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.


Paul McAuley said...

And lo! The new Michael Crichton moves amongst us, in more cunning disguise than before.


Adam Roberts said...

Hah! Indeed. Though it is better written than Crichton.

halojones-fan said...

...I get the sense that if Beowulf were published word-for-word today, with the names changed, people like this author would condemn it as American cowboy hero-worshipping shite.

Sophia said...

I haven't read the book yet, but my husband has, so I read the last paragraph of this post to him and asked if it rang true for him. He frowned and said no, if it was true for The Passage it's true for The Stand. I said it DOES ring true for The Stand, maybe even more so. (Mother Abigail, oldest magical negress of them all?)

Which makes me wonder if anyone has ever written a post-apocalyptic book in which a) the cause of the trouble wasn't a large centralized government, and/or b) the characters worked towards restoring a large centralized government instead of creating small, independent settlements living in near-anarchical harmony. The storyline always seems to be that the guvmint ruined everything, so now the survivors will need to return to their frontier roots. This also strikes me as a peculiarly American storyline.

And halojones-fan, of course I would say that if someone published Beowulf today with no sense of irony. I do enjoy it as a work of art within the context of its time, but if someone seriously wrote about a naked hero doing a bunch of crazy kung fu moves on sea monsters I would think it was a ridiculous throwback. Ditto any classic literature which is informed by the thinking of its times. I expect more from a modern author.

Chris said...

Sophia - 'The Postman' by David Brin is almost exactly that book. The novel is set after a limited nuclear exchange, and the author goes out of the way to make the point that civilisation would have survived if not for the nutty small-town survivalists and their weird frontier fantasies; the majority of the book is dedicated to the rebuilding of the system of government (in the form of the postal network, initially) and Brin has his characters generally nostalgic for the joys and freedoms of living in a civilisation, rather than in some brutally libertarian quasi-feudal hardscrabble pain-hole.

It's not a particularly good book, to be fair (the opening section is good, but it gets bogged down in ridiculous SF tangents that detract from the main thrust of the story) but it's a post-apocalypse thriller by a US author who took the opposite course to a lot of US post-apocalypse writing at the time, so I think Brin deserves credit for that at least.

建李李彰 said...

知識可以傳授,智慧卻不行。每個人必須成為他自己。. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Eric M. Edwards said...

In the book's defense, which I'm sorry, but I'm just not planning to read, there is something inherently of the "right-wing, libertarian fable" about nearly all end of the world scenarios of recent memory.

Even the masterful The Road, shows the bitter fruit of the survivalist mindset; and it's the right-wing nut jobs I suppose, who normally have all the guns.

This hasn't changed much since the days of Red Dawn.

As for halojones-fan, let me recommend John Gardner's "Grendel." Whatever is ailing you - let this be your cure.


Mieneke said...

Interesting analysis of the book. It's on my wish list, though not yet on my TBR-pile. I just had to say though I loved the term Ryanist, that just made me chuckle out loud, just as Hitchcockian did :)

雅王任 said...


shonx said...

consider it is to ask the crucial ‘and the answer is no’ question: does the world really need another vampire novel?...yet the answer is a resounding "YES!"to a vampire novel written by Adam Roberts...our hero(no sarcasm intended),!!!...get it?Three exclamation points as in the sequences of threes used throughout The Passage? Do you suppose that's just because it's meant to be a trilogy???

Mark said...

I just finished this and found it kind of enjoyable in a page-turnery mindless sort of way, though increasingly irritating as it went along.

as well as the things Adam mentioned, I especially disliked:

1) that virtually every single character had to have a writing exerciserly interior monologue discussing their angst/past etc, even if they were about to die in the next chapter and no one cares about them anyway

2) excessively plot devicey psychic powers

3) crushing heteronormativity - in the huge cast, the only gay character is a sex offending paedophile. Good one, Justin Cronin!

4) although women are allowed to kick ass, otherwise they are basically all girlfriends/mothers/carers of some description

5) Peter is a gaping void of a character, such that I actually kept forgetting who he was. God knows why all the other characters keep seeing him as a leader when all he does is sit around having angst re his father issues

7) characters having angst re father issues. Is this the default "thing to give someone character who otherwise wouldn't have any" character trait of the 21st century?

8) two fake out fake death scenes in consecutive chapters? SRSLY???

9) all felt v v shopworn - as well as the well worn tropes Adam mentioned we had the Seemingly Utopian Community With A Dark Secret, a fight in the Thunderdome, vampire human hybrids with super powers hunting other vampires, etc etc and so on

Gary said...

I started reading this a couple of days ago and found it smooth and time-absorbing. Reading another's comment about his "only gay character" thanks. The book can go right back. Where "my type" continues to be stereo-typed as a liability X 10, no thanks. Too bad, as i love a good Vampire read.