"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Passage by Justin Cronin

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Summary: An apocalyptic vision of the future after a government plan to manufacture vampires goes terribly wrong. 

The Passage was unlike any book I've ever read before, yet it reminded me of many books I've read before. And I almost didn't make it past page 30.

The book opens with a depressing story of a single mother who loses her home to poverty and turns to prostitution to feed herself and her daughter Amy, set in 2016. Mood-wise, the writing reminded me of Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife, since it was a casual stream of consciousness writing with tender terrible moments just tossed in. The sadness was so disturbing I almost didn't keep reading, especially when six-year-old Amy is abandoned at a convent without a goodbye from her mother.

Then a new section opens with one-sided e-mails from a scientist working in the jungles of Bolivia. This seem ripped from Michael Crichton's Congo. Lots of mystery, strange noises and disappearances and the natives won't go any further, but the crew, which now is taken over by the U.S. Army, continues on to the jungle despite all their instincts. I despise epistolary books, and I resented that the vague e-mail hints are supposed to keep us readers intrigued. I was determined to give this book my mandatory 50 pages.

And then before the 50 pages were up, we meet Special Agent Brad Wolgast. Since I do love law enforcement characters, I kept reading about the tired, resigned, lonely man who is searching for a cause to make his life meaningful again. Unfortunately, Agent Wolgast is assigned to ask death row inmates with no family to sign up for a secret government medical experiment.

Can you guess the experiment? Vampires!

Yes, somehow the government has been injecting death row inmates (who are murderers and rapists) with a serum that makes them age slowly, lose their minds and humanity, and crave human blood.  The scientist who wrote those earlier e-mails has figured out a way to inject people with the same blood that caused a massacre in the Bolivian jungle.

And Agent Wolgast has to bring six-year-old Amy (who also now has no family) to a hidden medical lab in the mountains of Colorado for a treatment that has affected grown men in disturbing ways. During a bloody shoot-out, Amy and Special Agent Wolgast escape and hide in the mountains of Montana as the now-free and enraged vampires savage the rest of the United States.  The sparseness will remind readers of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

In yet another section, we have diary entries from a child who describes the isolation trains and the process of quarantining cities. She also notes that California has seceded from the United States.  This part of the book seemed very Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower.

And all of this plot takes up only a third of the book.

The rest of the book focuses on a community of settlers who live in isolation in California, fending off daily attacks by the now dominant vampires, nearly 100 years after the vampires first escape. They have only known the strict and insular life inside the fort. But the batteries that power the lights and their community are dying and they must journey to find either a rumored colony of other survivors or unused batteries. It's better to die in the attempt to prolong life than stay waiting. Their journey is more about the mental challenges than physical dangers though there are both. And you make it through a 766-page hard cover book only to have an enraging, frustrating ending.

I recognize that Justin Cronin is not a new author, however, this book felt like a creative writing class assignment. Okay, Class. The topic is vampires. Now write a book written from the perspective of these 4 random authors you pick from my bag. The plot had a few holes, and the writing needed a strong editor and a distinctive style. But this indeed was one of the most unique books I've read.

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