Friday, January 21, 2011

100 Books: 5-Justin Cronin's THE PASSAGE

The Passage - Justin Cronin - Ballantine Books

We sure do love to read about the end of the world, don't we? Or watch it -- and I'm sure this book will be a major motion picture as soon as the next Fanning girl is old enough to play the lead, or barring that, Chloe Moretz's agent squeezes some producers for even more than she's worth. She'll look fine with black hair, though they might not even bother with that.

But as I was saying, we sure do like to fantasize about the end of the world. We love our disaster porn movies, our World War III (some folks insist it's up to IV or V, but let's go mainstream and say III. It's my blog) scenarios, our zombies and fallout victims and doomsday comets. We love to watch the world fall apart, and watch pathetic little stand-ins for ourselves cope with the aftermath.

We always imagine ourselves as being those few people, both lucky and devastatingly unfortunate, the survivors, and not among the billions of dead. We project ourselves into that weirdly romantic milieu in which we must fend for ourselves, free, true, from the artificial pressures of civilized life but free also from its conveniences, the infrastructure that enables us to spin out these very fantasies (only a writer with a comfortable home office and lots of leisure time, time not having to be spent hunting jackrabbits or defending the homestead or hoeing a pitiful plot of vegetables, can pen something so vast, so detailed, so sweeping and near-complete as The Passage, after all). It's fun to imagine being able to keep the lights on through our very own know-how and labor rather than depending on faceless bureaucrats and cog-like workers in a vast and impersonal machine that only cares that we pay our bill. It's satisfying to eat vegetables one has grown oneself. We imagine only the pride of self-sufficiency and envy our peasant ancestors who knew nothing else.

But then we close the book and return to the real world, in which blog posts need writing and hours must be put in at the day job to earn the imaginary currency with which we pay mortgages and keep canned goods in the pantry and keep the lights on by feeding the bureaucratic machine that delivers current to our homes. How many of us even really notice the power lines that deliver our electricity, to say nothing of the buried pipes that bring us clean water and carry away our wastes? They fade into the background of our lives unless we take a moment to specifically consider and appreciate them.

It's good to be reminded of this, and to take a moment to really feel the awe of what we, as a species, have achieved. Every building started as a plan and a few cement cornerstones, a few boards nailed together. Every pipeline started as a single shovelful of dirt being moved. Every snow fence was once a pile of lumber that was once trees in a forest hundreds, maybe even thousands, of miles away. It's all happening all around us, all the time. It's hard to grasp, though, isn't it? And we don't like the imagery it inspires in us, of humanity as just another kind of termite, mindlessly cooperating to build its mounds.

So I'm not at all surprised to see how outrageously popular The Passage was last year. It delivers on every level. World-ending disaster: check (bonus points in that we started it ourselves. Extra bonus points that the project that got out of hand had military origins. Darn that military, always trying to kill stuff and blow stuff up and dream up better ways to do it!). Scary monsters who just want to kill and kill and kill but also breed: check. Rampant destruction and stories of agonizing, slow collapse: check. Plucky survivors who escape the carnage and find a way to hide from the monsters: check. A tenuous new world arising from the ashes, built and maintained by the descendents of the plucky survivors: check. A mysterious messiah whom no one understands and half of them fear: check. There's nothing new here, except perhaps a better prose style; Cronin has a deft touch with truly original similes that never feel forced, and never gets carried away with the gruesomeness of what he's describing.

The film, if it gets made with any faithfulness to the book, will be art house, not grind house. But not sexy art house; it's not that kind of romance, The Passage. Its romance lies in its fulfillment of that neo-pastoral fantasy. It's men and women living simply, loving each other frankly, raising kids and corn and cows and occasionally having to defend themselves from the ravening hordes outside.

Well, that and a couple of other ill-fitting pieces stitched on. The origin myth of the book's barely-there heroine, Amy, for instance, while beautifully and movingly told up until the nun into whose care she is dumped takes her to the zoo, feels like part of a whole 'nother book, prosaic and sad until suddenly it looks like it's going to veer into Philip K. Dick territory when the zoo animals somehow sense what she is going to become, a notion of time and causality as decidedly non-linear and the events of the story inevitable that is pretty much dropped by the time FBI agents appear and whisk her away to become part of that bad old military project that unleashes hell upon the world. Some cool ideas rear their heads along with the frightened giraffes and angry elephants and screaming monkeys, never to be seen again. I wanted to keep reading that book. But what I got was okay, too. I guess.

Lots of my friends have commented on how great it is to see vampires acting like vampires again and not like cast-offs from a neo-bodice ripper. The virals in The Passage are genuinely creepy even before the extent of what they really are is completely revealed. Cronin did his homework here, really making the virus that created them feel like something that actually could be in the world, a parasitic almost-life-form that slowly transforms the body and alters the behavior just the way, in an example I still love, certain flukes both move into the antennae of infested snails to make those antennae swell and darken until they look like big fat caterpillars AND produce in the snail's tiny brain an urge to seek the very tops of the plants beneath which it would normally shelter so it can be snatched up and eaten by a bird who thinks it's getting a meal of two tasty caterpillars but is really getting a bellyful of those same flukes who need a bird to move on to the next stage of their lives.

There's only the one stage for these vampires, but the idea behind them is similar and pretty cool in execution, even before we realize that Cronin has turned to another biological model to account for how they behave: the hive. Though this does lead to a too-tidy wrap-up for Amy's gang's final show-down with the monsters, it still lends a degree of plausibility that this reader, at least, appreciated.

The one down, twelve to go conclusion-that-isn't, though, left this reader pretty let down. Not only does this leave obvious room for a sequel (potentially twelve? Ugh) but it also felt entirely too abrupt, as though, exhausted and maybe needing to do some carpal-tunnel prevention exercises, Cronin just stopped typing and didn't start again.

There is also the small matter of a story-telling device that I don't always respect showing up here and there: the manufactured secondary documentation that breaks away from the narrative itself. Occasionally, but only occasionally, we get segments from what are basically diaries. This can be fine when it's consistently used -- the original vampire novel, Dracula, is nothing but diary entries and letters, after all -- but when it only pops up in a few, short segments it feels lazy and jarring, yanking the reader out of the visceral experience of the characters and the story and imposing a particular interpretation of events. That it also gives away a basic notion: that somewhere life has gone on, or else there would be no archive stamps and labels on the material. And the fate of a number of characters, whom we've closely followed for hundreds of pages, identifying with them and rooting for them, is summarily tossed out in one of these little epistles as an afterthought. Phooey to that.

As I said, I'm sure there will be a film version, and some sequels to The Passage, but I'm thinking that I, exhausted and a little disappointed now after finishing the book, won't be along for those rides. Once is enough on some, unless you're a cute little six-year-old kid who's never been on one before, looking up at her daddy-figure and yelling "Again! Again!"

I am a bit older than six.

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