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August 24, 2010

Justin Cronin's The Passage: A Review, of Sorts

passage1.jpg784 pp., Ballatine, $27

Reviewed by Sara Joy Culver

The important thing to understand before you read this review is that I am not a snob.

Sure, I mostly read literary fiction--and yes, I write short stories and have a couple of fancy degrees and reside in a (vaguely) urban area and do my grocery shopping at an organic co-op--but I swear on all the arugula in my refrigerator that these circumstances don't affect my entertainment choices. I totally and unreservedly enjoy most pop culture offerings. A good story goes a long way with me; I've seen all three Twilight films, and I waited in line (at midnight, with a fake wand) to purchase the last two Harry Potter books. I love Battlestar Galactica. Not only have I read most of Stephen King's books, but I think the guy--particularly when he's writing about writing--has a greater facility with language than some Pulitzer Prize winners. So, just to repeat: not a snob.

That established, I'll just come out and say it: Justin Cronin's The Passage is not the book I wanted it to be.


The thing is, it's summer. Any reading I'm doing is for pleasure; at temperatures above 80 degrees I don't want much to do with novels about WASP divorce or life in the developing world or any of those other highbrow, New Yorker-type topics. I want action, darnit--some battle scenes!--and a love interest, and plenty of intrigue and snappy dialogue and hey, why not a vampire or two? Too bad I found almost none of that in The Passage, the first book in a three-volume epic centered around a young girl (Amy) tapped to save the world after a deadly "vampire" virus infects most of the population.

Here's what I actually did encounter in the course of 784 pages. First, Tissue-Thin Characterization and its bedfellow, Stilted Expository Dialogue. Then, vampires that are actually zombies (sorry, teen-aged ladies--it's not sexy) and the too-detailed description of equipment, combat, field medicine, military rations, etc. (note to self: film is still the best vehicle for action sequences). There's the superfluous trip to Las Vegas and the epigraphs from Shakespeare and Paradise Lost. There's the constant cringe-worthy future jargon that means everyone's always going on about "Virals" in a manner that suggests the artful dialogue of a James Cameron movie. And to top all of that off, there's a "magical negro" character that's so tone-deaf and discomfiting that it made me wonder if this manuscript was submitted in 1955, an overly precocious child, a whore with a heart of gold, and a partridge in a pear tree. Just kidding! There are no partridges in THE NORTH AMERICAN QUARANTINE PERIOD.

Most irritating to me, on a craft level, is the book's baffling reliance on "found documents" inserted in the text. First example: not eighteen pages into the book, we're sidelined from the main character's story and suddenly plunged into a pages-long email exchange between two biologists we've never met and will never see again. Sample correspondence:

The trip down was uneventful--sixteen hours in the air to La Paz, then a smaller government transport to ConcepciĆ³n, in the country's eastern jungle basin. From here there aren't really any decent roads; it's pure backcountry, and we'll be traveling on foot.

This kind of stuff isn't even interesting when your college crush who's in Ecuador on a Fulbright emails you about it. Sure, one of these guys is eventually going to be exposed to the Vamp Virus (TM), but he'll never show up again, so why not just summarize the outbreak in a few workman-like sentences? ("Reports had been filtering in from South America of a strange virus. A team of scientists had been exposed somewhere in the jungle.") Even the likes of Stephenie Meyer and J.K. Rowling, while heavy on the adverbs, manage to avoid momentum-killing passages like this.

To summarize: this book begins one hundred pages before the story gets started, ends almost the same distance after the plot's real finish, and in between has too many characters, too much exposition, and deploys so many tired tropes of this type of novel that you begin to wonder if Cronin had a bingo machine full of them and just cranked it around each time he was in need of a new cliche. It's impossible to connect with any of the characters because there are so many of them, and too often the book tries to be about a whole world of humanity instead of settling on a protagonist or two. It's like reading the transcription of a Spielberg film.


In the end it's kind of amusing to watch the promotional hoopla for The Passage (not a result of the book's quality, of course, but rather Cronin's this-is-why-publishing-is-a-dying-industry sky-high advance), and to picture the frenzied business team that's responsible for making a profit on the book saying, "You paid this guy HOW MUCH, NOW?" Good on Cronin, I suppose, for pulling the wool over everyone's eyes. And the campaign is working; people are reading the book, or at least they're pretending to. As of this week, The Passage has 616 reviews on Amazon. Cronin's previous, beautifully reviewed literary novel? It's got 52.

I cracked The Passage's spine looking to be transported, looking for the kind of immersive summer reading experience that would help me forget that my apartment isn't air-conditioned. Sadly, The Passage only made my living room seem hotter. The book's greatest sin, for me, is not that it is bloated--and dear Lord, is it bloated--it's that it is unforgivably self-serious. It's not fun. It's dead on the page. Every sentence is ponderous, every idea tired, every scene belabored. It isn't literary, but for my money, it doesn't work as a commercial dystopian thriller, either. You just wish somebody had taken Cronin by the shoulders in the draft stages and said, "Look, buddy, this isn't The Road. This isn't even The Giver. You're selling out. It won't work if there's no joy in it."

Here's an actual blurb from the cover of The Passage:

"Every so often a novel-reader's novel comes along: an enthralling, entertaining story wedded to simple, supple prose, both informed by tremendous imagination...Read fifteen pages and you will find yourself captivated; read thirty and you will find yourself taken prisoner and reading late into the night. It has the vividness that only epic works of fantasy and imagination can achieve. What else can I say? This: read this book and the ordinary world disappears." --Stephen King

With all due respect to Mr. King, I think the following copy is more accurate:

"If The Stand and a George Romero movie mated and had a baby that was one of those really ugly bug-eyed infants that you coo over anyway--because what kind of person admits a baby is ugly?--that would be this book, and the publishing industry's desperate peddling of it." --Me

"The Passage is the first book in a trilogy, so it's kind of like Star Wars: A New Hope. It's like Star Wars, if, instead of hiring Han Solo and dressing up as stormtroopers and getting caught in a garbage compactor on the Death Star, Luke and Obi-Wan had spent eight hours in that cantina on Tatooine, and the movie had ended right after Obi-Wan cut off that dude's arm." --Me

"This book weighs 4.2lb." --Also Me

Sara Joy Culver holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Puerto del Sol, The Rumpus, and 300Reviews.com.

Macondos // J. Lee Morsell

I'm visiting my hometown in rural northern California, and as I write this I'm sitting on an ocean bluff in fog so thick I can't see the water. I am told that this particular bluff is home to the southernmost individual Sitka spruce on the west coast, but the tree is allegedly nestled in a hidden rocky crevice and I haven't located it yet. The fog doesn't help, of course.

whale-diver.jpgThis part of the state has vast forest, steep hills, and few people. It is good for hiding things, and it is notorious for marijuana cultivation. Every August various county, state, and federal agencies fly helicopters in search of illicit gardens. This morning a helicopter was buzzing the place where I'm staying, circling just overhead. Happily, there was no marijuana in the huckleberries outside my window and so no fear; but for an hour the ground vibrated with each roaring pass, and it took some restraint not to step outside and flip off the guys leaning out the chopper's door.

Only when I drove to the ocean did I pass a bunch of visiting Marin County Search and Rescue vehicles, and wrongly suspect that the helicopter might be part of some kind of training.

But usually, single-propeller helicopters here are looking for marijuana, and double-propeller helicopters are hauling logs off steep slopes. Both always make me think of the Vietnam War. This association is curious because the Vietnam War ended before I was born. I have no similar thoughts of wars from my lifetime.

I presume that I think of the Vietnam War because I've seen more movies about that war than any other (Apocalypse Now four times), and they all make heavy use of helicopters in the soundtrack. But more than that, when I was born Vietnam was still very much on the minds of my parents, and it was imprinted on my early consciousness as the Primordial War, the epitome of horror, and the reason my parents taught me to not say the Pledge of Allegiance in school.

A lot of vets returned from Vietnam and became California marijuana farmers, a job that enabled them to continue dodging helicopters in the forest. This is another factor in my association of the California forest with Vietnam, another line in the genealogy of a shared dream: the legacy of that war still infuses (or infects) this place.

But it is a new era. When I was young, logging was king, and fishing was duke. Today, those industries rasp on life support, their titles stripped. Marijuana rose to replace them, granting middle-class lifestyles to communities that would otherwise be desperate. But as marijuana becomes ever more legal and the price drops, there is a feeling that this too may pass, and soon.

I met up with friends and we used a rope to descend a cliff to an isolated beach. We found the intact bone structure of the pelvis of a whale. It was too big to carry up the cliff. We hid it. We talked about going back with a frame pack and straps to get it, making something out of it, or at least putting it somewhere special around the house.

I read that, fifty miles west of Half Moon Bay, there is an undersea observing station on the Pioneer Seamount, where they've been recording the vocalizations of passing blue whales:

Four hydrophones captured the loud and eerie sounds. Each is a burst of warbles, a little like someone gargling underwater, followed exactly 130 seconds later by a loud, long, deep-toned and sad-sounding moan . . .
But each of the calls made by the whales sounded exactly the same - precisely four octaves below middle C on the human scale. And where the calls did vary occasionally, their pitch differed by barely half of 1 percent. (read more) (listen)

Scientists speculate that the consistent pitch may help whales find each other. Thanks to the Doppler effect, that precise pitch will be heard as slightly higher or lower depending on whether whales are swimming toward or away from each other.

The next day:
The neighbor tells me that the helicopter was neither looking for marijuana nor conducting a training exercise. A local seventy-six-year-old woman with Alzheimer's took her dog for a walk two nights ago and did not return. It was she they sought in the huckleberries.


Have you noticed that the Deepwater Horizon rig was built on a section of seafloor named the Macondo Prospect? Macondo, the fictional town of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, built on the site where its founder dreamed of a city of mirrors, a site where cursed events repeat and characters are either crippled by memory or amnesiac, a place finally destroyed by flood and hurricane. Apparently, some Latin Americans beset with absurdity refer to their home towns as Macondos. The Macondo Prospect was portentously named. It's feared that the next Gulf rig to blow will be, no joke, the Atlantis.

Good news addendum:
They found the missing woman, sitting beside her dog in a ravine, thirty-six hours after she disappeared. She said she hadn't realized she was lost.

Image Credit:
Image by flickkerphotos/flickr

August 1, 2010

Literary Lessons from Across the Pond

This excerpt from the diary of Eric Murphy, dated 24 June 2010, is currently on loan to dislocate.org from the British National Museum for Literature.

24 June 2010
As I find myself in the middle of an extended stay on a peculiar, far-flung Island which has no access to Taco Bell and whose barbaric entertainment systems are incompatible with my 30 Rock digital versatile discks, I need something to occupy me throughout the evening and night.

Therefore, I have decided to embark upon a magnificent Adventure. I have brought many Maps and Diagrams with me from America which were drawn by a very dedicated cartographer who calls himself Google, and these shall guide me through the favorite haunts of several native writers of the Island, including Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, and Alfred Tennyson.

My plan is to venture out into the island wilderness alone at first, to be later joined by my friends after they finish work. The first section shall be Discovery and Careful Study, and the second Festivities and Merrymaking.

fitzroy.jpg4:29 - Fitzroy Tavern
The Fitzroy Tavern was a place native Artists and Intellectuals like Dylan Thomas and George Orwell used to frequent in the early- to mid-20th century to spend their evenings imbibing large quantities of beverage. The Transitive Principle of Mathematics and Drinking tells me that if I imbibe large quantities of beverage at the same place as the historic imbibing, mayhaps I should become an Artist or Intellectual myself.

A mild hilarity which I have observed upon my stay here is the Island's use of the antiquated institution of the Newspaper. Indeed, there are not only two Newspapers published each morning and distributed free of charge, but a similar Newspaper is published in the afternoon as well, besides Newspapers available for purchase. I may have to show the locals my computing Machine, inside which I have brought the Internet with me all the way from America. I am not sure whether they are aware that it exists. They seem to be making some small advances towards modern times, however; the Fitzroy Tavern's "Writers' and Artists' Bar" has been re-purposed, and is now the "Furniture Storage Area."

The tradition among the islanders is to imbibe alcohol quietly and alone in the afternoons. Some purchase a pint and read their Newspapers (and I find that a state of inebriation is the only proper state in which one should consume the news), while others look at the bottoms of their glasses and think about the children they are neglecting, or about the children they could be neglecting but never had. The Fitzroy is quiet, not yet taken to drunken arguments on art or literature at this time of day.

4:59 - I have found a use for the Newspaper: to hide my Map behind while standing in the street, so that I look as though I am an educated gentleman simply reading for pleasure rather than a gape-mouthed stranger turning in circles attempting to find street signs which are affixed high up on buildings seemingly at random.

granby.jpg5:02 - Marquis of Granby
According to local legend, this would be George Orwell's favorite bar to end his nights. Being across a certain line of jurisdiction, it was allowed to stay open half an hour later than nearby public houses (shortened by the locals to "pub"), which the Marquis of Granby still boasts about today.

This Establishment shows the most promising signs of commercialization, as the owners have pleasantly stripped away much of the old-time charm. Indeed, a man who must be wealthy charges his iTelephone with an outlet in the corner. He is probably having a literary or political discussion here just as Orwell did, only this man is by himself in a corner talking to the Internet. Fascism vs. democratic socialism is now Mac vs. PC. But, really, he and Orwell are essentially the same.

There is not as much of a sense of exotic native history here, so I decide to make my way toward Fleet Street, hoping to avoid any demon barbers that may reside there.

5:43 - A somewhat long ride on the primitive, rickety subway system gives me an opportunity to reflect on what I have seen so far. I notice a poem written in some type of pidgin American posted like an advertisement. It makes me wonder about the difference between my beautiful poetry and the island's rather more base and ugly style. I know from a dubious but growing-in-popularity concept known as "science" that ceiling height and floor surface can affect decisions while one shops--why couldn't the same be true for writing? The islanders must endure dirty brick buildings with dark and cramped interiors when they go out, while back home I enjoy the comfort of open, bright, and spacious Tacos Bell, in and sometimes about which I write my poetry. Something about where I write--and that I have an infinitely refillable 44 oz. Baja Blast Mountain Dew--must influence my stylistic choices.

cheshire.jpg6:17 - Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
This remarkably old public House where Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson, and Samuel Johnson were regulars abuts Fleet Street; a small, covered alleyway splits off, leading to its entryway. Inside, there is no natural light; the entire building is lit with electricity--no candles at all! Perhaps this environment influenced Dickens in his writings about the underbelly of London, best captured in his character Oliver Twist, the infamous villain of his novel Oliver Twist, or so I have heard.

My friends join me outside the entrance, as they have finished their exhaustive studies of the native work culture for the day and must be refreshed with a bit of food and drink. On the ground floor, there is a bar immediately inside the door as well as a chop house, but these have little floor space. The rooms are dark and cramped, like the City itself. Further along is a passage to another bar in the back of the building and a staircase off to the side. Descending the staircase reminds one of entering a crypt: the Ceiling is extremely low, the walls are made of bare stone, and the temperature gets colder and colder as one descends. I feel as though we will find Charles Dickens' skeleton leaning on the bar down here, covered in spider webs and frozen in the middle of ordering a pint.

Instead, at the end of labyrinthine corridors that split off into many small seating areas as we go deeper underground, we find only near-death locals who must be doing some research here on where they would like to be buried. This is by far the most history-steeped drinking Establishment in the city, having been rebuilt just after the Great Fire in 1666 and not changed since. But, as it is probably true that History and Books have failed to hold the current youths' interests, the clientele here are more advanced in age, some possibly having known Dickens personally. I can feel the weight of history down here, from the bare walls to the old furniture to the hidden-away seating areas in weird nooks to the electronic pager the bartender hands me after I order my food. "When that buzzes, come down and get your food." I take a minute to reflect: maybe at one point long ago, Alfred Tennyson received the exact same food buzzer! I return to my table and excitedly tell my friends my revelation.

That most of the bars and seating areas are in the Cellars downstairs probably saved Charles Dickens much embarrassment, as the lack of reception underground most likely prevented many a drunk SMS text Message. I imagine they would have been long messages sent 140 characters at a time over even intervals, each ending just before a crucial piece of information is revealed in order to keep his friends reading the message.

We eat, drink, and are merry, and in the lulls I think even more about Deep Issues. I wonder how drinking with friends instead of alone influences my thoughts. And then I wonder whether thinking with friends or alone affects what I think, and how I write. Sometimes I prefer the peace and quiet of a Taco Bell to write in, but other times, the conversation of others gives me more satisfaction than even a Chalupa could. I wonder how much of Dickens' writing was actually ideas or phrases stolen from conversations with drinking friends--and from conversations conducted in this very pub. How many characteristics of his drinking friends did he swipe for his novels? And how many should I swipe for my own classics of literature?

cock2.jpgApprox. 7:45 - Ye Olde Cock Tavern
This unfortunately named building is tucked neatly away on Fleet Street, but Ye Olde Cock is anything but tiny. Rather, it stands tall and firm. My Companions and I have a bit of trouble getting in, as it was our first time. Earlier in the week, we had tried getting in close to 11 pm, but they had turned us away, using the excuse that "it was getting late," and then they closed up. We wondered to ourselves whether we needed to be members in order to enter. A trickle of customers was leaving Ye Olde Cock as we approached on this evening. We truly thought it was a stroke of Luck that brought us the pleasure of this tavern, one which Dickens used to go in and out of all the time.

As we ordered, we could feel Ye Olde Cock swell with the blood of history; knowing that literary masters are here in three of four dimensions (although not being there in time is a bit of a snag) lends this place vitality. The seating area contained a mezzanine, and we could not decide where to sit--we went down, then up, then partway down, then decided to go all the way up, finding that the topmost part of Ye Olde Cock was indeed the most pleasurable.

The intercourse between my friends and I was intellectually stimulating, but interrupted by periodic shouts, as I watched a Soccer game on the pub's television over my friend's shoulder. At around four pints in, our conversation could not have been the most illuminating, but we reflected at length on the natives' general incompetence with Credit Card Swiping Contraptions. As most public houses close by 11, we must end this part of our evening, but we had had a full experience and departed spent and ready for sleep.

Later - I have had some time to reflect on my travels tonight. The first thing I noticed is that the natives' food, especially at places which have a great deal of history, is nearly as good as fine American food like the Crunchwrap Supreme. The second is that I may have to buy a new set of 30 Rock DVDs. But the next things to cross my mind were the Deep Thoughts that had occurred to me throughout the night. How many nights spent out drinking did these famous Authors later mine for their writing, subconsciously and consciously? Should I lobby for alcohol to be served in my favorite American gathering place, Taco Bell, so that I could be similarly productive and creative? Could I really find more inspiration in a pint of beer than in a half gallon of high-fructose corn syrup? Or was all of this musing on the influence of social gatherings and alcohol an excuse for getting drunk, making merry, carousing, speaking loudly, and other un-Christian behavior? Did the great alcoholic writers have their potential unlocked by the drink, or did they squander some of that potential by drinking?

More importantly--since this night was about discovery and education--when I become a famous writer, will it be because I learned craft from the greats or because I learned drinking from the greats? And one final question occurred to me, one that plagues writing students across the country: can true alcoholism even be taught?

Image Credits:
Photos of Fitzroy Tavern, Marquis of Granby, and Ye Olde Cock by Ewan-M/flickr
Photo of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese interior by maccosta/flickr