Wednesday, June 16, 2010

“The Passage”: The Doomsayer’s Perfect Beach Read

The Passage US The phrase "beach book" is typically applied as a slur, used to describe books that are shallow enough to be enjoyed while the reader contends with sand in uncomfortable places. Under this umbrella we gather our genre novels - chick-lit, sci-fi rags, legal thrillers and celebrity memoirs. Last summer, you couldn’t walk down 10 yards of resort shoreline without running across multiple copies of New Moon, then the Twilight pending in theaters.

While one can praise the Twilight novels as “readable” in much the same way Miller Light is “drinkable,” the beach book might be seeing a latent renaissance. For a while now, high literature has courted pop- and pulp-culture without actually descending to generic form Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union walked and talked like a hardboiled detective story, but the high-concept trappings kept it safely in the stratosphere. Justin Cronin has no such ambivalence. His new novel, The Passage, has been marketed as the thinking man’s vampire novel, the anti-Twilight. You’ll likely see it weighing down a few beach blankets in the months to come.

And with good reason: it’s a blast.

Here’s the commercial stuff: Cronin made an embarrassing amount of money off The Passage. After a brutal bidding war, Ballantine Books, a Random House imprint, bought the planned trilogy for $3.75 million. Before the novel was even finished, Fox 2000 and Ridley Scott bought the screen rights for $1.75 million.

Cronin, an English professor at Rice University, is the author of The Summer Guest and Mary and O’Niel, which won a PEN/Hemingway award. He is a Harvard man and a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Because of his pedigree, many might accuse him of crass profiteering, jumping on the bandwagon for the worst possible reason. Cronin denies cashing in on the bloodsucker craze.

“I have not read Twilight,” Cronin told The New York Times. “My relationship to vampire material definitely predates the recent renaissance.”

That much is evident in The Passage. Cronin’s vampires don’t sparkle in the sunlight – they’re wiry demons with superhuman strength and agility. Much like the classical vampire, they’re allergic to sunlight and can live for centuries, provided they aren’t speared through a small weak spot near their sternum.

But much as vamps flee the sunlight, The Passage shies away from terms like “vampire.” Its monsters are called Virals, the result of a military weapons experiment gone inevitably awry in the Colorado Rockies. As the sickness spreads, America caves in on itself: California secedes, barriers fall and battle lines fall back further and further towards the East Coast; the U.N. (or the Russians – it’s unclear) desperately lobs nukes over the quarantine lines; paradoxically, Philadelphia is the last city standing.

Thus The Passage has more in common with Atwood’s Oryx and Crake than Twilight. Unlike Meyer, Cronin has some talent behind his pen, and the prose in The Passage isn’t just fluid, it’s substantial, full of the nuanced observation and detail that distinguish literary works. An early character, a special agent given the grim task of snatching test subjects, is miserable over the death of his infant daughter and the subsequent disintegration of his marriage. Instead of being the whiskey-drinking hardboiled cutout he might be, Bad Wolgast is softer, prone to distraction. On a whim, he takes one of his subjects, a 6-year-old girl named Amy, to the fair, where he catches a glimpse of what fatherhood might have been like:

“At the entrance he paid for their admission and moved down the line to a second booth to buy tickets for the rides. He thought she might want to eat, but decided to wait; it might, he reasoned, make her feel sick on the rides. He realized he liked thinking this way, imagining her experience, the things that would make her happy. Even he could feel it, the excitement of the fair. A bunch of broken-down rides, most of them probably dangerous as hell, but wasn’t that the point? Why had he only said an hour?”

These digressions make The Passage a 766-page doorstop, but I’m okay with the narrative slowing down from time to time. The worst beach books read like TV shows, ripping you from one plot point to the next at mach five; Cronin takes time to contemplate the flowers. Or their ashes. The Passage is a sprawling post-apocalyptic phantasmagoria, and by page 500, Wolgast will seem like a distant memory, separated by decades of scorched earth, desperate colonies and the zygotes of a brave new world.

Any good End-of-Days story is rich in detail – no reason to destroy the world if you haven’t thought of a better one? Cronin has created something with as much girth as The Lord of the Rings; whether it suffers the same fate in theaters has yet to be seen.

Other Transcendent Beach Reads:

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black

17172294Any good crime novel is about sin – in a world of vastly televised bloodshed, all murder is venal without some moral heft. Irish writer Benjamin Black – Booker-winning John Banville by another name – summons the gravitas of Irish Catholicism in Christine Falls, which begins with an incredibly simple conceit: a dead girl goes missing. Quirke, our mortician protagonist, is smirking, dour, debonair and drunk, is masterfully animated by Black/Banville’s prose, which is arguably without peer.

Dark Star by Alan Furst

dark-star-194x300 While John Le Carre suffers a late-career slump, Alan Furst is at the top of his game. His newest, Spies of the Balkans, came out yesterday, but I would recommend you start with Dark Star, which plunks a novice Soviet spymaster in Nazi-occupied Paris circa 1938. Furst’s prose has a pleasant mustiness about it; reading him, you get the sense that things were really a lot better before we split the atom. Classier, at least.