I’d never heard of Justin Cronin before picking up The Passage; he’s won awards for previous work, though I’m given to understand that this latest work represents something of a departure for him. It may be new to Cronin, but it’s certainly not (or shouldn’t be) new to most readers, as The Passage is an overly-long pastiche of well-worn horror and sci-fi tropes, with a lot of solemn navel-gazing as filler.
The Passage begins (in a roundabout way) with the destruction of humanity by an viral outbreak which turns the infected into some reasonable facsimile of vampires—superhuman creatures who eviscerate any survivors lucky enough to escape infection. I’m not divulging any spoilers when I say this, as the vampire apocalypse is the narrative premise of the entire book, but said apocalypse doesn’t actually occur until more than 200 pages into the book. Compare this to, say, Stephen King’s The Stand, from where Cronin borrows many of his ideas, in which the end of humanity happens both early and swiftly; the rest of the The Stand‘s literally biblical length is divided between narration relevant to the plot and tangential character-building which does not necessarily have any impact upon the novel. However much may be said about The Stand‘s cultural importance—which is, I believe, vast, or at least so within the genre—it is at its most basic a very simplistic good v. evil story so aptly illustrated by the Spy vs. Spy cover art which adorns one of its editions.
Chronologically, the book can be split into three sections, although the third is really a subset of the second:
- Near-future, c. 2018. South African bats carry a virus which affects humans. Government conspiracy ensues. Uh oh.
- Far future, c. 2108 (or ≈90 A.V.). Small enclaves attempt to resist the large monster population.
- (Really) Distant future, c. 3018 (or ≈1000 A.V.). Some kind of human civilization allows for universities and academic conferences, at least in the antipodean world, far from the initial site of outbreak.
In the near-future, a scientist documents his ill-fated trip into South America. The biological phenomenon being studied is one which has the potential to create ageless humans by reactivating the thymus, but the trip and the knowledge in question ultimately kills mankind as we know it (oops). In the far future, scattered enclaves of humans survive on century-old technology which is rapidly falling into decay. Excerpts from written documentation about the apocalypse and the time after, listed in the book as being presented/read at a conference in New Zealand almost a thousand years after the outbreak of the virus (or so we can intuit from the designation “A.V.”) more or less indicate to readers that humanity survives, and moreover survives to a point where it can hold academic conferences, even if they’re relegated to far-flung locations like New Zealand. In other words, Cronin immediately removes some of his narrative suspense by letting slip the fact that humanity survives the spread of a virus, even if it takes a millennium to do so, effectively eliminating this question as a potential point of tension for readers. What’s left? There’s either the sheer interest of post-apocalyptic life (hint: this isn’t it), or else Cronin has co-opted the Mad-Max-Meets-Team-Edward schtick for a character drama. We know that Amy Bellafonte, the mysterious young girl around whom the book revolves, is an anti-personality and therefore of only morbid curiosity1; early characters, such as the government agent Brad Wallgast (father-figure for Amy and essentially a co-conspirator for the viral outbreak), come and go, built into passingly-interesting characters whose involvement ends abruptly for reasons one can easily surmise.
It’s important to note here that The Passage, despite its length, is only the first of a planned trilogy, meaning that just because a plot point failed to be important in The Passage doesn’t mean it won’t become important at some future point. Still, one feels a little cheated when humanity takes 200 pages to end; for all intents and purposes, Cronin could have spend 20 pages on the pre-apocalypse portion and not appreciably altered the story that came after. Why, one must ask, does Cronin see fit to tell Amy’s history by first telling the story of Amy’s teenage mother, who is given a detailed back-story and a tragic parting-of-ways which has no bearing on the plot? Is it because this will become important in successive novels (unlikely) or because Cronin subscribes to the Stephen King school of writing, wherein any character development, whether in a vacuum or written to a particular end, is considered important? I remember reading The Stand, and thinking during most of it that King could stand to learn a few things from Poe2.
One thing that both King and Cronin share is a strange desire to mix the scientific with the mystical. In both The Stand and The Passage (and, for that matter, Richard Matheson’s superior I Am Legend), the root cause is viral (or, more accurately, pathogenic). Cronin, in fact, begins with a Harvard scientist emailing his colleague from the jungles of South America, where an attack by uncommonly-aggressive bats sets events in motion. But both ultimately devolve from a scenario wherein understandable, biological causes are the root of the problem to one wherein a lot of predestination, extra-sensory knowledge, and other hocus pocus come into play. In King’s novel, at least, one accepted the fight between good and evil as a simple dichotomy and one that was at least largely allegorical, even if Randall Flagg quickly approaches the designation of a literal devil; by contrast, Cronin attempts to explain all the voodoo of the “virals” as analogous to the social structure of ants, but the layman’s explanation falls short and the whole situation smells like a bad case of stock supernatural lore, explained by modern science (sort of), which then regains all of its original mystique and inscrutability by way of solemn pronunciations, predestination, and narrative hyperbole. It’s a valiant effort, I suppose, but it ultimately stinks of inconsistency, and one wonders just what kind of book Cronin is trying to write: The Stand and/or I Am Legend, wherein a realistic story has a supernatural engine, or Twilight, wherein the supernatural is literally magical for no purpose other than sparkles3. I don’t know, and I suspect Cronin didn’t quite either; the resulting mélange is surprisingly two-dimensional and wholly unsatisfying.
As I mentioned, The Passage is the first entry in a planned trilogy to be released in rapid succession4; the thought of having to slog through two more ponderous novels of the same indecisive nonsense makes me weary: there isn’t enough narrative tension to make me interested, I don’t like the characters enough to care who dies, and I don’t enjoy the writing enough to read it for the thrill of the art. Clearly, The Passage is not a storyline I’ll be continuing.
- Hint: growing up with a prostitute for a mother, and then spending the next 90 years of your life wandering the Californian desert as a perpetual adolescent, avoiding the predations of supernatural carnivores, tends to turn a girl into less-than-stellar dinner company[↩]
- I recall reading that Poe, perhaps apocryphally, would edit his work by crossing out every third word.[↩]
- Cracked.com’s take: funny.[↩]
- And Fox 2000 immediately signed a movie deal, clearly hoping to cash in on the vampire craze before it’s too late.[↩]