Monday, September 27, 2010

"You're all going to die down here."

This weekend I was reading two books -- not at the same time, obviously, but in shifts.

One was Ira Ratkow's Seeking the Cure which I'm reading in an attempt to get a grip on the subject matter I deal with at one of my jobs. I'll have more to say about Mr. Ratkow later, not much of it good.

The other book was Justin Cronin's The Passage about which I have more pleasant things to say.

The Passage was the big, non-Stephanie Meyer (thank heaven) "vampire" find for the summer. At least, that's what the press for the release said back in...oh, June-ish? Sometime? Here's a review from and here's one from Me and My Big Mouth and here's one from the Guardian. All the right bells and whistles were pulled or rung apparently; since I don't hang out in Borders a whole lot, I guess I missed the cardboard stand-ups and huge posters. There is some rather nice cover art, I have to say...

And since I haven't finished the book -- I'm just starting the last third -- I can't honestly critique the full thing. That will be for a later post. But I do have some comments on the first two-thirds.

The first third? Basically no complaints. It's a nice, fast-paced, rather technical thriller. It starts with the birth and abandonment of a young girl in a convent; then we move onto a scientific expedition in South America that's searching for something when, abruptly, the Feds show up. Not the Federales, you understand, the US Feds who have been silent funding partners up to now and are suddenly very interested in what the expedition might find. You discover all this via a series of emails "recovered" from the expedition leader's laptop after...whatever happened happened. The last email is something to the effect of "Now I know why the soldiers are here." Scene and drop curtain.

Nice, huh? A bit workmanlike, perhaps, not a lot of style, but still -- solid thriller material.

The next chunk follows a rather disaffected FBI agent named Wolgast as he moves around the US recruiting men on death row into a secret government research project. His last assignment is to collect the girl we saw being born and growing up in the first few pages of the book. Suffice it to say: this assignment does not delight Agent Wolgast.

We do get to see some bits and bats of the research project although to anyone who read the first fifty pages with their eyes open it will be painfully obvious what's going on. Cronin adds some nice touches: almost all the staff of the research project, other than the security staff and actual scientists, are death row inmates or other convicts, most of them chemically castrated and sedated so they are the ultimate pliable material. The research subjects themselves are a little more nebulous: they are definitely un-human. They probably once were human. What they are now is a bit...fuzzy. They definitely drink blood. They are glow-in-the-dark -- referred to as "glowsticks" by a character you will probably be happy to watch die. They hang upside down a lot, move very quickly, and are decidedly antisocial.

So far, so good. There isn't anything novel here. If you're familiar with genre at all, there isn't anything groundbreaking. For all the hype, this isn't like the first time you watch Terminator 2 and see the T-1000 rise up out of the black-and-white checked floor.

The second third? Painful, man, just...really kind of painful. I lost track of the times I looked at the page and said, "How dumb do you think I am?" The story switches abruptly from the immediate aftermath of the (lets face it, inevitable) security failure at the super secrety uber chocolaty research facility of the research subjects -- lets call them vampires for the sake of argument -- to a posited alternate future which varies from the mostly workable to the wildly unbelievable. At its best, it's reminiscent of The Road and The Gunslinger. At its sounds like someone who read Lord of the Flies too quickly and just tossed in some vampires and the odd Western theme. There are some interesting characters here -- Peter Jaxon, Alicia Donadio (I think that's the right name), Sara and Michael -- who make it worth slogging through the rest but it is a tough slog from time to time, I warn you.

Cronin's reputation as a literary fictionalist seems quite solid; he's won some pretty impressive awards. I'd really hate to be a genre snob at this point and think that he just thought he could spin off a quick supernatural fic, win over the genre crowd, and tick off another box on his list 'cause that's got to be easy, right? I hate to point it out but, no. Wrong. Writing a good vampire -- or zombie or werewolf or witch or whatever -- novel is just as hard as writing anything else good. There. I have now stated the obvious. I haven't read anything else of Cronin's, so perhaps this is just his style: he suffers from wordiness, just for a start. He needs a decent editor who will sit on his chest and explain that we already have one Stephen King; our bookshelves can only take so much weight, so perhaps the odd word cut here and there...?

And I really did feel as though I was being treated as an idiot by the text. Things that Cronin produced as a big surprise -- were patently obvious if you'd been paying attention at all. And given how little I was paying attention at some points during that second 250-page chunk, that's pretty damned obvious. I realise that some of these things -- take for example Peter Jaxon's mother's dying words which can be interpreted two radically different ways depending on the placement of a comma -- are supposed to come as huge shocks for the character, world-beatingly different ways of looking at things. And that's great, I'm a fan of shaking up the character -- but in that case, there should be a little candy for the reader, too. Either the delight of watching a character see the world tumble or...some little bit of realisation in the narrative of something different going on, some new interpretation or thought you hadn't thought of yet. I can't say Cronin ever offers you that.

He does offer a fun time (90% of the time) and some good vamp-killing action, though, and I'm intrigued enough that I'm going to spend the time to finish the last third. So I'll be back with a report that I hope will be something more than "And so the last third was kinda like The Stand meets The Road."


A'Llyn said...

Hmm...'The Passage' is on my hold list at the library because I heard all the hype about how super-fantastic it was.

I'm suddenly less excited. Oh well--I'm still 134 in the queue, so maybe I'll be in the mood for something along these lines by the time it arrives!

KarraCrow said...

@A'Llyn: It would be a great cold-late-fall-afternoon-on-couch-with-tea-and-blanket book. And I'm still intrigued enough to keep going and see how the end works. My only problem is that I'm losing my faith it will be as awesome as the hype -- or even very awesome at all; so far, the beginning of the last third is setting itself up like a poor man's Resident Evil 3 -- and that was pretty damn poor to start with. But perhaps I will be pleasantly surprised! (And even if I'm not, there's the 2nd volume of del Toro and Hogan's vamp trilogy, The Fall, out now, so perhaps that will soothe my hurt...)

And I'm sure back copies of The Passage would make very handy weapons for bedbug smiting. :)