Ethan Gilsdorf

Geek Pride

The Passage taps post-apocalyptic fantasies

Can you enter The Passage?

Posted Jun 21, 2010

Weighing in at 766 pages and two pounds, six ounces, The Passage is designed to be big. Big plot, big themes, big sweep. And the author, Justin Cronin, landed himself a big advance. After a knock-down, drag-out bidding war, Ballantine paid about $3.75 million for the book plus two sequels in the pipeline. Director Ridley Scott’s production company ponied up $1.75 million for the film rights. Thereafter, The Passage has become one of those media machine-generated blockbusters, feeding upon the weight of everyone's expectations. Like a small financial entity unto itself, it's too big to fail. Still, it's a gamble.

With this post-apocalyptic, doorstopper of a saga, the author, Justin Cronin, enters a new universe. In his former life, the New England native and Harvard- and Iowa Writers’ Workshop-educated author wrote serious books. His two previous works, Mary and O’Neil and The Summer Guest, won prizes like Pen/Hemingway Award, the Whiting Writer's Award and the Stephen Crane Prize. Both books of fiction situate themselves solidly in the camp of literary fiction. They're set on the planet earth we know and love. No undead in sight.

The Passage is different.

Cronin had a hankering to tell another tale. The backstory behind his writing The Passage, while a tad too cute, is actually fascinating. It's a kind of revival of the art of oral storytelling. And this is a good thing.

The tale goes like this. Out for his daily run with his daughter riding alongside him on her bike, the two began to tell a made-up, improvisational tale. "What should the book be about?" Cronin said he asked his daughter, then nine years old. Her reply: "A girl who saves the world." The story accreted over the weeks. Cronin scribbled down an outline. Like the virus the plot hinges upon, the writing process began to change him. Cronin, now a professor of English at Rice University in Houston, noted in one interview, "I knew by the time I'd finished this I would be a different person --- and a different kind of writer." He'd given birth to a monster.

And The Passage is a bastard beast, a literary-thriller hybrid both portentous and predictable. Think Cormac McCarthy's The Road crossed with the movie "The Road Warrior," with the psychological tonnage of John Fowles' The Magus and the "huh?" of The Matrix. Mix in J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy of fellowships and quests and add Stephen King's dark, virus-ridden vision in The Stand. It's the type of book to which the word "epic" has already been attached by teams PR flacks and screenwriters.

Now comes the $5.5 million dollar question: Does Cronin pull it off?

First, know The Passage is no bedtime story. Suffice it to say, by the time we reach page 50, we've already been introduced to adultery, prostitution, and murder. The premise: A few, unspecified years in the future (where, thankfully, USA Today is still in print), a nasty virus unleashed in the Bolivian jungle gives its victims a kind of self-healing invulnerability and immortality. Naturally, this interests the U.S. military, who could sure use this superpower in its endless fight against terrorists who strike at home and abroad. Our government's foreign entanglements have taken their toll on the country, which exists in a sort of semi-police state.

So, a secret military project begins deep in the Colorado mountains. Those experiment go awry, and the 12 test subjects escape from their cages --- why does this always happen? --- and begin their fearsome rampage across the nation. With every bite they spread the gift that keeps on giving. The victims become jacked-up killers themselves, glowing vampires on steroids, "virals." The USA is overrun with death, death, death. Or, rather, undeath. One wonders which part of this plot was hatched by Cronin's kid. Hardly the stuff of girly fantasies.

Before you know it, complex plotlines are bulldozed across the landscape and laid down like the Eisenhower Interstate System --- plotlines that are broad and clear and fast, and destined to run together. Cronin intercuts the stories of a death row inmate, a nun, a pair of FBI agents, and a desperate mother and her daughter named Amy. Familiar themes emerge: science and the military punished for their hubris, the man who turns on a callous government bureaucracy to do what's right, the child prodigy whose secret powers might save us all. That's just in part one. The burly story builds from there, following more than a dozen main characters and unfolding over decades.

I think The Passage taps into our odd fascination with post-apocalyptic narratives. While the devastation in the book is total and relentless, it's also redemptive. Christianity's end-game tells the same story: we sin, the world is wiped clean, we get a second chance, perhaps to do it right this time. 

They also return us to our tribal roots, a time when we band together in tight-knit groups, scrabble for survival, and truly are reduced to needs, not wants. We are closer to nature, to the seasons, and technology is the enemy. Perhaps that's why Mad Max and Planet of the Apes and their ilk are so attractive (same with Avatar, as I have previously written in Geek Pride) even as they remain cautionary.

Certainly Cronin has fun with his destroyed America, one where Jenna Bush was governor of Texas and, in an eerie parallel with today's headlines, the oil industry is under federal protection and the Gulf is a toxic slick. Later, some decades after the initial outbreak, after the world is effectively a wreck, we encounter a whole set of new characters who take us through the second half of The Passage. This ragtag colony survives in a Walden-like castle compound, fighting back the bloodthirsty devils. They also raid ruined shopping centers --- REI, Footlocker and the Gap --- for supplies. They wander libraries and stumble upon dusty relics like Where the Wild Things Are (get it?) and wonder if anyone else has survived. Is anyone out there? they ask. Life is "a series of mishaps and narrow escapes," Cronin writes. "Grief was a place ... where a person went alone." In these moments, "The Passage" surpasses genre fiction, and approaches existential meditation.

Cronin's prose is thick and meaty and at times elegant. Texas is described as a "state-sized porkchop of misery"; 9/11 is called "the money shot of the new millennium." In another passage, Wolgast, the FBI agent with the heart of gold whose fate is tied to Amy's, takes a nap, and enters "sleep's antechamber, the place where dreams and memories mingled, telling their strange stories." Indeed, much of The Passage takes place in the murky minds of its protagonists.

Cronin has a literary novelist's eye for detail and local color, and an eagerness to create believable characters with feelings. His vision of a devastated Las Vegas is thrillingly bleak, and the journey of the survivors, who embark on a weeks-long trek from California to the Rockies across a landscape blasted clean, reads like a Carlos Castaneda vision quest married to a Western myth. However, the more literary impulses collide with the necessities of the supernatural, sci-fi horror thriller. The collision is not always pretty.

One, Cronin has a lot of ground to cover. The bugbear of all writers of fantasy is that their world-building requires some explaining to bring the reader up to speed. That means and passages of exposition, some of them lengthy and rammed down the throats of characters. An inventive a mix of emails, diaries, and official documents partially alleviates this need for our heroes to spout off too much. They also give the story much needed authenticity. But just as often, the interior voice mumbo-jumbo --- nightmares and telepathic messages --- leave the reader scratching her head.

The other trouble is emotional gravitas. Cronin's roving narrator enters the head of each character. They're compelling folk, to be sure, desperate to hope, and afraid to love in the face of their bleak condition. But we're asked to juggle the detailed backstories and desires of so many characters, it's hard to know on whom to hang our heart strings. Thankfully, the connective tissue across space and time is Amy, the "Girl from Nowhere," the one we meet on page one who we can guess has a role in the story's conclusion.

Soon, The Passage becomes one of those end-of-the-world, only a motley squad of heroes can save us stories. "Is it for me," readers might ask, before plunking down their  26 bucks. Is it frivolous? Impenetrable? Can I enter this world? Perhaps the better question to ask is, will you let the monster enter yours? Yes, The Passage could be shorter. A lot shorter.

Still, some readers deep into The Passage will be spellbound. They might find themselves transformed. And, readers will want to know how it turns out. And they'll also wonder who will play who in the movie version. They'll imagine Hollywood scouts hopping into SUVs and helicopters, scouring the world for remote locations. How the stunt people will stage the battles and chases. How the CG artists will imagine the baddies. And how cool it will be for the set designers to build malls and casinos, then blown them up.  

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.

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