The Passage by Justin Cronin [A Review]

The Passage has a reputation for promising writing a cut above the bestsellers of its era. It turns out this is an essential aspect of the book. Because, to begin a trilogy with a 900 page novel, across two timelines with little to connect them, readers who commit to this journey have to have faith that Cronin know what he is doing and will deliver.

Cover image of The Passage by Justin Cronin

Special Agent Brad Wolgast has been thinking of leaving the FBI. Recently divorced, following the death of his young daughter, Wolgast has been feeling directionless. His ex-wife has remarried, is pregnant and his late-night calls to her have not been appreciated. Instead, Wolgast accepts a special assignment – Project Noah. He is to recruit 10-20 death row inmates for participation in a medical experiment. In return, they will have their sentences commuted to life without parole. He is told a story of a terminal cancer patient who was cured after contracting a newly discovered virus. Though the virus did kill him, scientists are confident the virus, discovered in bats in Bolivia, may yield important breakthroughs in the treatment of a range of illnesses and disabilities.

Wolgast is an ideal recruit. An agent with an impeccable record, no close family, no political leaning, who watched his daughter die from illness. Wolgast is happy to accept, thinks it will be a cake walk and needs the break.

Things begin to get complicated for Wolgast when he meets his latest mark. Anthony Carter is on death row for drowning a woman. Wolgast persuades Carter to take the deal, but can’t help but feel that Carter is not like the other men he has recruited; that he does not seem to be an evil man irredeemably guilty of a horrible crime. Carter himself cannot make sense of the events that led to him being on death row. Soon after, Wolgast is informed his next pick up will be a civilian.

Project Noah is not going as expected either. Several who were exposed to the virus have died. A weakened strain is proving more manageable. More than still alive, the subjects are experiencing robust improved health with several other effects. They have become monstrous in appearance, with increased musculature and hard exoskeletons, claws and teeth. A danger to those around them, they have to be kept under maximum security. There have already been a couple of close calls where infected subjects have almost escaped. Workers at the centre, though, seem to be suffering psychological symptoms; disturbing dreams, voices in their heads. The workers, like Wolgast, are men without connections, some have criminal pasts.

The scientists feel their progress is being hindered by the fact that their tests subjects are all male, all adults, all with considerable psychological baggage.

If Carter began to give Wolgast misgivings about what he was doing, being told to pick up a six-year-old girl, recently abandoned by her mother at a convent, is ringing alarm bells. Angry at having no choice but to follow through with something he did not sign up for, things get worse as the pickup is messy, making it seem to witnesses as if Wolgast has abducted the girl.

Now, they are on the run. Wolgast, unexpectedly feeling an outpouring of paternal affection for the girl, is tempted to cut and run.

Almost one hundred years later, up in California’s San Jacinto mountains is a settlement known as First Colony. Originally a shelter for civilians fleeing the outbreak of the virus, it has turned into a permanent home, the only one most of the occupants have ever known. There has been no contact with any other settlement for years. For all they know, they may be the only people left.

The colony is heavily fortified to protect them from the ‘virals’ or ‘smokes’ – former humans infected with the virus who would hunt and kill them if they could.

What the smokes knew and didn’t know was always a question. Were they creatures of pure instinct, or were they capable of thought? Could they plan and strategize? And if the latter were true, didn’t it follow that they were still, in some sense people? The people they had been, before they were taken up? A great deal was simply not understood. Why, for instance, some of them would approach the Wall, while others would not; why a handful, such as the one they had seen on the road, would hazard the daylight to hunt; if their attacks, when they came, were simply random occurrences or triggered by something else; the distinctive manner in which they moved, always in groups of three, the actions of their bodies coordinated each to the others, like phrases of a rhyme; even how many there were out there, prowling the dark. It was true that the combination of the lights and walls had kept the Colony secure for most of a hundred years. The builders seemed to have understood their enemy well, or at least well enough. And yet watching a pod moving at the edge of the lights, appearing out of the night to patrol the perimeter before departing to wherever it was they went, Peter often had the distinct impression of watching a single being, and that this being was alive, soulfully alive, no matter what Teacher said. Death made sense to him, the body joined to the soul in life, ceasing together in death. His mother’s final hours had taught him as much. The sounds of her last ragged breaths, and then the sudden stillness: he knew that the woman she had been was gone. How could a being continue with no soul?

Life within the colony is no paradise. Though largely self-sufficient, the emotional strain of isolation and hopelessness is too much for some. And the governance of the colony has become increasingly restrictive. Radio is no longer permitted, nor are exploratory excursions beyond the perimeter. Measures that seem designed to forestall the question of how much longer they can hold out. Despite being indoctrinated, deliberately by their elders and as a consequence of their environment, a younger generation of colonists seem more inclined to find answers to their questions and subvert those in charge. A few unexpected discoveries collude to convince them that, in order to survive, they will need to take the ultimate risk.

They moved in silence into the centre of the town. The buildings here were more substantial, three or four stories, though man has collapsed, carving open spaces between them and filling the streets with mounds of undifferentiated debris. Cars and trucks were parked at haphazard angles along the roadway, some with their doors standing open – the moment of their driver’s flight frozen in time – but in others, sealed away beneath the blasting desert sun, were the dried out corpses known as slims: raggy masses of bones folded over the dashboards or pressed against the windows, their shrivelled forms virtually unrecognisable as human beings except for a tuft of stiffened hair still tied with a ribbon, or the glinting metal of a watch on a skinless hand that still, after nearly a hundred years, clutched the steering wheel or a pickup truck sunk to the tops of its wheel wells. All of it unmoving and silent as the grave, all just as it had been since the Time Before.

Some of you reading this might recall that this novel has a story behind it, or maybe ‘mythology’ would be a better word. Its author, Justin Cronin, is a college professor of English; a writer of novels that gained critical praise but little in the way of sales or wide readership. But when tasked by his daughter, then nine years old, to write a story of a girl who saves the world and vampires. Together, they spent ten weeks fleshing out a plot ‘just for fun’. Then came the writing and the result was The Passage and its sequels.

To understand how the novel became a hit, we have to cast our minds back to when it was first published in 2010. First there was the Harry Potter phenomenon, spanning fourteen years from the first book (1997) to the final film (2011) and never completely leaving us. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (2003) came in the midst of this, the film was released in 2006. The books and films of the Twilight Saga also overlapped with this period as did The Hunger Games. And a year after The Passage, Fifty Shades of Grey was published. In other words, this was a period where novels were enjoying a pop-cultural following rarely witnessed and mostly driven by a generation younger than me and by people who were not otherwise heavy readers. The writers of these books also enjoyed an explosion in wealth that would probably astonish any writer of any other era. Cronin, like some others of this era, was a millionaire from adaptation deals for The Passage before it was published.

With the exception of Dan Brown, I avoided this clamour. Allergic to hype, I stuck to the classics. There was also the widely repeated accusation that, with the exception of Harry Potter, many of these books were not well written. But, back then, I was a reader who could not stick to the classics book after book without some lighter relief, hence I would dip my nose into Dan Brown among others. Also, rarely, there would come a suggestion that ‘if you liked x, but want something better written, try y’. This was how I found The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, which I quite enjoyed. It was entertaining relief and well-written. It was a similar impulse that led me, and I suspect others too, to The Passage – it has vampires, dystopia, but is also well written?

This was the story but doesn’t it seem a little too familiar? A myth massaged into shape by marketers and reviewers?

I bought my copy of The Passage when it first came out but did not read it immediately. My reading was changing and my need to take breaks of lighter reading was becoming less relevant. I also learned that The Passage was only the first book of a planned trilogy. I decided to wait to see how the other novels would be received. Years went by and I made no effort. Then, I was attending the Melbourne Writer’s Festival. I was there to hear Yann Martel read and be interviewed and have my copy of Life of Pi signed. I was near the back of the line and when I got to the front, Justin Cronin was sitting at the table next to Martel. He had finished earlier and was chatting to a few hangers on. What was I do to? I mean the guy was just sitting there. After I got my Life of Pi signed, I bought The City of Mirrors, part three of The Passage Trilogy, and got it signed by Cronin! I guess I am all in now!

Casting your mind back to the period when it was first published is not only necessary to understand the book’s success, it also helps to explain its mood. The weight of 9/11 can be felt in the contemporary first half of the book. Wolgast received counter-terrorism training, there’s a Bush serving as Governor of Texas and a suggestion that the post-9/11 wars have been dragging on for a long time and are still expected to drag on for a long time yet. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina is also felt. The form the apocalypse took may have been a surprise to those who were victims of it, but that the apocalypse came may have been no shock. The stage seemed set for it.

Richards remembered the day – that glorious and terrible day – watching the planes slam into the towers, the image repeated on endless loops. The fireballs, the bodies falling, the liquefaction of a billion tons of steel and concrete, the pillowing clouds of dust. The money shot of the new millennium, the ultimate reality show broadcast 24-7. Richards had been in Jakarta when it happened, he couldn’t even remember why. He’d though it right then; no, he’d felt it, right down to his bones. A pure, unflinching rightness. […] From that day forward, the old way of doing things was over. The war – the real war, the one that had been going on for a thousand years and would go on for a thousand more – the war between Us and Them, between the Haves and the Have-Nots, between my gods and your gods…

Of course, readers today may have a very different take on a novel where a worldwide dystopia is caused by a virus originating in bats!

Reading The Passage for the first time, I am a little surprised that it was so successful when it was first published. It is a long novel, my paperback edition is over 900 pages. Being the first part of a trilogy, it understandably leaves a lot unfinished. If there was one thing I did not enjoy about the writing, it was all the unhidden effort to keep things secret. I felt kept in suspense in a n artificial way that was more annoying than pleasurable from delaying the gratification.

The novel has a lot of what of what I like to charitably call ‘colour’ but which others might call waffle or filler. There is a lot of volume, a lot of material, devoted to things that seem superfluous – that don’t appear to advance the plot or fill in characterisation, or at least seem to be much longer than they need to be. However, it is in this aspect that Cronin shows his writing ability. Because, unlike other writers who might try my patience by making me read through pages that don’t seem to be relevant, in The Passage, these were quite pleasurable to read. Some of it were the best parts. They were interesting digressions and subplots even if they did not impact the main story. More than anything, it lets the reader know that Cronin knows what he is doing and that they are in safe hands.

The Passage needs you to trust the author. Because it is so long. Because, most of the time, the plot advances slowly. Because of the strong disconnect between the part of the book set in contemporary America and the part set in the future. And Cronin, I believe, earns that trust. It took 600 pages to get there, but the novel went from mildly to very interesting very quickly. The mystery element, that I felt feigned, was there to string me a long in the early novel, now built intrigue and pushed me further.

At over 900 pages, The Passage is a big commitment if you were looking for lighter reading but is nothing readers of genre fiction are not used to. But there is still a long way to go, a lot Cronin has to deliver to justify this investment. He has made a good start, helping the reader feel that they are in safe hands.

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