Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Passage by Justin Cronin

I tell my students, "If you can't write what you're supposed to, write what you can. It will get your brain and fingers talking to each other, and soon enough, you'll be ready to write what you're supposed to. Write anything. Write about how you can't think of anything to write. Write about how much you loathe my class. Just write, and the rest will come."

That's what I'm doing today by posting on Justin Cronin's The Passage, instead of writing stuff I'm supposed to be working on for Steampunk Scholar. The Passage was my first non-steampunk read in a very long time: when I moved into my office at Grant MacEwan University in early July, I vowed that I'd get back to leisure reading. The Passage was my commute audiobook, and it was a delight. I enjoyed it for its length, literary aspect, long-lived leeches, and lack of linearity. How's that for an alliterative reflection?

Length: This book is epic. It's 36 hours of listening, as opposed to the average of 10-12 hours most audiobooks take. I didn't mind though, as I was in the mood for something long-winded. Some reviews have derided the book for "too much detail," which is a criticism that's begun to bother me. It's like a review of a film which states that "nothing happens." Something always happens, but for addicts of  bombastic-blockbusters and fast-paced page-turners, books like The Passage move too slowly. If that's you, then I recommend approaching The Passage as two books: pre-apocalypse, and post-apocalypse. Or try the abridged audio version from audible. com. For those who enjoy developed characters, and well-wrought, detail-oriented stories, this is the book for you.

Literary: The pre-apocalypse section read like three or four different books. If you removed the viral-vampire-experimentation aspect, the individual stories of each character could have been written as straight fiction, and been quite good. Cronin weaves these tales together masterfully, albeit with a number of what  seem like coincidences. I say "seem," because there's an element of some spiritual power at work in the greater arc of the novel, some force of providence which lends the heroes a helping hand. That isn't to say it's all light and fluffy: Cronin gives the reader plenty to avert their gaze to: favorite characters die, are abused, come to the brink of despair, and you're never quite sure if the outcome is going to be grim or hopeful. This ties in to Cronin's theme of life and death, and the title's reference, both to an actual passage and more frequently, to the passage from life into death. Some detractors have stated this book has no literary value, but I'm guessing their definition of literary means A.S. Byatt, or something involving infidelity and a depressing ending. Cronin is 21st century-literary: literary in the sense that "text" no longer refers only to written text, but visual text as well. Cronin uses smart pop references to the X-Men's Wolverine to convey what is happening to the men undergoing testing, or a small detail of the Powerpuff Girls on a backpack as foreshadowing.

Long-lived Leeches: If you didn't know the book was about vampires, then you haven't read the blurb, or any of the reviews. Cronin's vampires are a great mix of classic bloodsucker along with new iterations. This too is part of the books literary lineage, referencing or paying homage to a number of vampire texts. Again, one can't view this as literary as book. When Cronin references Dracula, it isn't via Stoker, but rather Browning and Lugosi, arguably the most famous, albeit innacurate, representation of Dracula. Cronin provides nods to this classic vampire--the monsters of The Passage glow, but don't sparkle, and would eat the cast of Twilight for breakfast. Neither are they the well-dressed, mannered, androgynous killers of Anne Rice: these share a heritage with the vampires of Matheson's I Am Legend, monsters born of an apocalypse. Like the zombie apocalypse of Romero and more recently, World  War Z, the appetite of these vampires is to consume the planet, leaving it in a state that recalls The Road Warrior as much as it does Stephen King's The Stand.

Lack of linearity: Any one of these aforementioned elements could make for a good read, but what makes The Passage a worthy addition to your late-summer reading list is how Cronin plays with time. Like all good writers, Cronin utilizes one character at a time to focalize the action, at times employing epistolary diary excerpts (which recalls Stoker's Dracula), so that entire events unfold without all the details being revealed. The Passage is revealed one perspective at a time, leaving the reader in suspense as to certain outcomes, especially the fate of characters who are "off camera." At times, he shifts away from one action piece to return to a more mundane aspect of the story. In a lesser writer's hand, this would be infuriating. In Cronin's, it's expert cliffhanging and dynamic play, rising to a fever pitch and then returning to a slower, gentler pace before racing back into the fray.

I loved the people I met along the journey of The Passage; so much so that when I ran out of a part of the audiobook one commute, I gave a despairing moan. Cronin writes languorously enough to draw the reader repeatedly into the circle of characters before threatening them with the terrors of this bleak future. Despite death being always just around the corner though, the reader need not fear the carpet being pulled out from under their feet - while death is a major theme, so is hope. Given its considerable length, you might be surprised to find out  The Passage is only the first in a series, but if you're like me, when you turn the last page, flip the last screen, or hear the final words, you'll be wishing for another 766 pages, or 36 hours. It's been a long time since I've been looking forward to "the next installment," and I'm glad to finally be doing so. 

Check out the official site of The Passage with some creepy videos and immersive elements from the post-apocalyptic world of the Virals.