Thursday, 29 July 2010
Justin Cronin, The Passage (2010)
It’s the book of the season; the one everyone is reading. And readable it is. Or, as we say in conventionally idiomatic English ‘and it is readable.’ In fact, compared to some of the ‘ones everyone is reading’ of previous seasons, it is really pretty good ... neither a truly rubbishy Da Vinci Code type of novel nor a mostly rubbishy Girl with Dragon Tattoo type: a proper novel. Solidly and in places quite classily written, effectively and genuinely characterised, well plotted. There are downsides, mind you: it’s a pretty reactionary piece of work, and broken-backed to boot, its second two-thirds much weaker than its opening. There ought to be a piece of critical terminology for this textual phenomenon, actually. So, we recall how Saving Private Ryan opens with a staggering, game-changing 20-minutes of cinematic brilliance, only to fall back afterwards into a raggle-bag of war-film cliché and narrative sprawl. There were some notable moments in the latter portion of the film, of course, but nothing to live up to magnificent opening. In that sense, The Passage is a deeply Ryanist novel.
So, yes, the first 246 pages are little short of amazing: smoothly, vividly written; expertly paced; very memorable work. The heroine, Amy Harper Bellafonte, is the daughter of a hard-up single Midwestern mother, onetime waitress, latterly prostitute. When one of her clients threatens to go psycho on her, and she kills him, Mom leaves nine-year-old Amy at the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy and lights out. Meanwhile, a secret government project plans to utilise (that old Pulp stand-by) a secret discovery in the jungles of South America—a virus that turns people into vampires, no less: superstrong, effectively immortal, blood-eaters. The military want to develop this virus with a view to (that old Pulp stand-by) creating super soldiers. To that end various experimental subjects have been brought to (that old Pulp stand-by) a subterranean Denver scientific facility, death-row prisoners and drifters, anybody without family or dependents, who won’t be missed. They've been infected with the virus, and though nine out of every ten die, the one who doesn't turns into a proper Nosferatu-type monster. The scientists want a young subject; the authorities have heard of Amy, and send two agents to retrieve her.
Now: summarised thuswise, it sounds hokey. And that’s because it is hokey. Merely to consider it is to ask the crucial ‘and the answer is no’ question: does the world really need another vampire novel? But Cronin’s skill is precisely to win you over to his Pulpy overworked tropes, to make you believe in them afresh. Of course the vampires are going to escape the secret government facility. Of course the hard-bitten FBI agent, detailed to bring Amy to be experimented upon, is going to rebel against his orders, and form a deeply-felt paternal bond with the lass. Naturally there will be mumbo-jumbo. It’s all tosh; but its toshiness is so well handled, so deftly delivered, that you really don’t mind.
Beyond all that, though, Cronin’s most impressive achievement in this opening section is the way he builds suspense. The suspense is positively Hitchcockian. Even though you know from early on what’s likely to happen, the narrative nevertheless generates prodigious, gripping suspense.
Then, at p.247, the novel topples off its own Continental Shelf into much dimmer territory. We are zipped forward 92 years to a Forest of Hands and Teeth like settlement in which the last humans on earth live, keeping the vampires (‘virals’ they’re called) at bay with massive perimeter arc lights all night every night. And for the following 500 pages of this very lengthy novel we trundle along an abyssal floor of sparser textual work. The prose is no less professional, and (after a saggy stretch) the characters are well-enough drawn. Thankfully, Cronin’s vampires are about death, not about teenage sexuality; and the book’s handling of death as a theme is pretty sophisticated, often compelling and even moving. But the suspense has all gone now. It all feels much less consequential; the story is much less effectively paced. There are some moments of tension and excitement, but the vim has gone out of the book. Naturally, having read a third of the way in, the reader doesn't want to give up. But the subsequent twists and turns of plot bring us not to a conclusion, but instead to the set-up for The Inevitable Volume Two Of The Global Bestselling VampireTrilogy. I couldn’t help but feel let-down.
And then, having put the book down, beguiled (whilst I read) by its impressive combination of popular entertainment and intelligence, I bethought myself: hmmm. For what is this novel saying? It is saying: science, not faith, will bring about the end of the world (scientists prying into those Bolivian jungle caves; scientists working in the wicked Denver lab). It is saying, government is a force for secrecy and wickedness, and that the work of government produces horrible (though unintended) consequences. It is saying, via several of its black characters: negroes are magical, with access to spiritual authenticity inaccessible to, but fundamentally placed in the service of, whites. It is saying: guns are good—guns are sexy, and powerful, and will make you powerful, and will protect you. It is saying: self-reliance, wilderness skills, a strict code to live by, small-town virtues—these are not only good, they are humanity’s only hope. It is saying: life for modern Americans is patrolling the fence, stopping those evil hordes from swarming over. Ideologically, it’s a shrieky right-wing libertarian fable, this novel. It's a lie, at root; and the more worrying because it's so cleverly, competently put across.