Friday, December 10, 2010

Justin Cronin - The Passage

Before she became the Girl from Nowhere – the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years – she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy. Amy Harper Bellafonte. (p. 1)

The Passage is probably, at least in terms of marketing and publisher pushes, the biggest release of the year, a book covered in at least some form on almost every blog, one of the few speculative fiction books to, at least to some extent, break out of the genre crowd and infiltrate society at large. Does it deserve its accolades? In part.

Let’s get this out there right away: Cronin can write, and he can do character very, very well. In many ways, he reminds me of Stephen King, and I don’t just mean the Stand’s apocalyptic setting. Stephen King, especially in The Shining, has a habit of revealing characterization by circling the same points, but getting closer in each time. Cronin does the same thing here.

The first section of The Passage is where the main comparisons with The Stand come from, and it’s easy to see why. That being said, Cronin’s apocalypse is far vaguer than King’s and never deviates from expectations. The world is fucked up in every single way imaginable, and Cronin does a good job implying the changes without ever going into full scale infodump mode (Like the characters taking a detour to avoid the Federal Industrial District of New Orleans (p. 65)), but we’re never really presented with a situation that couldn’t be happening fifteen minutes from now.

The focus is not on the actual end of the world, in this section, but on the period leading up to it. There are genetically engineered super hero stories everywhere you look, vampirism being the super power in question here, and I think everyone has already seen the scene where the vampires break out in a dozen science fiction and horror stories already. Cronin does little to distinguish the actual events of their escape – the security procedures are, though outwardly capable, pretty much an in joke to anyone who’s ever read a horror novel – but instead makes us care through his characters.

Wolgast is an FBI agent with marital problems and moral qualms. When asked to bring six year old Amy to the secret research facility, he realizes he can no longer go through with what he’s doing and decides to save her life. Carter is a murderer promised one last chance in exchange for being made a human (soon to be vampiric) guinea pig. Grey and his coworkers are prior sex offenders, drugged to the eyeballs and working as manual labor as the vampires work their way into their minds. None of these threads are particularly original, and the reader can always either see the end of a plot thread ahead of time or take comfort in the fact that the few remaining unknowns will be swept away by what is known (apocalypse and all that entails). Still, Cronin’s gift is making you care, in circling around and around and establishing a scene well enough that, even if you know where it’s going to end, you’re still entranced.

By any objective measure, The Passage is filled with extraneous sections. The book opens with Amy’s mother and travels through teenage pregnancy, murder, and the eventual abandonment of the baby before the character falls off the face of Cronin’s earth, and that scene is far from unique in that regard. Yes, it could be argued that such a thing is filler, wholly unneeded, but, on the contrary, I think those passages are the soul of the book. The first part of The Passage is not a story of what happened to the world (we know already), nor of how it got that way (we can guess) but rather of the people swept along, and the time Cronin spends again and again on the most minor of characters is what gives potency to his earth shaking events.

After the end of everything, and a few transition segments, we enter the world that we are going to be spending our time in. The Colony is a far more inventive setting than the military base of the opening, and though aspects feel too outlandish at times, the overall set up is quite clever and the characters that populate it fascinating. Moving through similar structures as he did in the first part of the novel, but on a whole different scale, Cronin introduces us to the denizens of the Colony in a circuitous manner, gradually bringing in more and more perspectives as he ups the complexity of life in the small, isolated world. Though the transition to a whole new cast is at first difficult, Cronin’s construction of immensely understandable people living bizarre lives is effective at grabbing and holding our sympathies.

At the colony’s heart is the knowledge is the knowledge that they were all that is left in the world, but they don’t reveal this knowledge right away. Instead, in an attempt to allow their children to experience a carefree and blissful childhood, all knowledge of the end is kept secret from their kids, who dwell and play safely in the Sanctuary. Then, as they come of age, they’re told: a miniature apocalypse that scars every one of them and repeats itself again and again with each member of the society.

The Sanctuary is only one of the places in the novel where the bond between parent and child is explored. Cronin’s said that the inspiration for The Passage was his daughter, and that shows in the text. From Amy and Wolgast (and Wolgast’s short lived natural child) to Amy and her biological mother, Mausami and her father, the concept of the Sanctuary, and Babcock and his followers, Cronin approaches the concepts of parenthood and progeny from a dozen different angles, a variation of moving apart and responsibility that characterizes many of the relationships within the text.

It’s common knowledge that, the second you see its monster, it stops being so scary. There are exceptions, but, as a general rule of thumb, if you’re gunning down monsters, it’s not a pure horror story but, at best, a horror/action hybrid. When you show that the monsters can die, we stop being so frightened. If it can happen once, it can happen again. Cronin knows this. The opening’s scientific study of the vampires reveals a bizarre litany of capabilities, but no true understanding. The apocalypse is the world falling away off screen. The opening sections of The Colony show banks of spotlights looking into the dark and watchers waiting for an unseen foe. When a character steps outside for the briefest of seconds, just a footfall outside of the lighted cordon, the reader is terrified. Virals (Cronin’s name for vampires) are everywhere, unstoppable, and the reader knows that, any second now, they’re going to get you.

But, when the virals are actually seen, they don’t live up to their horrifying reputation. They’re action movie enemies, quick and strong but able to be put down by a shot to their sweet spot, each named character being able to take on, on average, ten or fifteen of them. The virals sudden lack of potency is a symptom of a deeper problem. Cronin’s set ups are immaculate, deep, vivid things. When he moves away from the set up into action, though, the novel loses its prodigious feeling, the text loses its weaving complexity, the characters become bellowing warriors rather than gradually illuminated enigmas.

Now, that’s not to say that Cronin is bad at plot motion. He’s not, but he’s not great at it either, and the payoff is never the match of the set up. When the vampires break free and ravage the military base, it’s a scene of blood splattered walls and distant screams that’s enjoyable but never the equal of the gravitas that was summoned during the testing. The road trip is well done for the most part, but its sheer length leeches the power of any one stop. Haven is creepy and powerful, but the cartoonish climax deprives the scene of much of its power. Etc.

Simply put, there’s a massive discrepancy between how Cronin makes you feel about his world and the actual facts of the world. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great when an author can make their setting feel dangerous, empty, or whatever it is they’re going for. There are few things better. But, as counterexamples and one in a million shots pile up, it becomes increasingly clear that the virals are not the unstoppable force they seemed to be, that it is perfectly possible to move about safely at night, that technology and civilization are not destroyed (because it’s hard to walk ten steps without bumping into a fuel depot or abandoned military base), that the world is not empty (because it’s hard to properly get yourselves locked in with no way out without bumping into some coincidentally travelling force of other survivors), and so on.

Finally, the sheer size of the novel plays against it. There are scenes that are perfectly fine scenes that are unaffecting for the simple reason that we’ve seen them, or at least something comparable, before. In this very novel. By the tenth close call, it’s difficult to think the protagonists are actually in danger, though that perception may not be accurate; Cronin is rather even handed with his deaths.

The Passage has been billed as a monumental work, and, as such, has been compared to everyone under the sun, providing they’ve included some sort of desolate roadway in their work. I feel the need to address some of the hype surrounding this novel. Now, I’m not talking about the quality here; that’s a personal call, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it. What I am talking about are the comparisons.

The first author often cited is Stephen King, and I think that’s a rather fair way to understand The Passage. Beyond the similarities I’ve already spoken of, both authors use the mundane in order to suck us into the world, illuminating strange situations with minutia and colloquialisms, such as (in Cronin’s work): It’d been almost two years since Carter had been off H-wing – H for “Hellhole,” H for “hit my black ass with that stick some more,” H for “Hey, Mama, I’m off to see Jesus any day now...” (p. 28-29)

In fact, Cronin continues those everyday comparisons long after the character’s have no idea what it is they’re seeing, and those quasi-understood glimpses of the past world are some of the best moments of the novel: At half-day we stopped to rest by an outcrop of boulders and saw, scraped into the rocks, “Darren loves Lexier 4Ever” and “Green River SHS ’16, PIRATES KICK ASS!!!” The first part everybody understood but nobody knew what to make of the rest. It makes me feel a little sad. I can’t say why, maybe it was just that the words had been there so long with no one to read them. (p. 619)

Of course, there are several differences between the two authors. Though their methods of set up are similar, King is the better at building tension, able to tug on his carefully established strands without unraveling them (which is, likely, countered by King’s utter inability with endings, but that’s a discussion for another review). That being said, Cronin is by far the more literary of the two, and his prose sometimes approaches a poetic beauty that is wholly beyond King’s writing:

When all time ended, and the world had lost its memory, and the man that he was had receded from view like a ship sailing away, rounding the blade of the earth with his old life locked in its hold; and when the gyring stars gazed down upon nothing, and the moon in its arc no longer remembered his name, and all that remained was the great sea of hunger on which he floated forever – still, inside him, in the deepest place, was this: one year. The mountain and the turning seasons, and Amy. Amy and the Year of Zero. (p. 211)

The second most prevalent comparison is to McCarthy’s The Road, a work famed for its minimalist beauty and oppressive bleakness. At eight hundred pages hardback, I think it’s pretty damn clear that the Passage is in a different timezone from minimalism and can most certainly not see any hints of sparsity from its porch.

There’s a single section where Wolgast and Amy are primarily alone and attempting to survive, and I guess you could argue that the day to day post-apocalypse scenarios share elements, and that’s true, but McCarthy’s vision involves emptiness, the struggle for food, desperate violence, and nothing else. Cronin’s brief burst of hard hitting emptiness is sandwiched between a CIA agent shooting an RPG at a vampire and a bunch of guards shooting crossbows to hit “sweet spots” at two hundred meters. Not exactly The Road, in either feel or technique, even if Cronin does occasionally break up his denser prose with the odd spate of fragmented brevity:

Above him he saw the deep, velvety blackness of the night sky, and stars, hundreds and hundreds of stars, and some of them were falling.

He thought: falling stars. He thought: Amy. He thought: Keys.
(p. 206)

Looking back, this review is filled with far more negative than positive. It’s true that The Passage failed to live up to my expectations, both those set by its hype and its own build ups, but that’s not to imply that it’s a bad work. The Passage is a solid book with moments of real greatness, and, as the first of a trilogy, Cronin has ample time to develop those hints into something spectacular. This isn’t a masterpiece, but, if you’re looking for a good post apocalyptic read, it’s almost guaranteed to satisfy anyone with reasonable expectations.


  1. Yes, it could be argued that such a thing is filler, wholly unneeded, but, on the contrary, I think those passages are the sole of the book.

    I disagree. The "Amy's Mother" section wasn't bad, but it was filler, felt like filler, and could have easily been chopped off without a serious impact on the rest of the story.

    If anything, I think it would have fitted the whole "Girl from Nowhere" bit if the book had just started with her being dumped at the nunnery by her mother, with minimal back-story.

    Now, that’s not to say that Cronin is bad at plot motion.

    I think he is. He has issues with getting the plot moving on at least two occasions: 1)from the testing phase of the Virals, to their break-out, and 2)from the "Colony" section to the "journey" bit. I thought the Colony was fascinating, too (although unrealistic - what are the odds of hitting a three-inch square spot on a creature like the Virals described with a crossbow at 10 yards, never mind 100? Or of those lights and the computer system still working a century after they were built?), but he just spent too much time getting it going.

    They’re action movie enemies, quick and strong but able to be put down by a shot to their sweet spot, each named character being able to take on, on average, ten or fifteen of them.

    Pretty much. He needed his Virals to over-run North America with the only way of them spreading being by bite, so he had to make them Arbitrarily Tough but with an Arbitrary Weak Spot so they could be killed. It's ridiculous, but most such things are in novels.

  2. [Filler] In retrospect, using Amy's mother as my bloat example was a terrible choice, as she really has nothing to do with the later plot. A better example would be, say, the time spent with Mausami's relationship to her father. She's always a peripheral character, but it makes the book deeper to have that.

    [Motion] Can't really disagree with anything you said, really. The Sweet Spot's far too small for its routine hitting to be even remotely believable, but, from what we see of the action scenes, it's certainly no harder than your average close range video game headshot.

    [100 Years] I think the whole book would have been far better after only five or six years. Really, with the exception of Amy and the people inside the Colony, that's already what it feels like. The locations they go through simply do not look like they were abandoned for that long, and the amount of people around is ludicrous for a hundred years after the apocalypse. The Colony's systems failing would have worked just as well then, too.

  3. from what we see of the action scenes, it's certainly no harder than your average close range video game headshot.

    You must be a good shot, then. :D

    I can't remember if Cronin ever put an upper limit on the strength of the Virals. They seem to die whenever he needs them to.

    Thinking more about it, the amount of showing-and-telling he does for the Virals in the "containment" section before they break out is another flawed part of the book. He really should have told much less, letting them be revealed in bits and pieces by the third-person reports and characters' points-of-view. *

    * Incidentally, I think that's something that Stephen King would have done.

    I think the whole book would have been far better after only five or six years.

    That's better than 100 years, but I think that would be too short for things to "settle down". I'm figuring something like 40-50 years - that way, some technology might still be working*, and you might have a few people who would realistically still be alive from the Pre-Viral Era.

    * Depending on the technology, of course. Any and all fuel would be worthless and degraded, along with their computers (even the spare parts would likely be worn down unless stored very, very carefully).

  4. [virals]

    I'm actually a freakin' AWFUL shot. I just like people to think I'm good.

    The moment that really ruined the virals as a threat, for me, was when one of them was killed by a sword. At that point, it's just really over as an uber killing machine demon monstrosity.


    40-50 could do it, year wise, though I don't think it'd take all that long to settle down if most people were dead.