I'm not sure) novel that's being billed as the next novel in the vampire craze. Cronin, a professor at Rice University and graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, was previously an award-winning author of literary fiction that sold in small numbers. This book is a major departure for him. And one that has made him rich. The advance for the book was 3.75 million dollars and the movie rights were sold before the book was finished. The Passage is the first book in a planned trilogy, and he is clearly cashing in on the vampire craze of recent years.

Still, it's not really a vampire story, at least not as traditionally envisioned. There's nothing in this book that resembles the sexy vampires of Charlaine Harris and True Blood or the sparkly ones of the Twilight saga or even the coolly aristocratic and ever so exotically foreign ones that Bram Stoker started the whole thing with. The novel derives a lot more from Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids, Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, the movie 28 Days Later, and anything by Michael Crichton or Stephen King than it does from anything in vampire fiction.


The Passage is much more a work of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction than a vampire story. It begins a few years from now, like The Handmaid's Tale, in a world much like ours, only more so. The United States is in a constant War on Terror, with the latest battle ground being Iran (Iranian terrorists murdered hundreds at the Mall of America in Minnesota). The government has suspended more and more personal freedoms because of the constant emergency; the military has become more and more powerful; the economy and environment are in worse and worse shape. In this climate a research team is investigating a newly discovered virus in a far off place. The virus kills about half of the people it infects but the other half... transform into something not quite human. They develop a hard exoskeleton and are impervious to disease. They glow in the dark but can't survive in light. They can hang like bats and fly (or perhaps just jump far - that's not clear). They age incredibly slowly and can live hundreds of years. And they have an insatiable blood lust and will kill and drain untransformed humans in a matter of seconds. They kill nine out of ten of their victims and the tenth they infect, making him/her into one of them.

The research team's goal is to refine the virus, get rid of its vampiric properties and have an age-defying, illness-defying potion. But the military takes over the project and their goal is to have a potion that will let them create an invincible army. Most of the team (as anyone who has read a Michael Crichton novel would predict) is killed by the infected and one of them is turned into one of the humanoid beings, who is taken to an armored hideaway in Colorado to be experimented on by the U.S. Army. Ten convicted murderers join him there as additional subjects, each one getting a new, and (the researchers hope) better version of the virus, but they are still unable to make them into something they can control. They then decide to try it on a six-year-old girl named Amy.

Of course (as anyone who has seen 28 Days Later or read The Day of the Triffids could predict) something goes horribly wrong; the vampire-esque convicts escape and take over at least North America and possibly the world.

We then switch to 92 years later. We know this because it's the year 92 A.V., since the survivors count from when the virus was unleashed. A small colony in California has survived all this time. They live in a fortified town with bright lights that shine all night to keep the "virals" or "smokes" away, and they have become expert at killing those who breach their security. They send out scouting parties during the day to scavenge the ruined, dead cities for things they need and they grow their own food. Still, theirs is a precarious existence and they have lost some of their population to the virals, particularly one night when an earthquake disrupted the power. More significantly, their engineers don't know how much longer they can keep the lights going.

Most of the rest of the book tells of an expedition from this colony to try to find other survivors, if there are any. They meet up with Amy, whose version of the virus makes her very long lived (she's about 14 now) and able to telepathically communicate with virals, but who isn't one herself. As in 28 Days Later and The Day of the Triffids, the group comes upon what seems to be a haven of other survivors (in this book it's even called The Haven) but actually has a sinister side. As in The Handmaid's Tale, we know that humanity survives because proceedings from an academic conference studying the time of the virals is included in the narrative. As in all books of this ilk, some of the characters die along the way but the mission continues.



The narrative style is a real hodgepodge. There are emails and diaries and first person narratives and third person semi-omniscient narrative and academic proceedings. It shouldn't all work together but somehow it really does, at least enough to keep you turning those pages. I admire his skill in making these diverse elements come together.

The book is very, very visual. It should make a great movie if they can cut the long and complex plot down sufficiently to film it. It's frightening and compelling and disturbing in its connection with the world we live in now. I found it hard to sleep while reading it.

At the same time, I have reservations about The Passage. It's so derivative and, in some ways and some sections, so slick that I was a little turned off by that. The characters and sub-plots are formulaic in the extreme. It's as if the author said to himself "Fuck this critically acclaimed stuff. I'm going to write a bestseller." And took what he needed from various books and movies to make it happen. In addition, the ending is more of a set up for the sequel than a conclusion to the story he was telling. It practically screams "tune in next year."

With all that, his skill as a writer is evident in every page and he brings something new to even the most overused tropes and the most formulaic of characters. I didn't laugh; I didn't cry; it did keep me up at night. Still, ultimately I'm glad I read it and I look forward to the movie and the sequels.

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[User Picture]
From:executrix
Date:August 29th, 2010 02:35 pm (UTC)
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Considering the variety of materials in "Dracula," (and, for that matter, in "The Moonstone") it could be argued that including the various formats is an irresistible act of homage for an academic to undertake.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:August 29th, 2010 07:20 pm (UTC)
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And the same was done in the recent bestseller 'The Historian'. Which is also, weirdly enough, about vampires of the non-sparkling kind, sort of.

Also very long but featuring characters without any individuality, more like 2D outlines.
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