When confronted with an extraordinary idea and a massive amount of hype about a movie deal before the idea even became a story, I feel Justin Cronin needed to turn to the classics for inspiration for writing The Passage. By classics, I’m talking about Stephen King’s The Stand. There’s no doubt anyone reading this giant novel will compare it to King’s magnum opus, and I think Mr. Cronin will feel like that’s a good thing, as it is.
I’m also talking about classics on a different level. I’m talking about a style of writing extremely popular in the 20th Century, but not seen too much today: The Omniscient Narrator.
Exactly how does one tell a story about the end of the world as we know it, an end brought about by a terrible virus that turns everyone into a vampire?
Hasn’t this been done before?
Salem’s Lot, I Am Legend, do any of these ring a bell?
Sure, they do, and again, I’m betting Mr. Cronin was counting on that, too.
To answer this, one must examine the core of the story and realize the scope. The time line, starting in our near future and ending about 1000 years later, makes one realize that it’s going to take a massive cast of characters to pull this off. Today’s writers lean towards one main character, maybe juggling two or three, but usually just one. Many of today’s stories also deal with a short time span, certainly much shorter than 1000 years. Thankfully, the author chose to only specifically deal with a few years of the story, with a 100-year jump, but a few years still means a rather large cast.
I counted at least seventeen different perspectives in The Passage.
Seventeen! That’s a lot of people. I knew this going in, and can’t help saying it bugged me a little. My own critique groups have gotten on me for years, telling me they felt my stories had too many characters. Well, maybe that was true. Perhaps I didn’t make them different enough, or I could have consolidated two or more into one character, but after reading this novel, I realized that stories are usually about people, and if you can make each character unique, and make the reader care about them, then it doesn’t matter.
Ultimately, the best way to handle such a cast is to drift the narrative through the minds and feelings of those best equipped to tell that part of the story. In other words, 100 years of Amy, the central character of the story, would have been as boring as hell, mainly because for a long time, she was merely surviving, doing the same things every day that kept her alive the day before, still completely unaware of her true purpose.
Salem’s Lot came to mind many times while reading The Passage. I loved that book when I first read it, and still love the memory of the book I read years ago. I found a good used copy last year and decided to give it another read. After about 100 pages, I put it down. My problem: after years reading very few multiple-narrator stories, I was perplexed by King’s ability to move between characters’ inner thoughts, sometimes within the same scenes. I wasn’t used to that kind of writing anymore. The Passage is that kind of writing, but stylized for today’s reading public. You will know, as soon as each scene starts rolling, whose head you’re in while reading. Cronin knows you don’t like the jumping around thing, and if it’s done once in the whole book, I don’t remember it.
Seventeen different perspectives? I wish he had used more character perspectives. For those that have read Transubstantiate by Richard Thomas, which has seven different perspectives, each in first person, you must realize by now it’s the daring writer, someone not afraid to bring something new to the table, that’s going to get the book deal. Cronin wrote The Passage with that same courage. He knew going into this that he had something special, and probably didn’t care too much about Ridley Scott’s much-hyped-about movie offer before the book was written. Surely, there was some pressure there, but then again, Mr. Scott can probably step away from it at any time.
I read a few reviews of The Passage on Barnes and Noble’s website, most praising the book, but a few people slammed it. Their main gripe: the story jumps 100 years right in the middle. Well, that’s not exactly true. It does jump, hard, but it’s around page 250 or so. I’m going to stand up right now and give Mr. Cronin the ovation he deserves. Thank you, so very much, for jumping ahead and avoiding what’s been done to death in every other vampire apocalypse novel ever written. I don’t need to know how hard things are, with no power and barely enough food. I Am Legend did a fine job with that subject matter years ago and everyone else has been trying to redo it ever since. Cronin shows us an established world, a realistic world, where survival is more about helping each other out and moving on than trying to discover a cure and rewriting history.
This novel is not for everyone. Cronin can be sentimental at times. There’s no doubt he knows how to tug at his readers’ heartstrings, but with a novel this large, I expected it.
Is it scary? To me, no, it was not scary. I’m jaded and well-read and I didn’t want to read it to be scared. I read it because I wanted to see what a modern-day vampire apocalypse would be like, and Cronin delivers. At least he delivered enough for me to forgive a laughable political cameo early on that’s more far-fetched than his story.