In his essay Surefire Line, novelist Michael Chabon recounts a confession to his youngest son during a family afternoon spent doodling super-heroes. The boy asks, how do you draw a girl?
“‘I don’t really know how to make a girl,’ I told him. ‘I’ve never been very good at it.’
‘You need to use more circles,’ suggested my older son.”
At the heart of Justin Cronin’s The Passage and of a publicity campaign to the tune of “humble literary novelist hits the big time” is the notion that, several years ago, Cronin and his young daughter plotted during afternoon runs the book that would become this summer’s best-selling sensation. It started, as most things do, with a challenge: Dad, write a story where a girl saves the world.
To save the world, as everybody knows, the author first needs to rip it apart.The Passage cleverly double dips on this front, playing into the current fear of bio-terrorist attacks as well as the faddish love for all things Twilight. The story is told in two parts with a short pivot at the centre. The first section deals with the discovery, exploitation, and outbreak of a real-world virus whose symptoms led to the vampire myth. The cataclysm that follows wipes out nearly all of humanity. A group that believes itself the last uncontaminated vestige of civilisation lives on without much peace behind high walls and halogen lights facing out into the night. When we meet them, the survivors’ future is written plainly in the batteries feeding those lights. The world as we know it is over, and everything is running on reserves.
The subject seems an entirely new turn for Cronin, but his other books have addressed topics like abortion and the last days of a terminally ill man returning to his favourite fishing cabin. He writes about the end of things and does it exceedingly well in this latest novel. As everything is stripped away, hope and humanity find a way to come back to life.
This is not to imply that the book is boring or overly maudlin. The book has some great set pieces and holds as its driving force a long march through the sort of strange wilderness that marks a lot of our greatest and most satisfying fiction. At 766 pages, the novel gives itself room to wander, its characters time to get to know each other, and the reader the opportunity to sink into its world. The vampires, more akin to zombies, become as boring as roaming packs of coyotes. You hear them in the dark, perceive intelligence in their eyes, and then either run, kill, or be killed. It’s episodic; it’s repetitive, but so was Terminator 2 (1991), and it makes for a good read.
Cronin is respectful to the genre and to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In honour of that daddy of vampire fiction, he crafts his contribution to the myth as partly epistolary. Here the author takes the role of curator, carefully choosing the brittle letters, testimonials, and journals, and imposes an order from which springs the story. One can imagine these fragments worked out during his runs, some spanning several days, others settled in a sweaty sprint.
The book started from that desperately prideful place of a man trying to impress a woman, in this case his own daughter, but the question remains: how well does Justin Cronin succeed?
He doesn’t. For everything he does right, for all his carefully plotted circles, Cronin fails to breathe life into his central concept. The problem isn’t his adherence to generic conventions. On the surface the book is a lot of breezy fun. However, consider what the author intended. In Surefire Lines, Chabon notes: “while I also vocally admire my daughters themselves, I don’t fully understand them, either.” His son asks, “Is a girl super-hero the same as a boy super-hero?” He thinks about it and adds, “Only she has some boobs?”
Cronin gives us female characters. He gives us boobs. Written in what some thought would be a post-racial America, his book is decidedly not post-gender. It’s not even that Cronin doesn’t write good female characters. He writes them well enough (says the male reviewer); he just doesn’t trust them.
The Passage is volume one in a series, and, so far, the women who might eventually save the world are all the more human. The subtext is that a fully human, self-doubting man can lead a group of powerful mutated superwomen and do it on the strength of his humanity alone. Cronin doesn’t lift anyone up by giving the women extra powers to keep up. He simply buries them. It’s a stake in the heart, but I’m hoping the nail isn’t in the coffin yet.