Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Passage by Justin Cronin

In my recent post about M.J. Engh's Arslan, I noted how much of its time--the mid-70s--the novel seemed, most particularly in its conviction that America, still reeling from the cultural clashes of the 60s, the Vietnam War, and Watergate, was on the verge of collapse.  A few days later, Keith Phipps, writing for the AV Club, made the same observation about Stephen King's The Stand.  Even defaced by King's ill-considered 1990 expansion of the novel, which moved its setting from 1980 to 1990, Phipps writes, The Stand is unmistakably "a product of the '70s," suffused with that decade's sense of disintegration and impending doom.
I enjoyed The Stand from start to finish, but never as much as in its first third, when the fast-acting "superflu" known as Captain Trips destroys an America that was already destroying itself. The government—the same one that recently lied to the American people about Watergate and the origins and scale of the war in Vietnam—uses terrifying violence to enforce an official story. Television broadcasts get overrun by black militants who perform public executions for a dying populace, getting in some last licks in a race war that's about to become irrelevant. The superflu is a poison, but it's also a catalyst, exacerbating and speeding up the conflicts already in play. It's less a new development than the last chapter in the story of an ongoing American apocalypse.
Justin Cronin's The Passage has received more than a few comparisons to The Stand.  Before reading the book, I chalked this up to marketing--the first in a projected trilogy, The Passage was sold for a fantastic seven figure sum, to which add yet another seven figures for the film rights, purchased by Ridley Scott, and its publishers are presumably eager to associate it with a known bestseller--or to superficial similarities between the two books' plots, both of which revolve around an event that rapidly depopulates the US--in The Passage, the escape, from the military base where they were being held, of a group of prisoners who had been exposed to an experimental longevity drug which causes them to transform into, essentially, vampires--and around a group of survivors that bands together in its aftermath.  It was only once I started reading The Passage that I realized just how accurate, how perfectly descriptive, the comparison was.  The Passage truly is The Stand for the 21st century.  The similarities in plot turn out to be anything but superficial--in both novels, the boss villain congregates his followers in Las Vegas, while the characters' sole hope of salvation lies in Colorado; both feature a wise, spiritual black woman who provides the characters with moral and practical guidance (in The Passage there are two such characters); both culminate in a nuclear explosion that destroys the main antagonist; both overlay the struggle for humanity's survival with a struggle between cosmic forces of light and dark, who recruit the heroes and villains to their war.  Even more surprising is how much Cronin sounds like King--that same stream of clichés and stereotypes, skillfully strung together into an engaging, effortlessly readable narrative by a voice whose folksiness is as deliberate as its erudition.  Or rather, how much more King-ish than King he sounds, King himself having hit on this voice only intermittently and imperfectly in the last fifteen years.

Most crucially, The Passage is a novel of its moment in exactly the same way, and with almost exactly the same concerns, as The Stand.  Like the 1970s, our present moment is one of turmoil and uncertainty, suffused with that Yeatsian sense of things falling apart (one suspects that the only reason The Passage fails to include, among its many epigraphs, any reference to "The Second Coming" is that the poem has been made slightly trite by its overuse in works of popular culture, including of course The Stand).  The US is once again reeling from a costly and ill-advised war, a contentious and divisive presidency, and cultural clashes that expose the deep rifts in its society and the issues of race and class that are at their core.  Its citizens are once again eying their government with distrust and even fear.  Just like The Stand, The Passage roots its story in these fears and divisions, which it intensifies in order to make its point.  The opening chapters, set in 2018, depict an America in which the drive towards militarization and the security state has run amok.  The Iraq war was followed by one in Iran.  9/11, by a terrorist attack on the Mall of America.  Jenna Bush is governor of Texas (and, rather improbably given the timeframe, former first lady).  Hurricane Katrina's devastation has been dwarfed by its sister Vanessa, which demolished New Orleans, reducing it to a toxic swamp, and the area around it to a corporate-run, crime-ridden reclamation zone and tourist attraction.  Gas prices have skyrocketed, a federal database keeps track of citizens' movements, and military checkpoints impede travel between states.  It's in this atmosphere of fear, suspicion, and unchecked government power that Project Noah, whose actual purpose is not longevity but using its super-strong, near-immortal test subjects as bunker busters, is allowed to come into existence and, like the bioweapons project that dooms humanity in The Stand, to create a weapon so powerful that not even its creators can control it.

As in The Stand, the cultural commentary of The Passage is concentrated in its long opening segment, which depicts the events leading up to the escape of the original twelve vampires and the immediate aftermath of that escape.  Once human civilization fades away, the pop culture references do as well, but even the most glaring difference between the two novels' plots--the fact that The Passage, rather than continuing its story immediately after the apocalypse, flashes forward nearly a century and is set among characters who have had no experience of the old world or its annihilation--isn't enough to obscure their similar preoccupations.  As the characters set about building a new civilization, they are also figuring out what went wrong and how to avoid the same mistakes, thus continuing the callbacks to the novels' respective eras in a more subdued manner.  The Passage resumes its story in California, in a former refugee camp that now styles itself First Colony, whose inhabitants have created a tiny heaven in hell.  Not only are they kept safe from the "virals" by high walls and lights that make day of night, but, governed by their constitution, which assures "an Equal Share" to all citizens and safe haven to "Walkers" who emerge from the wilderness, they've managed to create, in the midst of terrible danger and hardship, a mostly-just, benevolent, and even post-racial and sexually equal society.  Nevertheless, after 90 years, the colony's numbers are dwindling and its life-saving lights are starting to fail, so when Amy, the last test subject of Project Noah and the only one to receive its life-extending benefits without losing her humanity, arrives in camp and reveals that someone in Project Noah's former headquarters in Colorado is looking for her, an expedition of young people sets out there with her in the hopes of finding a cure.

The bulk of the novel is concerned with this passage across a vampire-infested wasteland.  There are several tense set pieces, including a narrow escape from First Colony, whose inhabitants fall under the boss villain's sway, and an interlude in that same villain's feeding colony outside Las Vegas.  There is also a slow revelation of the villain's history and the means by which he compels humans to do his bidding, and some very good action scenes.  For all this, The Passage is not a particularly taut novel--is, in fact, positively flabby.  There's a very strong sense that, again following in King's footsteps, Cronin indulged himself, wandering down alleyways of story and character before getting back to the main narrative thread.  The 2018 segment includes several chapters told from the point of view of Anthony Carter, a death row inmate recruited into Project Noah, which delve into his past, eventually revealing that he was innocent of the crime he was sentenced to die for.  But in the future chapters Carter is entirely absent, and though it's obvious that The Passage's sequels will return to him there's little justification for his presence in this novel.  There are no such narrative dead ends in the future-set portions of the novel, but there are a lot of characters, each with their own plotline and point of view.  One would expect the author of a horror novel to start with a large cast in order to kill several of them off, but Cronin is surprisingly timid on this front, and even as the novel converges on its finale in Colorado there is no corresponding convergence of its cast, and the narrative frequently cuts away from the action to catch us up on what all the characters are doing.  Nor is the denouement much to write home about--Cronin tries to hang a lantern on this, but the solution the characters discover to the vampire problem is such a classic bit of vampire lore that most readers will have considered, and dismissed it for being too obvious, hundreds of pages before it's revealed, and in fact much of the novel is concerned with the characters learning things about Project Noah that we had already found out in the opening segment.  That The Passage works is mainly down to Cronin's facility with the King-ish voice, and more than that, to its soapy elements--a melange of star-crossed lovers, sibling rivalry, and difficult parent-child relationships that underpins the novel much more strongly than the vampire plot, and at just the right level to give the narrative shape and urgency without overwhelming it.  Quality-wise, there's not much between The Passage and The Stand (though like a lot of modern retreads of 70s and 80s stories I find The Passage a little too polished, and think it could have stood a bit of The Stand's messiness and rudeness), and if you've already read, and didn't fall absolutely in love with, King's novel I think it's probably safe to give Cronin's a pass.  But I also think that The Passage's message is more positive and more palatable than The Stand's.

Both The Stand and The Passage are religious novels, in the sense that they are stories about characters trying to figure out how to live their lives in a context that includes supernatural, world-governing forces (though The Passage's villain is more mundane than The Stand's Flagg, there is clearly a force for good--identified by several characters as God--guiding many of the characters' actions and acting towards humanity's restoration).  But the fundamental difference between Cronin and King's novels is that while in The Stand the central religious struggle was between good and evil (or, more faintly, between industrialization and the warlike impulse, and a more modest, more natural way of life), in The Passage it is between hope and despair.  As much as vampires, it is with despair that the novel's characters and the remnants of humanity they encounter struggle with.  First Colony, whose inhabitants have lived under constant threat of annihilation for 90 years, constantly loses members who "let it go," committing suicide in the face of their life's hopelessness.  As the novel opens, several characters have discovered that the colony's batteries are about to die and that the lights are going to go out, and are struggling to decide how, and if, to live with that knowledge.  The vampires' psychic attacks take advantage of despair, which ultimately leads to First Colony's destruction.  Each of the characters' storylines could be described as an examination of the relative advantages of hope and hopelessness (a troop of soldiers encountered in Colorado, whom one of the characters joins up with, view hope as an encumbrance, and espouse a philosophy of "giving it up"--letting go of all hope of survival--before engaging in battle) and a choice between them.

The Stand ends on a dark and somewhat hopeless note, with survivors Harold and Frannie abandoning the fledgling human colony in Colorado because it's gotten too big, and begun evincing some of the qualities of territorial, warlike thinking that they associate with humanity's demise, and both fear that the cycle is merely starting itself up again (the extended edition ends even more grimly, with Flagg surviving his alleged destruction and starting up his corruption of humanity in a different location).  The implication is that while a handful of people can form a just and decent society, once their numbers swell to the point of requiring government and organization, the rot sets in and destruction is an inevitable outcome.  Though it's possible that The Passage's sequels will reach the same conclusion--as the novel ends several of the main characters are poised to encounter large-scale human civilization for the first time in their lives--the novel itself not only ends hopefully but proceeds with hope throughout.  It is never stated with certainty that vampires have reached beyond the Americas, and the narrative is interspersed with documents presented at the Third Global Conference on the North American Quarantine Period at the University of New South Wales, which takes place a thousand years after the vampire outbreak.  Cronin is assuring us that humanity will not only survive but that civilization itself will reemerge, that the events of The Passage will come to be thought of as merely a chapter, however grisly and significant, in human history.

This is, to my mind, part and parcel of The Passage being a novel of its time.  The Stand was written in a time in which fear of one's government and fellow citizens were running high, and it can thus be read as a screed against the very notion of human civilization.  The Passage's era, for all its similarities to the 70s, has different preoccupations--chief among them the fear of outside enemies, which has legitimized the erosion of civil liberties and the rule of law.  First Colony survives as a just, peaceful society because its members manage to hold on to hope.  When they surrender to fear and despair, the colony devolve into martial law and civil war.  The rest of the novel treats hope, and the impulses towards justice and kindness that it encourages, as a survival strategy, in a very definite rebuke to the present-day attitude that our times are so difficult and so unusual that we can no longer afford the luxury of civilized behavior.  So, for all their similarities, The Passage seems to be aiming at a message that is the exact opposite of The Stand's--not that civilization will doom humanity but that it is the source of our salvation.  It's been thirty years since Stephen King treated "The Second Coming" as prophecy, and 90 years since the poem was written about an entirely different period of turmoil and seemingly imminent catastrophe.  In all that time there have been catastrophes, but humanity has recovered from them, and artists have gone on to repurpose Yeats to express the hopelessness of their moment in time.  The Passage is not a particularly good novel, but it possesses an awareness of that fact that I find refreshing and worth applauding.

9 comments:

Nathaniel Katz said...

Interesting review, I hadn't thought about the similarities between the time periods of The Passage and The Stand before. My main problem with The Passage was that the climactic scenes never seemed the equal to the build up. Cronin was quite good at establishing atmosphere and building unease, such as the dreams and disorientation that the workers at the facility went through, but when he tries to capitalize on all that it just falls apart; it's not bad when it gets moving, but it's pretty generic.

Another, worse, example was the virals. They're built up as unstoppable killing machines and, before the reader has much experience with them, Cronin makes you truly afraid every time a character goes outside - and then, when we really meet virals in large numbers, they turn out to be action movie cannon fodder, and all the potentially frightening elements of the novel go out the window right then and there.

Matt Hilliard said...

Great review, but surely the difference in the novels' attitudes toward civilization comes more from the authors than their eras? Every generation has a small but very loud group of people who are convinced civilization itself is at the brink of destruction. That this attitude exists throughout the ideological spectrum (the mechanisms differ but the outcome is the same) makes me think it is just a part of human psychology. I'm not saying different eras don't have characteristic psychologies, I guess, but giving up on the project of civilization strikes me as too extreme a position to be chalked up to the spirit of the age.

RG said...

Interesting and thoughtful review. It's been too long since I read The Stand, although I did remember enough to recall some similarities.

The Passage was truly enjoyable for me; between this and reading The Hunger Games trilogy, I had a rather post-apocalyptic summer.

Alexander said...

Nice review. I found the actual experience of reading the Passage fairly excruciating, however, as an extremely over-extended, cliched and boring text. It seemed that from early on the book was going in exactly the direction the reader would expect, and doing so in a way that seemed wowed with its own cleverness in destroying the world. In contrast I enjoyed The Stand quite a deal, it has some significant flaws but seemed to be vastly more engaging and innovative.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Nathaniel:

when we really meet virals in large numbers, they turn out to be action movie cannon fodder

Do they? As I recall, in most of the large-scale attacks, the characters escape mainly by blowing up something very big, and occasionally by running really fast. Which seems consistent with the notion that the virals are utterly lethal except in very controlled circumstances. I don't think there's any case where our heroes just cut down the vampires one by one like they're channeling Buffy.

Matt:

surely the difference in the novels' attitudes toward civilization comes more from the authors than their eras?

I should imagine it's both. As you say, apocalyptic concerns are a perennial phenomenon, but I think that every era has its own apocalypse. Thirty years ago, we were scared of nuclear war. Today it's terrorism and global warming. That's a chance that is reflected quite clearly in the apocalyptic fiction that both eras have produced.

The Evil Hat said...

Perhaps action movie fodder was too strong a phrase, but they're certainly not invincible. The fact that they can be reliably killed with a crossbow shooting into one specific area from dozens of meters away is itself ludicrous. Not to mention that Alicia and others fight them with blades.

Nathaniel Katz said...

Whoops, the above comment's me. Went too fast and didn't realize I'd signed into my google account.

Anonymous said...

Like many readers, I thought the first 250 pages
of The Passage were pretty good but after that,
oh what a falling off was there! The book is studded with annoying tics like the epithet "Flyers!" And inconsistencies. e.g. that virals can only be killed by hitting their "sweet spot" (or being shot, or blown up or...) But the book's biggest flaw is how Cronin cribs so shamelessly from Dracula, The Stand, The Road, both Alien movies, etc. etc. A better title would have been "The Pastiche." Please note that Amy's last name is Bellafonte -- uh, like Harry Belafonte who appeared in the end-of-the-world film The World, The Flesh and The Devil. Coincidence? I think not.

Ryan said...

Just read your review, very good, but I couldn't help but point out that it is Stu Redman and Frannie that leave at the end of The Stand, not Harold. Harolds dead, dead, dead at the side of the road. :)

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