The Passage by Justin Cronin

To say that Justin Cronin’s The Passage was a disappointment would be putting it rather lightly.  And that is partly due to the hype and partly to the book itself.  There’s been a lot said about this behemoth of a novel – some good, some glowing, some bordering on damning. And many reviewers have pointed out the nearly four million dollar advance Cronin received for the trilogy (The Passage is the first of that collection).  I can only guess Cronin’s child-inspired story (he and his eight-year-old daughter came up with the plot) had Ballantine Books seeing Harry Potter dollars in the future.  And their investment will most likely pay off (Ridley Scott already has the film options).  However, The Passage is no Harry Potter.

The novel starts off strong with a solid plot line and well-conceived characters.  We begin a few years in the future.  The military is working with death-row inmates on creating a chemically-produced human weapon.  All very top secret.  On the other side of the country is a young girl destined for greatness. This much is made clear by the very first line of the novel:
Before she became the Girl from Nowhere–the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years–she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy.
Amy, the abandoned daughter of a likable prostitute, falls into the hands of Wolgast, a federal agent down on his luck who only took the assignment because it seemed an easy way to ride out his time until retirement.  He was wrong.  And for the first 246 pages of the novel, we are wrapped into a conspiracy so engrossing, a cast of characters so fascinating, that all the hype and millions of dollars spent seem worthwhile.
And then…
Ninety-two years go by with the flip of a page and it becomes painfully obvious that Cronin has stopped trying to write a great novel and started trying to writing the next summer blockbuster film.  The end result?  He fails at both.
The virals, as they are called by this future society, have killed off most of humankind, and Cronin attempts to create the new world in an effort that ends with an only barely believable society and a rushed introduction to far too many characters – many of whom are unimportant and die off without doing anything of note to push the story along.  What remains are five characters who are actually important and another three or four who merely act as…I don’t know…filler??  The fact is – none of the new characters are fully developed, they are shells of characters, making it very difficult to identify with any of them – even though the next 500 hundred pages are devoted to their plight.  And though the plot of the  novel still holds promise, Cronin’s obvious awareness of moviegoers ruins what might have otherwise been an almost literary vampire novel.
So, okay.  We don’t have a great novel on our hands.  But we also don’t have a great movie (not withstanding what Ridley Scott might be able to do with it).  The lack of character development might be manageable in an action-packed vampire flick if it weren’t for the cheap movie stunts Cronin insists on writing into the story.  On at least three occasions, Alicia, the love interest of main character, Peter, goes off and presumably gets herself killed.  Only to show up, miraculously! alive and well at the opening of the next section.  There are death scenes written so obviously for the screen (and badly at that) that I literally laughed out loud at what was supposed to be a devastating moment in the story:
Caleb was lying face-up on the dirt, one hand clutched at the place where the bullet had entered.  His chest rose and fell in shallow jerks.  Alicia threw herself onto the ground beside him.
“Caleb!”
Blood was running through the boy’s fingers.  His eyes, pointed at the empty sky, were very moist.  “Oh shit,” he said, blinking.
“Sara, do something!”
Death had begun to ease across the boy’s face.  “Oh,” he said.  “Oh.” (608)
Let me just put this into a format that will be easier to understand:
(CALEB lies on the ground, face up, clutching his side.  He breathes in jerks.)
ALICIA
(Throwing herself to the ground) Caleb!
CALEB
(Blinking) Oh shit.
ALICIA
Sara, do something!
CALEB
(Slowly dying) Oh. (Pause) Oh. (Dies)
And “dies” is exactly what this novel does – on page 246.  It’s a shame, really.  Because Cronin shows that he is a masterful writer in the first section of The Passage.  I’d like to say that, even though Cronin has failed to write a really great novel, it’s still a good beach book.  But I can’t.  About 400 pages into it, I had a strong urge to throw the book against the wall.  An urge that, unfortunately, never dissipated.  But who knows?  Ridley Scott is an excellent director.  Maybe he can at least salvage a good vampire flick out it.

3 thoughts on “The Passage by Justin Cronin

  1. Sean says if you want to "hate him," listen to his interview on "Talk of the Nation" from a couple months ago. I'm sure we'll read this, as, since I think I told you, he was Sean's first creative writing teacher, but my expectations aren't high. But, sheesh, 600+ pages. Oy.

  2. Try 766 pages…and all of them painful after 246. It's so bad that last night, having only 24 pages left, I couldn't take it anymore and saved the rest for this morning. Happy reading 😉

  3. Pingback: Like It or Shut Up: On Bad Reviews « AngelSpeak

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