The Passage by Justin Cronin

“When daybreak found him he would be no more.”

The Passage has a lot to live up to. Author Justin Cronin, who has written two other novels that no one has read, received a mammoth advance for this vampire-apocalypse novel. He signed a movie deal that guaranteed he’ll be able to afford college and grad school for his kids. Oh, yeah: this 766-page doorstop? It’s just the first in a trilogy. The Passage has gotten decent reviews, some better than others, and has garnered more than a few comparisons to Stephen King’s The Stand. But none of that information answers the one question that matters: should you read it?

Those amateurs out there—the ones who read “serious” literature nine months out of the year, and save genre fiction for their beach reading—well, they seem to think so. According to them, this is a literary thriller, a horror novel with high-brow credentials, a book you don’t need to be ashamed to read and enjoy.

And it is a good read, but it’s not a great one. It’s not that the book is only mediocre, or rates a 5 out of 10: rather, parts of it are masterful examples of an extremely skilled author crafting complex characters who change in believable ways and exist in a beautifully limned world. But parts of it plod like a dehydrated mule in Death Valley.

Cronin came up with the plot with a little assistance: he and his then-eight-year-old daughter were playing “let’s make up a story,” and a vampire trilogy emerged. No surprise, then, that the star of the show, for a large portion of the book, is a girl of impressive gravitas and a set of confusing superpowers. This young heroine has the misfortune of becoming a pawn in a government experiment to discover eternal life, or supersoldiers, or something that only the government could come up with. The result? Vampires take over the world and wipe out most of humanity. (I haven’t spoiled anything that isn’t described, confusingly, on the dust jacket.)

The first 246 pages are phenomenal. Then there’s a 200 page dry patch. And then a fast-paced section. And so on. The last paragraph guarantees that I’ll be first in line to buy the sequel.

It’s difficult to say too much, because the first 246 pages are really a book of their own, and to tell you what happens beyond them feels like giving away the ending, as well as giving away a few surprises. But that first section is the best: Cronin’s greatest skill is in the way he crafts characters who don’t quite fit into the life they've made for themselves, and who gradually try to find ways out of their situation. I never thought I would like Special Agent Brad Wolgast, because he’s introduced as a spiteful, petty, and mean-spirited man with a tiny soul:

“Special Agent Brad Wolgast hated Texas. He hated everything about it. He hated the weather, which was hot as an oven one minute and freezing the next, the air so damp it felt like a wet towel over your head. He hated the look of the place…he hated the billboards and the freeways and the faceless subdivisions and the Texas flag…he hated the giant pickup trucks…Most of all, he hated it because his parents had made him live here, back in junior high.”

When we meet Wolgast, we meet all of his pent-up rage, which spews out of the narrative in a free-form list of hatred and infects our understanding of him just as much as his hatred of Texas affects his ability to just live his darn life already. A hundred pages later, we feel his every longing and despair and the possibilities of hope that seem always out of his reach, and we mourn. That’s incredible: Cronin makes us hate someone who hates himself and his world, and gradually unfolds his character to reveal a pathos that makes him a tragic hero.

But Wolgast is Cronin’s greatest creation. Although their world is precisely detailed, the characters who people the last two-thirds of the book feel more roughly drawn: Alicia is hard-nosed and resistant to love; Peter has an inferiority complex; Michael is good at fixing things. These people—all younger than Wolgast, and younger than Cronin himself—aren’t full the way Wolgast is, perhaps because they inhabit a sparser landscape. Cronin gets modern middle-aged angst, but I’m not sure he’s mastered existential angst yet.

Those sketched-in characters and their world is the plottiest part of the book, and I wonder if Cronin’s difficulty in balancing story vs. characterization isn’t indicative of the genre-centric goals of the novel and his high-brow roots. It’s not easy to balance great writing and great plotting, which makes the last third of the book into something of a picaresque novel: our heroes jump from place to place, the scope of their experience ever-widening. But they don’t seem to gain much from this exposure; they see more, but they don’t seem to see the world with new eyes.

We can almost think of this as a cinematic pan-out: first, an in-depth treatment of the state of one man’s soul; then a plucky band of people; then a region; then a country (and don’t get your ten-gallons in a twist, Longhorns: Texas gets the lone-star treatment later in the novel). As the scope widens, it loses clarity of detail. There’s one section in which three different characters think, in a limited-omniscient-narrator sort of way, that they are being led by one another. Who thinks this about whom, and why, and what it means for their journey—it’s never addressed, and never made relevant. Those types of omissions make their thoughts seem like character-filler, put in to avoid the play-by-play feel of a traditional trashy thriller. Also, Cronin is remarkably bad at clarifying the layout of the places he describes.

Perhaps to maintain his literary street-cred, Cronin peppers the novel with allusions: The Sound and the Fury, King Lear, The Road, The Twilight Zone, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Stand, The Dark Tower, 'Salem’s Lot, Lord of the Flies: the list could go on for years. Obviously, Cronin owes a great debt to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and he pays off much of that debt by interspersing emails, diary entries, legal documents, even film clips in homage to Stoker’s fixation on media of communication.

Elizabeth Kostova similarly played with alternating narrators in The Historian, the last great vampire novel that had the literary demimonde in a hullabaloo. She did it to greater effect there, slowly teasing out character and family relationships, even though some of the trick and turns of her plot were a little hackneyed (and visible from a mile off on a cloudy day). Cronin’s inserted documents, though, often just function as convenient summary; occasionally, they’re part of a world-building that’s a little too-well blueprinted.

And, above all, we can’t lose sight of the nesting-doll pun of the book’s title. It is a book of journeys, of tunnels, of transitions, and of passages from other texts. It’s also a book that explicitly compares the heroine to Noah’s ark: she is the medium, whereas other people are the message. There’s a 15-page paper there for some enterprising undergraduate to write: the role of male narrators, female characters, and the objectification of literary artifacts. Kids, the topic is yours for the taking.

Despite those caveats, I would recommend this book. It’s hefty, it tells a decent story, and it tells it decently well. It’s not life-shattering for those of us familiar with genre shows or genre books, nor is it the most beautiful work of glistening prose that I’ve read this year. But it’s a solid entry into the vampire playbook, and I’ve got high hopes for the sequel.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nice review! I found this because I was searching for confirmation that those emails in the very first part of the book were an homage to Dracula. Glad you agree.

Josie Kafka said...

Thank you, Anon!

Andrew said...

Yes, Thankyou for verbalising what I felt. I too found that sometimes subconsciously Id find myself skimming over a paragraph of detail about location or action only to think "wait, what just happened" or "where are we", whereby upon closer inspection of the text it was just as choppy and hard to visualise as if Id only half heartedly read it.

I agree absolutely 100% with your feel of the execution/richness of the chapters. The lead-up to infection and apocalypse was indeed a more enriching read.. then when we start to meet the first colony with their rules and family..you're just like " wait, what"... and part of that contributed to a sense of frustration and drive to understand for me.. but still there were sections in the middle where it definately lost momentum.

And again, I just completed it this afternoon and I was like " its very sectiony isnt it" -- they
find amy... they go to the bunker...they go to Las Vagas...they go to the heaven... and from that point on.. it unravelled very fast... suddenly we're making leaps and bounds across they country-side whilst they share angst about their relationships and misgivings towards the quest.

Sometimes it was downright predictable also.. I mean who didnt predict the return of town-joke Galen" a chapter or two before his revelation.. or the ultimate fate of Alicia after being bitten.

I figured after Sara's last diary entry this HAD to be being turned into a trilogy or at least having a sequel ( also with Peter and his "we're off to war") but at the same time, I held out the idea that maybe it wasnt going to be a sequeled book..as Babcock got so very litle real characterisation or explaination..or nothing of ZERO (which also made me thing sequel)... otherwise, I assumed we werent supposed to really smpathise with the virals and just understand them as the general threat and metaphor for the destruction of mankind etc..

Im ranting now.. but just wanted to say I agreed very much with your review of this book.

Bob Moores said...

Josie Kafka is seriously patronising in her review of The Passage - a book that I have just finished and was sufficiently impressed to immediately go on-line to see when the sequel is likely to come out.

What is a good book - one that allows you to be absorbed into an acceptable landscape peopled with characters that you relate to and held together by a strong storyline - The Passage has all of this.

A good book is also one that you stop at moments in your working day and conciously remember that you have the pleasure awaiting you of continuing the story later that day - and when finished you eagerly await the sequal - The Passage has all of this.

These are the attributes that I look for in a book, and having found them, will seek other books by the author and actively recommend the author to friends.

I am not familiar with Josie Kafka - what has she written?

Bob Moores

Billie Doux said...

Dear Bob Moores,

Your comments would be quite good if they didn't include an unwarranted personal attack in the first and last paragraphs.

Coincidentally, I got a copy of The Passage for Christmas and have gotten through half of it. And (as I said, coincidentally), after stopping and starting several times, I just decided I wasn't going to bother finishing it. As Josie correctly pointed out, the first section is a lot more engrossing. But now I'm starting to feel like I'm stuck in a vampire rip-off of The Stand that will never be as good as King's.

Who is Josie Kafka? I'll tell you. She is my friend, a damned fine writer, and a lot kinder to strangers than you are.

Paul Kelly said...

Bob, this is a frankly baffling comment. How can you complain about Josie being patronising and then go on to patronise her yourself? Must someone have written a novel in order to successfully critique one? Who made that rule up? What have you written that should make us respect your opinion over anyone else's?

Opinions are a personal thing, and someone's negative opinion of something should in no way negate your own enjoyment of it. People have different tastes. It's as simple as that. No need to start bustin' out the ad hominems.

Deb said...

Well done on your critique of the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I came online to see if there was a sequel. The last paragraph certainly DOES leave you hanging and wanting to know more.

Randytheb said...

Hi all- just finished the passage and like many of you, went on line to look for more. All I can say is that it took a long time to read, ( almost 800 pages)- but was so worth it. I did look forward to coming home from work to read it. As far as critiquing his work- it's his book. He chose to write it this way and though the middle section might have been a little slower, it also was devoted to wolgast and Amy - two big characters.
In fact, as I was reading this book, I was amazed at the depth of the character development. Mr. Cronin is a gifted craftsmen on many levels. I look forward to not only his next work, but discussions about his work.
Finally, I hope that the " sparring" that went on by some reviewers will end. I am sure that their was nothing personal intended by anybody- so be nice!!!! Or- maybe it was Babcock starting a new " the many". Be careful!!!!!
GREAT BOOK Randytheb

Anonymous said...

I have not read the book but I did listen to it. I spend a great deal of my time at work driving and so I listen to audiobooks.

When I started listening I thought that the writer spent a great deal of time describing everything in detail and I think that perhaps if I read the book I may have found myself scanning some sections.

The great thing about unabridged audio books is that you can't do that. Especially if you are driving. You have to listen to it all.

After a short time I got used to the amount of description and found that I was utterly absorbed. I don't recognise any of the criticism that any part of the book dragged or became sluggish.

I was completely wrapt from beginning to end. I loved the book and finished it just ten minutes ago. I loved it so much that I just had to see if there would be more.

I cannot recommend this book enough and believe that it takes the whole undead type apocalypse book to a whole new level. To start with I thought they'd just take Amy's blood and make a cure as so many stories that have gone before. I am glad that it went way beyond this.

Anonymous said...

I recieved this book from my mom after she had given me another book that I found utterly boring so I was very wary about reading this one. I read it in 3 days, I could not put it down. Does it seem sectiony? Yes but thats what keeps it moving and interesting. They are on a trip so they go from this place, to that place etc. I could not find a lull in the writing at all. I did have to go back a few times as I found myself going, okay what happened? Very descriptive at times. Characters were nicely done, I loved there was different sides of the story. I never reread books once I'm done them and this one I reread because I loved it so much.I'll probably end up rereading it a 3rd time before the next one comes out!

Anonymous said...

I've read it twice now and like an earlier comment tend to skip read a bit. However I've listened to it three times as an audio book and keep getting new snippets and insights,,,how long to the sequel?

Anonymous said...

This is a terrible book. The first 250 pages are okay but the remainder is just dreck. There is no main character at all. I cannot understand how this garnered such a huge advance. It is just boring and pointless. I read it to the end expecting that somewhere it would suddenly get better but it did not. It sucked until the end.