I like big books.
By big, I don’t mean physically big. I mean a book that’s a big deal. Highly anticipated books. Much hyped books. Books whose imminent publication date I’m familiar with, thanks to a New York Times profile of the author, hundreds of tweets directing me to the story of the astronomical advance he received based only on one chapter and a synopsis scratched on a cocktail napkin, and the specially made Point-of-Sale posters hanging behind the counter in Waterstones in the weeks leading up to its release. I like them because much-hyped releases are exciting, the book-lovers’ equivalent of what teenage girls (and some, um, adult ones) are experiencing right now, knowing that Eclipse, the latest installment in the Twilight saga, will be on general release in mere hours.
(Mere hours! Oh, Edward, you’re so sparkly…)
The Passage by Justin Cronin is this summer’s Big Book. All the requisite pieces are in place: a multi-million dollar advance, a movie in development, a 20 city book tour and a cute – if unconvincing – story of how he came to write the book. (I know all this because – yes, you’ve guessed it – I read about it in the New York Times.) It’s also physically big – 700+ pages. There’s even a timely element of vampirism and a poster behind the counter of my local Waterstones, depicting a syringe filled with green liquid beside the book’s ominous tag-line, Something is coming. With favorable comparisons to one of my all-time faves, Stephen King’s The Stand, and even an endorsement from King on the cover, things were looking good.
The novel opens in the not-too-distant future. In an underground facility hidden deep in the Colorado mountains, the U.S. Army is intentionally – and secretly – infecting death row inmates with a viral agent discovered in the jungles of South America. Symptoms of the disease include an aversion to sunlight, superhuman strength and a taste for people – or in other words, being a vampire. But now the FBI agents whose job it’s been to collect the test subjects are sent to bring in a civilian – a strange six-year-old girl called Amy – and shortly after they do, all hell breaks loose. Literally. The book then flashes forward around 100 years and introduces us to Cronin’s (mostly) well-imagined vision of a post-apocalyptic America in which what’s left of the human race is struggling to stay alive, and where most of the book’s action takes place.
The Passage is a clever, engaging and occasionally original techno-thriller whose sprawling plot throws up some real surprises while still tying everything up nicely. (Well, as much as you can while still leaving the door wide open for the next installment.)
The problem is that inside of it is another book, a bad book, a 250-page clunker that makes watching paint dry seem like white water rafting.
It starts when the book jumps forward in time, near the beginning. After a tense and shocking start, the reader is suddenly dumped in a remote community in the California mountains and introduced to upwards of thirty new characters, each with their own fully-formed family tree, irrelevant backstory and confusingly similar names. (Cronin does the reader no favors, either; it took me ten pages to realize that ‘Lish’ was in fact a nickname for ‘Alicia’ – pronounced ‘AL-LEASH-EE-AA’ the last time I checked, or ‘AL-LISS-EE-AH’ at a push, but definitely not ‘AL-LISH-EE-AH’ – and not two different characters.) This section felt boring, indulgent and unnecessary, and what really annoyed me is that in other places in the book where I wanted to know more about what was happening, Cronin skipped ahead, using a flashback, diary entry or some other device to fill in the gap.
And while his vision of the future is clearly well thought-out and includes some interesting ideas – like New Orleans as a huge petrochemical plant, having been made inhospitable at the hands of Katrina’s Bigger, Bolder Sister – there were several inconsistencies that just didn’t ring true. Only a hundred years has passed, but the word ‘children’ isn’t used anymore; the colony calls them ‘Littles’. They don’t know what movies are or what Christmas is, even though plenty of books from ‘Before’ have survived, as well as a person (an elderly woman named Auntie), and they listen to music CDs. At the same time, there’s still loot to be found in the crumbling stores and malls.
After a hundred years?
It felt like Cronin was cheating a bit: when he wanted there to have been a great passing of time, a hundred years ago was Ancient History, but when he needed it to have been not that long ago, it was suddenly last week.
And one other thing: on several occasions, Cronin leads you to believe something awful has befallen one of his characters – injury, loss, death or all three – only to bring them back, unscathed, a few pages later, and always with the phrase, ‘How [insert character name] had escaped [insert calamity] was something [insert character name] couldn’t wholly explain.’
Needless to say, that can get kind of annoying after 700 pages.
The Passage is supposedly the first in a trilogy. If that proves to be true, then why oh why OH WHY didn’t Cronin spend this book telling us the story of how it all came to be, instead of saying, ‘Well, there was this guy-‘ and then jumping ahead a hundred years? I love books involving rogue diseases; I actively seek them out. Throw in the aftermath of a near-apocalypse and I’m all yours. The Passage – and Cronin, as a writer of books like it – had such huge potential, squashed by big chunk of boredom in the middle that really should have felt the wrath of a zealous Delete button.
They spoil what would have otherwise been a clever, unpredictable and thrilling book, and left me quite disappointed.
Having said that, the movie is going to rock.