Friday, April 13, 2012
The Passage by Justin Cronin
Justin Cronin's The Passage has been cheered by Stephen King (among others) for making vampires scary again. If read strictly on those terms, The Passage is only a modest success. Cronin morphs vampires in a manner indistinguishable from the way Juan Carlos Fresnadillo morphs zombies in 28 Weeks Later, similarly posing the Undead as the final, overwhelming threat to a diminishing colony of still-recognisable humanity. I can only conclude from this that Stephen King and I are kept awake by very different subject matter.
Or maybe not. Perhaps what really thrilled King as a reader was the way Cronin wrested vampires from the narcissistic concerns of adolescent sexual desire, and used the blood-suckers to explore the weightier, more adult concern of legacy. If this is the more accurate take, it may be I am not so far removed from King's insomniac torments after all.
The Passage can be divvied up into two narratives: pre-vampire infestation, and post-vampire infestation. The first is dominated by the perspective of two protagonists in middle age, one a celibate nun from Africa, the other a divorced g-man grieving the death of his only child and the marriage that collapsed shortly thereafter. Both are tied into communities that seem disinterested in, if not hostile to, their existence. Both become deeply invested in the well-being of a recent young orphan.
The second narrative is taken up with the survival concerns of young adults who have been colonised against the annihilating omnipresence of vampires. A fairly reliable state of defence has been cobbled together, but it is steadily eroding. These children are fully aware they are being shotgunned into an adulthood of harsh extremes. The questions every child contemplates en route to adulthood remain the same — Dare I hope for companionship? Can I permit intimacy? If I do, then what sort of world will we bring children into? — but are brought into sharper relief by an environment that has shifted from being merely dangerous to becoming overtly hostile. It shouldn't surprise the reader to learn the orphan of the first narrative plays a crucial, potentially salvific, role in the second.
The first world is immediately recognisable as the one humanity is steadily poisoning; the second is the product of the first, and is suitably surreal and grotesque. Cronin peoples these places with characters fleshed in via standard genre/YA fiction techniques: broad strokes and revealing episodes leavened by the occasional telling nuance, all sustained by a patient architecture of foreshadowing, red herrings, and lines of conflict that steadily build to a climactic show-down. Think of this book as a Left Behind for pantheist agnostics.
By rights, this is the sort of thing that should deeply appeal to me. Alas, my appetite for epic pulp is rarely roused these days, and Cronin pretty much sated it by the halfway mark. So far as I'm concerned, this sort of reading is best achieved in foreign hotel rooms, or in the waiting areas of medical centres — where, in fact, I read the first half, as I taxied a family member to a variety of labs and tests (the status remains quo, thank you). The speed-reading quotient for this book was at least 65%, which is more than I like to apply to a book this large. Nevertheless, I genuinely wanted to finish this book, and begrudge neither the effort nor time. Whether or not I read the next book will depend entirely on its length — or its availability in foreign hotel rooms.