The Passage: A Novel by Justin Cronin (New York: Ballantine Books, 2014. 912 pp)

Justin Cronin is the author of The Passage, The Twelve, Mary and O’Neil, and The Summer Guest. His work has earned him a PEN/Hemingway Award, a Stephen Crane Prize, Whiting Writer’s Award, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He lives in Houston, Texas with his family.

The Politics of Story

Portion a story into its disparate parts. If you dive deeply enough, you’ll find political positioning no matter the plot and structure.

Dissect the story and throw it under a microscope. You’ll find a tendency toward conservativism in plot-heavy action narratives and liberalism in literary fiction.

The forward motion of many action plots, especially those with post-apocalyptic influences, surrounds a desire for stasis. Something is wrong and the characters must work toward resolution.

Whereas, literary fiction pushes characters toward change. The status quo for a character represents inequality and injustice. The character must evolve for meaningful story resolution.

Given these basic definitions, the recent propensity toward literary approaches in genre means an aim at blending the conservative and liberal elements of each story structure.

The End of the World as We Know It

Justin Cronin’s The Passage begins a pop-trilogy narrative about vampires and the end of the world. It wants to illustrate the conservative and the liberal, but it succeeds mainly on the genre side of the coin.

The Passage depicts societal destruction through a handful of lenses and over the course of a thousand years.

The key character in this story emerges through lowly means. Amy, an abandoned orphan, represents the key that unlocks the narrative.

Act 1

Set in three acts, The Passage illustrates the threads of destruction in quasi-modern-day America in its first section.

The United States Government discovers anomalous health benefits from bat attacks on researchers in the deep jungles of South America. The survivors of these attacks experience increased immune system strength before their bodies shut down due to hyperactivity. If the government can bottle this special virus, the world might be a better place.

“How long would a human being live if there were no cancer, no heart disease, no diabetes, no Alzheimer’s? And we’ve reached the point where we need, absolutely require, human test subjects. Not a nice term, but there really is no other. And that’s where you come in. I need you to get me these men” (48).

The necessary evil in this unrequited good revolves around the corralling and testing of the virus on dead men walking. Why not test it on death row inmates? After a series of tests, the government turns to a younger target—Amy, an orphaned child.

Despite bunkers and the strictest safety protocols, the original twelve test subjects begin to influence the guards and staff workers around the top-secret facility, to the point where chaos reigns when Patient Zero convinces his guard to free him.

“It happened fast. Thirty-two minutes for one world to die, another to be born” (225).

Act 2

With ruthless efficiency, the twelve “vampires” kill and turn others into more “vampires,” ushering in act 2 of the book. These killing machines disrupt and invade the United States quickly. They fly, attacking from above. A pinpoint shot to the chest can kill them, but you only have one shot. People experience relative safety during the daylight but the creatures reign the night.

Fast forwarding almost 100 years, The Passage centers on the supposed last remaining society, an outpost in the Sierra Nevadas connected to wind and solar energy to ignite floodlights every night around the exterior of the settlement.

In this act, Cronin introduces a new set of characters, rangers Peter and Alicia, Sara the nurse, and her brother, Michael, an engineer.

Unfortunately after almost 100 years, the batteries that keep the lights on every night are beginning to fail. Michael estimates less than a year left. Without lights, the virals will surely envelope the settlement.

Act 3

But hope arrives with a miracle girl, running through the night undisturbed. Believing this mute girl is the answer to the battery issue, Peter, Alicia, Sara, and Michael begin an expedition to find her home, believing this discovery might open the opportunity of a new life for the settlement.

And this journey comprises Act 3.

The Passage is enjoyable reading. It offers an intriguing premise and provides easy-to-digest writing. If I needed to provide criticism, I would contend that the narrative often moves toward the bloody side of conflict. Consider this scene during Act 1:

“No one moved. It had all happened with a curious dreamlike slowness but was over in an instant. Wolgast looked at the woman, then at the two bodies on the floor, Kirk and Price. How surprising death was, ho irrevocable and complete, how much itself. At the reception desk, Amy’s eyes were locked on the dead woman’s face. The girl had been sitting just a few feet away when Richards had shot her. Her mouth was open, as if she were about to speak; blood was running down her forehead, seeking out the deep creases of her face, fanning across it like a river delta” (200).

And yet, the bloody action reinforces the basic point about such a genre. It exists to push the reader back to a belief about the good life existing in what we have. Things mess up when we try to change too much. This position is inherently conservative. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s worth remembering it when you read stories like The Passage. They want you to not push the envelope.

If you are looking for a quick and enjoyable read (even at almost 1,000 pages), gives The Passage a shot.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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