Sunday, 29 May 2011

The Passage: Justin Cronin

Dispiritingly, in a way, The Passage is the first of at least three books. I am coming around to the idea that if a good writer can't make his points in 900 pages, he might not have any points. Hell's teeth, I can remember when 900 pages was a whole trilogy, and now it's just the first book. The mind reels.

The Passage got very ballyhooed when it came out in hard cover and then a bit more fuss when it was in trade paperback. It's a solid piece of work, but I'm not sure that it was quite all that and a bag of chips. There's something not quite right with the pacing, and it hits everything else along the way.

The Passage has a pretty simple through line; botched US Army experiment to make super soldiers unleashes a plague of vampires who wipe out civilisation. I've actually seen this movie, but with one messy exception, Cronin isn't writing up a video game or a summer blockbuster. He's actually trying to reflect on what kind of world it would be if vampires tore the place apart and the survivors had to try to get by. Where it doesn't quite work for me is that the first two hundred pages or so are excellent, filled with foreboding and well drawn characters who have complex back stories (complex back stories that for once actually make sense in terms of the plot). Then we fast forward to life after the fall and to be honest, it all starts reading like a lot of young adult post-apocalyptic fiction I've seen. I'm not sure what happened. Since the author's afterword says that his young daughter was involved a lot in the writing, I suspect that Cronin may have been writing for an overly specific audience once he got the book into terrain where his daughter had characters to identify with directly.

After the darkness and immediacy of the opening, the slow pace of the middle hangs heavy. Cronin's also taken the very risky approach of dispensing with all of the characters he began with and starting a whole new set in a whole new milieu. It might as well be another book, and in bygone times it probably would have been. He doesn't quite pull it off. I was interested in what was happening to the characters, but I wasn't caught up in their drama in the same way that I was with the first part of the book. What made matters worse was that that whole middle bit isn't really advancing the master plot of the book at all; the master plot kicks back in abruptly after more than 400 pages of undirected post-apocalyptic angst, and feels almost too rushed once it gets back into gear.

It's not a bad book, it's just not a great one. I want to see what happens next, because Cronin's done a very good job all the way through of only showing us what the characters see. There are no big explanations, and as the book ends, the exact nature of the catastrophe is still clouded and uncertain. Has it affected only the US, or has it wiped out the world? What are the "viral infected" really? Yes, I'd buy another book to get some answers to those questions. And it's well written stuff, for the most part actually written rather than a bunch of movie scenes tossed at the page like last year's The Strain. The mistakes I complain about there have mostly been avoided in a novel which is, just like The Strain, the first of a series about the collapse of the would after a sudden outbreak of vampirism. Having said that, there are moments when Cronin tries to be cinematic, or hits overly familiar dramatic beats, and they're not very good. There's a chase with a train where Cronin runs head long into his inability to write action sequences, and that chase is how the characters escape from a narrative dead end which reads as though Cronin was falling into familiar hero's journey story dynamics.

One of the oddest things about the whole book is how it has no religion in it. The whole world collapses into anarchy, and the small number of survivors are stuck in a tiny enclave run according to rigid rules for survival, and yet somehow, there's no religious current to their lives. I really found it hard to believe that a band of survivors could run through a hundred years and five or so generations of children without religion creeping into the way they did business. It's quite weird; as is the lack of interior religious life in even the better drawn near contemporary characters. Once upon a time I explained all of Irish history without mentioning religion, but this was an experiment to see if it could be done; it wasn't that I actually believed that religion was something a full accounting could omit.

It's going to be interesting to see what comes next. I really admire Cronin's decision not to explain what's really going on, and it's a savvy marketing approach since it's making me want to buy the next book. I just hope he can get the next one running entirely on the darker fuel that runs the beginning and end of the first one.


rae said...

****SPOILER ALERT************

l liked your review, and totally agree. However, I was actually a little annoyed about the presence of religion - but it a completely different way. Lacey hears god talking to her. Amy is chosen. Peter's role is pre-ordained, and he seems to be the new Noah? I even choked a little when Lacey described the story of Noah as a true story.

This is all seeming rather Jesus-y to me, and I'm not a huge fan of using mysticism or religious elements to conclude otherwise interesting speculations about the human condition in extraordinary circumstances. I definitely see your point about the likelihood of survivors taking up religion, but if the third book ends with some god-saves-all business, I will not be impressed. However so far, I'm with you - I want to see what happens :D

...Although I'd really like to know what happened to Jeanette (Amy's mom). Gosh that first bit was compelling.

Max said...

This is a very good point; there is a pseudo-religious theme running through the plot as it develops, particularly as it comes into the novel's final act. I think myself that there's something inescapable about religion in novels about vampirism; perhaps because of this it didn't even occur to me to contrast that theme with the lack of religion in the second act, which would have been a totally artful thing to say.