Friday, March 12, 2010

The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage
by Justin Cronin
(Ballantine, June 2010)

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Reading Justin Cronin's The Passage was a wonderfully weird experience in so many ways. For one thing, there had been foreshadowing for weeks: my business partner, my Twitter friends, fellow booksellers, the Winter Institute buildup, EVERYTHING and everyone seemed to be telling me to read this book. Not only was it being read by everyone whose tastes I share, it sounded like just the sort of thing I would like. Literary adventure with a soupçon of the supernatural? Yes please thankyou.

Weirder though, I'd read Justin Cronin's previous book The Summer Guest -- way back when, when I was young and poor enough to need the $45 they could pay me, I even reviewed it for Publishers Weekly (login required, sorry). I loved that novel, a piercing but gentle story of a family and its secrets over a summer at a fish camp. But it was a leetle hard to picture that rather quiet literary writer penning something that sounded like, from what people were telling me... a vampire apocalypse novel.

But I needed another big fat novel for a plane ride, so I jumped in, salivating with anticipation. And what an freakin' incredible ride it was. It starts with the very first sentence:

"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."

It opened up a world to get lost in. I had to come back to that sentence a number of times as the story got bigger, more epic and labyrinthine, and I needed to remember where we came from and where we were headed.

I love the backstory of this novel, as put forth in the "Dear Reader" letter at the front: that Cronin asked his young daughter what he should write about next, and she said "Write about a girl who saves the world." An unlikely challenge for the average writer of literary fiction -- but Cronin was up to it, with a vengeance. Not only did he write this novel on the full apocalyptic epic scale, but it's the first of a trilogy -- a huge world-building exercise, with heroes and villains and massive set-pieces and romance and destiny and life and death.

I don't want to talk much about the plot, other than that first sentence; I'm sure many reviews will come out that outline the story structure, but it was such a pleasure to read in breathless suspense and near constant surprise that this early on I don't want to spoil it for anybody. My impression about half way through was that it reminded me a lot of Dean Koontz, whom I loved as a teen -- adventure with a scrim of sci fi and a Joseph Campbell-ian hero to root for. But Koontz's morality was always a tad too schematic, his bad guys too obviously bad, his emphasis on the value of home and hearth almost a little right-wing, and his dialogue not especially convincing.

Cronin is showing us what happens when a writer who has cut his chops on stories of families and relationships takes on an operatic fantasy epic. The villains are sometimes monstrously horrifying, sometimes pathetically well-meaning, sometimes just driven and short-sighted. The social interactions -- the love affairs, the family life, the camaraderie and power shifts of extreme danger -- are exquisitely observed. And the action scenes leave nothing to be desired, except maybe the ability to read faster. At times, yes, it seems a little too overdetermined that the good guys will live through the horrors that have killed countless others -- but it would hardly be a satisfying adventure story (at least in Volume One) if they didn't.

What I appreciate most about what Cronin brings to this heart-pounding epic is the Big Themes, which grow on you gradually rather than hitting you over the head. There's a lot of ink spilled these days about what vampires "mean" -- in The Passage, it seems that on some level they just mean mortal danger, of the kind bands of humans have always faced. How to make meaning and value out of a life whose sweetness is likely to be heartbreakingly brief -- is this a question unique to those expecting carnivorous humans to descend on them at nightfall? And there's the question of identity, too. The vampires take away identity into a massive, hungry hive-mind, while Cronin's humans constantly ground their identity in their family name, the work they do, the place they come from -- just like us, just like always. Who are you? is a repeated refrain, sometimes answerable, sometimes not.

These are just samplings of some of the stuff I saw going on in this book, which is made not only to quicken the pulse and keep you up at night, but also to interrogate and reevaluate the deep core of being human. The only thing I hated about this book is that it is fully committed to being a trilogy: at the end, after 700 pages of horror and laughter and tears and ephiphanies and explosions, it ends on a cliffhanger. AAAUUGH!! But what more visceral response could a "literary writer" evoke? Kudos to Justin Cronin for this masterpiece, which I think is going to be the book of the summer if not the year -- and here's hoping he hurries up and writes the next one!