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