Friday June 11th, 2010

A Moveable Feast

The Passage by Justin Cronin
Ballantine, 784 pp., $27.00

Sick of vampires yet? If after Buffy and Twilight and True Blood and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, you’re still thirsty for more, The Passage is nearly 800 pages long and stars more than 40 million vampires—or, as they’re called by various characters in the novel, jumps, flyers, smokes, drinks, virals, and dracs.

Writers and aspiring writers sometimes engage in barroom discussions about whether or not one could consciously create a bestseller. At its worst, this conversation is simply a way for the frustrated to ludicrously condescend to the successful: I should just sit down and write a big, million-dollar romance. At its most honest, though, it leads to complicated thoughts about the very nature of talent and storytelling. Justin Cronin’s first two books, a series of connected stories about the tensions inside a family and a novel centered on a lake in Maine, won him rave reviews and a PEN/Hemingway Award. The Passage, the first in a planned trilogy about doomed military experiments, apocalypse, clairvoyance, and an ageless girl charged with saving the world, has already won him millions of dollars and a film deal with Ridley Scott. Cronin has left behind modest aims and hit the jackpot. He flashes his talent early on in The Passage, but the literary side of this experiment quickly turns into a disappointment.

The epic begins humbly in Iowa, in the not too distant future, where a waitress named Jeanette is struggling to support her six-year-old daughter, Amy. Eventually, turning tricks in a motel room while Amy sleeps in the bathtub proves too much for Jeanette, and she drops the child at a convent in Memphis for safekeeping.

Cronin’s America is a place where 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina have been followed by “that Minneapolis thing,” a terrorist massacre of 300 holiday shoppers at the Mall of America, and Hurricane Vanessa, which has left New Orleans “little more than a giant petrochemical refinery, ringed by flooded lowlands so polluted that the water of its fouled lagoons could melt the skin right off your hand.” In this ever more dangerous world, the government is eager for military invention. And what wiser invention, really, than injecting soldiers with a virus that turned a group of researchers in Bolivia into bloodsucking monsters? The brilliant plan is initially tested on death-row inmates from across the country, who are rounded up by FBI agents Wolgast and Doyle. (Two of these inmates receive most of the attention: Carter, whose tragic story is delicately told; and Babcock, who will become the most gruesome and powerful result of the trial.) After the criminals, the agents are asked to pick up Amy, potentially useful for her youth, and Wolgast has a crisis of conscience.

The first section of The Passage (about 200 pages) is engaging and ominous. Wolgast and Carter, in particular, are sympathetic characters, even after the normally gentle Carter is turned into a creature that can “launch himself twenty feet through the air, so fast it was as if he were moving not through space but around it, and rip a man from crotch to jowls like a letter he couldn’t wait to open.” But once the story zooms nearly a century ahead, to a post-apocalyptic walled village called First Colony where a few dozen human survivors spend most of their time fending off virals with floodlights and arrows, the book becomes dull for long stretches, which is partly Cronin’s fault but might also be chalked up to the limitations of the genre.

There are 94 people in the colony, and Cronin makes the dubious decision to involve damn near all of them in the story. There’s Sara, Alicia, Peter, and Theo. Hollis, Mausami, Auntie, Michael, and Elton. Galen, Arlo, Caleb, Mar, Gabe, Sanjay, Gloria, Zander, Jimmy . . . and others. Michael, who monitors the colony’s crucial light source, is the Professor of this Gilligan’s Island. But the knowledge the rest of the group has retained from what they call the Time Before is conspicuously arbitrary. They know that the Eiffel Tower was in Paris but not what to call blue jeans. They have seen CDs and listened to the music on them but they’re discombobulated by the discovery of motion pictures.

Peter eventually emerges as the group’s focal point, the one who discovers Amy—alive for a century by now, but looking 12 or 13—while on a risky journey outside the compound. (“How did people live?” Peter wonders about the Time Before. “What did they eat, wear, think? Did they walk in the dark, as if this were nothing? If there were no virals, what made them afraid?”) But by the time we’re firmly reattached to certain characters, The Passage has turned into a lethal mixture of padded screenplay and pseudo-spiritual nonsense. The book’s sci-fi elements, terrifyingly tethered to the real world at the outset, eventually float toward a supreme brand of incantatory gobbledygook:

She was Amy, and she was forever. She was one of Twelve and also the other, the one above and behind, the Zero. She was the Girl from Nowhere, the One Who Walked In, who lived a thousand years; Amy of Multitudes, the Girl with the Souls Inside her.

She was Amy. She was Amy. She was Amy.


He was the night of nights and he had been Babcock before he became what he was. Before the great hunger that was like time itself inside him, a current in the blood, endless and needful, infinite and without border, a dark wing spreading over the world.

The repetition of “She was Amy” represents another annoyance. Just two more examples should give you the idea:

Virals. The street was full of virals.


But then he looked at Amy, and he knew.


Babcock was coming.

Multiply that by a thousand and you get a sense of how Cronin strains to underscore the drama. But the ultimate problem is that the unknown is scarier than the known. The book’s opening scenes are powerful because wondering how the experiments will go awry is creepier, in Cronin’s hands, than reading an endless series of scenes in which virals are held off by humans. The calm in The Passage is worth the hype; the storm, not so much.

John Williams is the editor of The Second Pass.

Mentioned in this review:

The Passage