The Passage by Justine Cronin
The Passage is the genre-busting Big Book of the summer, and it has lifted an obscure writer of literary fiction into a sphere of celebrity and hype. Justin Cronin is the author of Mary and O'Neil, a beautifully crafted collection of interconnected stories that was first published in 2001. Mary and O'Neil is just the sort of lyrical, gorgeously crafted work that one expects from a graduate of University of Iowa's MFA program. There is very little of incident or event in Mary and O'Neil, and certainly nothing that would ever lead a reader to expect the writer of precise emotional nuance, lush lyricism, and clear evocative prose to produce a blockbuster thriller, garnering a multi-million dollar advance and a film deal with director Ridley Scott.
Mary and O'Neil was followed by a novel, The Summer Guest, also critically well-received. It seems like a strange leap of the imagination to follow two highly crafted works of literary fiction with a planned trilogy of mass appeal, but perhaps the leap is not so strange after all. The Passage is a long dream--a dystopian-paranormal-epic-thriller--but it is a dream that depends on fully developed and believable characters.
Cronin sets his novel in a not-too-distant future--one readers will recognize: when the novel begins, Jenna Bush is governor of Texas, and the Gulf of Mexico is a petro-chemical swamp. A Harvard professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology is working with the US Army on a secret weapon that goes seriously awry (you know, like the entire human race is nearly wiped out); a little girl named Amy Harper Bellafonte, daughter of a prostitute, has mysterious powers, and a nun named Sister Lacey Antoinette Kudoto, suffering from PTSD, is listening to the voice of God. In the hands of a less technically skilled writer, this could be simply silly. But Cronin takes care to anchor his story in characters that are so precisely written and believable that the reader simply feels pulled along. The dystopian universe of The Passage seems realistic: the environmental devastation, the nuclear proliferation, the science without ethics, are all logical and disturbing consequences of the world we are already living in.
Now about those vampires. In The Passage the vampires are called virals or smokes (because bright sunlight turns them to ash); they are the result of a military experiment carried out on twelve death-row convicts (and one abandoned little girl). Only the little girl, Amy, does not become a monstrous killer. She survives with an inhuman ability to heal, and super-longevity. Like Mary Shelley's creature, Cronin's vampires serve a larger purpose. Just as Shelley's creature is a metaphor for something monstrous in humanity, Cronin's virals speak to hubris and arrogance, and the capacity for evil. The virals act pretty much like vampires everywhere, and there are references to Bram Stoker's Dracula (literary and biblical allusions abound in this book). There is sufficient horror to satisfy a Stephen King fan, but the focus of this story is always on what is human: emotion, relationships, love and hate and despair. Cronin himself refers to the plot of The Passage as "a runaway train," but it is a runaway train peopled by characters a reader can care about.
The post-apocalyptic world of The Passage is so compelling and absorbing that halfway through the book I found myself looking nervously over my shoulder as I exited my car at night. This is a perfect summer read: the plot of a thriller, a carefully and realistically created world, a time frame of a century. At the center of the plot is Amy, "the Girl from Nowhere," the "Girl Who Walked In," and it is refreshing to have a female character taking the reader on her hero's journey. Female characters in The Passage show as much capacity for courage and physical bravery as the male characters, and one character, Alisha, repeatedly outfights the men. Amy's journey takes her to "The Colony," where a group of survivors stave off the virals with huge banks of lights, a heavily guarded wall, and a tightly knit and highly organized society. The only problem is, the lights that are The Colony's defense against the virals rely on batteries that are wearing down. And the residents of The Colony are starting to show signs of a mystifying illness, one in which a horrifying nightmare seems to cause insanity and violent behavior. Amy leads a group of people from The Colony on a journey into an unknown world; for the reader, it is a world with just enough of the known world to be convincing.
The Passage is a book which should appeal to a wide variety of readers. Certainly readers who enjoy dystopian fiction, or those who enjoy speculative fiction and supernatural thrillers will love The Passage. There is definitely an audience out there for 700 page novels that create an alternative universe. But readers who just love good, well-written fiction will probably enjoy this novel as well. The many readers who loved Cormac McCarthy's The Road will probably find The Passage engrossing. For those who prefer a quick-paced thriller that gets to the point, this novel may seem over-written. Cronin's well-developed secondary characters add to the novel's believability, but at times it slows the plot down.
Cronin is at work now on the second novel in the trilogy. The Passage ends with many unanswered questions; I look forward to the next book in the series. It will be interesting to see what kind of turns Justin Cronin's writing career takes now. It remains to be seen whether Cronin will ever return to the smaller scale realistic novel, and I do wonder what this enormously gifted writer might have sacrificed. Signing on for a trilogy of large-scale books implies a huge commitment of time and talent, and while Cronin has many years of writing ahead of him, this novel will undoubtedly permanently change his path as a writer.
For a couple of interesting interviews with Justin Cronin: here's one at Powell's and one at the Mercury News.