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Book Review: The Passage

Summer is upon us and the time has come to go to the beach and get lost in a book.  But what to take?  If you’re like me, you don’t do trashy chick-lit.  That Candace Bushnell crap will never see my library shelf.  I want plot, action, good character development, some profound meaning.

So, The Passage, by Justin Cronin, may or may not be for you.

This was one of the most frustrating books I have ever read.  Er, listened to.  One word of warning, it is a loooooonnnnnngggg book.  The audible version is 40 hours long.  Maybe the audiobook is not the best format for this book but I’ll get to that in a moment.

I think part of my frustration is that the author tries too hard to be all things to all people.  Is the book an eschatological parable?  Science fiction?  An On-The-Road buddy story?  A love story?  An epic horror story spanning generations ala Stephen King’s interminable It?  A long winded luddite lecture on the perils of modern technology with a soupçon of magical realism?  A Beauty and the Beast fairy tale?  Who the frak knows?  It could be all of these things.  Some of them hang together.  Some of them hang separately.

There are two messages I got loud and clear from The Passage.  As Jackie Kennedy is reported to have said, “If you mess up your childern, nothing else you do really matters”.  The other one is, if you’re going to tinker with viruses, be sure NOT to use sociopathic murderers for your in vivo studies.  I made a note to self on this one because, *clearly*, scientists need to be reminded, ALL THE TIME, of their pretensions to divinity and the hubris that is inextricably linked in their DNA to their interest in biology.  Only scientists are capable of destroying our civilization.  Oil companies and investment bankers can not come close in destructive power to a guy in a white labcoat with a test tube.  We just can’t be trusted.

{{Sigh}}

Actually, it was the military that did it.  They recruited the scientist.

Ok, does anyone doubt that the Army has stocks of mutated biological agents that make smallpox look like a bad case of poison ivy?  Of course not.  But it’s not like they’re out to create a race of orcs.  I mean, come on.

So, here’s the premise of this weighty tome: A grief stricken biologist goes to South America to investigate a bat virus that has the power to cure terminally ill cancer patients.  Well, cure them temporarily.  There are a few kinks that need to be ironed out, like getting them to stop turning into immortal blood thirsty killers.  The Army sees this side effect as a feature, not a bug.  So, it makes the good doctor an offer he can’t refuse and gives him his own personal research lab in the mountains above Telluride, CO.  Enter the FBI agent, Wolgast.  Wolgast’s job is to recruit “volunteers” among death row inmates to participate in “clinical trials”.  The subjects are not told what’s going to happen to them but seeing as they don’t have many alternatives, most of the recruits sign up.  Then, the doctor says his research has progressed to the point where he needs a much younger subject.  He needs a child.  That’s where 6 year old Amy Harper Bellefonte comes in.

Amy is the abandoned child of a homeless woman turned prostitute.  When Amy was born, she and her mom lived with her grandfather in a poor but idyllic existence on an Iowa farm.  A series of unfortunate events leads to Amy’s abandonment at a convent with the eccentric Sister Lacy, and her subsequent abduction by Wolgast.  It doesn’t take long for Wolgast and Amy to bond.  Wolgast can’t bring himself to turn her over to research so he goes on the lam with her.  They’re both caught and Amy is subjected to a mutated form of the virus that brings her close to death.  Then, one night, all hell breaks loose on the mountain, the subjects escape and the world changes.  Once again, Wolgast disappears with Amy.  They retreat to an old summer camp in Oregon and hide from the chaos of the world around them.

And, Oh, what chaos ensues.  This is the most gripping part of the book.  Most of the details are provided by out of date newspapers that Wolgast finds while they’re hiding.  But there is one section concerning the evacuation of children from Philadelphia that is particularly harrowing.  The girl who tells it ends up in a FEMA camp in California.  She is part of the founding generation of survivors.  This is the end of the first part.

The second part concerns the California colony’s kibbutz-like existence.  They’re out in the middle of nowhere, 90 years later.  They haven’t heard from FEMA or the Army or nearly any other non-infected human beings for years.  For all they know, they’re the only ones who are left.  They sleep with the lights on, literally.  Light is the only thing that keeps the soulless virals at bay.  And their wind turbine powered batteries are starting to die.

That’s where the story starts to fall apart.  There are so many logical inconsistencies from this point on that even though the plot is still compelling, the stuff that doesn’t hang together started to grate on my nerves.  For example, the colony seems to have forgotten about modern medicine.  They don’t have antibiotics or anesthesia.  Ok, I know they may have used up the contents of their 50 ton push pack in 90 years but no one bothered to write down the recipe for chloroform or how to make penicillin from cheese mold?  And the battery problem: the guy responsible for running the power supply tells one of the more senior members of the colony of their impending fate and- they keep it to themselves?  No “let’s get together and brainstorm a solution or all 100 of us are going to die horrible deaths in, Oh, about a year”.  No, they just sit on that information.  Then, when a couple of the members of a clique get into trouble, the whole group takes off, leaving the colony to fend for itself, unaware that the lights are about to go out.  The colony is described as being kind and gentle to their children even after they learn the bitter truth about the world but they seem to not to have instilled a sense of moral responsibility to their community in them.  If you think you’re the last 100 people on earth, wouldn’t you go out of your way to make sure that community survival was paramount?

Amy comes back into the story.  Of all of the characters, her thoughts on being and existence are the most convincing.  But in the presence of others, you get no sense of the internal workings of her mind.  She is silent and passive, a mystery that drives the others to take action and her relationship to Peter, the reluctant leader of the group, remains woefully underdeveloped.  The other characters of the second half, trained survivalists, have all of the emotional depth of Degrassi High School students.  The action is punctuated by heart to heart conversations that lead nowhere and resolve nothing.  I don’t care about a bunch of college aged adolescents mooning over each other for months at a stretch.  Grow up and get to the frickin’ point already.

We do come to the point.  It should be thrilling but it seems a bit anti-climactic.  This is where the audiobook has its limitations.  Because, if you had the book, there are certain pages that you could comfortably skip right over but with an audiobook, you have to listen to the words to make sure you haven’t missed anything important and this. takes. for. ever.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the book really is good.  The first part is gripping and hair raising.  There are passages of astonishing beauty that make you ache for Wolgast and Amy.  There is no doubt that Cronin is a talented writer.  I think that the scope of the saga just got a bit too big and unwieldy.  He could have used a better editor to pare some of it back and focus the motivations of the characters.  And I have never heard so much overuse of the word “frown” in my life.  If a character has to express displeasure in any way, the frowny face seems to be the only option.  Didn’t Cronin have access to a Thesaurus?  Were there no other words to describe a furrowing of the brows?  A look of worry and concern?  A sense of disapproval?   But I digress.

Here’s my prediction: The book is going to be wildly popular.  There will be sequels.  The way the book ends, there almost has to be. If I were pushy enough to advise the author, I’d suggest that he spend more time world building.  An epic of this magnitude deserves an almost Tolkienesque attention to detail.  Take your time.  Please, please, please, tighten up the character relationships.  And try to figure out how things actually work. I realize that English majors don’t all flock to the hard sciences but make an effort to extrapolate.

As for the fate of this first of three books, there will be HBO miniseries or movie and a franchise and all sorts of character re-enactments.  There will be Halloween costumes and video games.  I hope they make a Wii version.  Get in on it early enough and you can say you were there when the phenomenon started.  Enjoy it while you can.

You never know when the world might end and the lights go off.

(Bwahahahahahhh!, she says, shaking her test tube)

Recommended.

15 Responses

  1. These series’ always start off good and then slowly go downhill. I know using Twilight and Harry Potter as a comparison is probably extremely stupid, but a series is a series. A lot of them turn into something like the slowly dwindling sex lives of an annoying couple.
    Hopefully is sequels to this book do come out that won’t be the case. I will take to heart your recommendation and have a read.

    • A lot of them turn into something like the slowly dwindling sex lives of an annoying couple.

      lol!

  2. I’m so glad you posted this! I just got a NOOK reader for my birthday. The Passage was my experiment to see if it makes a difference with such a big book. And it did! It was easier than reading a paperback.

    I like post appocolyptic fiction and this one is (so far) one of my favorites.

    It has a pretty big cast of characters so my dislike of a couple didn’t affect my enjoyment. I loved his sentences and his control over the flow of the story.

    • Yes, his writing style is beautiful. But the “frown” business was really noticeable in the audiobook. I started to cringe when i could see it coming. Peter frowned. Sarah frowned. Greer frowned.
      I just wish he had focused more of his attention on Amy in the second part.

    • It is easier, isn’t it? I find that I read a lot faster on my Kindle. I love it. I downloaded The Passage, but I probably won’t be able to get started with it for a few more days.

      • Oo, Oo! The iPad has a kindle app. The sucker is so fast with whispernet. I set it up on my mom’s iPad and now she’s an amazon junkie. There goes the inheritance. I think the iPad did more for amazon than the kindle did. It’s the network speed. There’s nothing like it. You order a book and 10 seconds later, it’s there. Like I Dream of Jeannie. If only ATT’s 3G network were as fast. Or cheap.
        Way to go amazon. Amazon and apple. Perfect together.

        • It takes less than 30 seconds for me to download a book on my Kindle. When you’re talking 30 seconds vs 10 seconds in that context, the dirrerence in speed is irrelevant. I prefer the longer battery life of my Kindle when I take my “books” on the road. But the iPad is neat for other stuff.

          • Are you nut? The battery on the iPad lasts forever. I charge it every night but I don’t have to. As long as I don’t watch movies on it, the batteries are great.
            If people love their kindles, more power to them. It’s all good. I’m just reporting on what I think might be an unexpected benefit to amazon with the iPad. They really have nothing to fear. They’re going to sell a lot of books through the iPad, possibly more than the kindle. And the whisper net speed has nothing to do with an iPad. That’s all amazon. It’s just a nice synchronicity. That’s all.

  3. I got an advanced copy of a great icepunk fantasy from my favorite author.
    Check out my review here:
    http://votermom.blogspot.com/2010/06/cold-magic-by-kate-elliott.html

    Ever think about the good press the Romans STILL get, even today? That was the offhand comment that so luckily got me a chance to read an advanced copy of Kate Elliott’s fantastic new novel, Cold Magic….

  4. Rd & Co. good morning. That was so funny about the “frowns” RD. Made me laugh and laugh. So anyway, geez. More from Klein, and this time the subject is what I thought it might be “geo-engineering” — ya know? The 70’s were such a peaceful happy earthy time.

    A time when “the establishment” was considered? Well, some of us surely remember just how bad. Here she is:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2010/jun/19/naomi-klein-gulf-oil-spill

    So, tons of people have made huge profits off of this? When you start looking at who bought what and when and why?

    I’m seeing this as planned, RD & Co. We had those tidy warnings by both Biden and Powell that there was going to be a giant crisis. In fact, Biden assured us.

    The refresh is here:

    Well. Now we have that don’t we? The most unethical crisis that has ever happened yet. By “the establishment” circa 2010.

    Read it and weep.
    http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2010/06/18/ask-the-fool-best-ways-to-play-the-oil-spill.aspx

    Interesting…
    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/44/2010/06/nc-gop-congressional-candidate.html?wprss=44

    Hugs RD & Co.
    A huge investigation is so in order right now.
    Breaking:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jun/19/gulf-oil-spill-anarkdo-petroleum-blames-bp

  5. My very favorite series was Ross Thomas’ PacificRim series.

    Wonderful characters; all endearing miscreants.

  6. My 2 favorite sci-fi’s (and I love good sci-fi!) are;
    Octavia Butler-“The Parable of the Sower”-so apropos :Octavia E. Butler, the grande dame of science fiction, writes extraordinary, inspirational stories of ordinary people. Parable of the Sower is a hopeful tale set in a dystopian future United States of walled cities, disease, fires, and madness. Lauren Olamina is an 18-year-old woman with hyperempathy syndrome–if she sees another in pain, she feels their pain as acutely as if it were real. When her relatively safe neighborhood enclave is inevitably destroyed, along with her family and dreams for the future, Lauren grabs a backpack full of supplies and begins a journey north. Along the way, she recruits fellow refugees to her embryonic faith, Earthseed, the prime tenet of which is that “God is change.” This is a great book–simple and elegant, with enough message to make you think, but not so much that you feel preached to.

    And; Marge Piecy-“He, She and It”-this is Piercy’s first full-fledged foray into science fiction, although Woman on the Edge of Time ( LJ 6/1/76) flirted with the genre. In the 21st century the world has been ravaged by environmental disaster and war, with much of the populace living in corporate domes. Depressed over child custody problems with Josh, her ex-husband, Shira Shipman returns to her childhood home, one of the few free Jewish towns. There she falls in love with Yod, an illegal cyborg created to defend the town against attack. Filled with fantastic technological description, the plot zooms to a page-turning climax. A story of a golem in 17th-century Prague told by Shira’s warmhearted grandmother mirrors the action. While not as visionary as Doris Lessing’s “Canopus in Argos” novels, this projection of a world with a computer for a soul has the ring of reality. As usual, Piercy’s women are strong and sympathetic. With the exception of Yod, her men are either frivolous or cold.

  7. But wait! there’s more. You know? I wish we were all at a party instead.

    Apparently
    http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/06186/703513-28.stm

    and
    http://social.decomworld.com/industry-insight/offshore-oil-rigs-can-decommissioning-ever-be-green

    and
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rigs-to-Reefs

    look under Ethics on the above. Hmmm.

    a picture of those luxury hotels…
    http://deepseanews.com/tag/morris-architects/

    Off the telegraph on those —
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/centralamericaandthecaribbean/5163586/Disused-oil-rig-in-Gulf-of-Mexico-to-be-converted-into-luxury-hotel.html

    I wonder if any of the “small people” could afford such a green vacation, no?

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