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Why I loved ‘The Passage’

(I don’t discuss much plot stuff at all, but if you want to remain totally unspoiled about The Passage, do not read this post or the linked reviews.)

It will surprise no one who’s read Alcestis that I’ve thought about death often in the last few years. Partly this is an occupational hazard of writing about the underworld; partly it’s related to my own life, as my father was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2003 and died in late 2008, while I was working on the last revisions of the book.

If you read this blog regularly, you also know that I talk frequently about genre fiction and literary fiction, and that I’ve been on a tear of reading YA novels.

I think a lot, and care a lot, about what it means to try to write something emotional and immediate and accessible and fun and still beautiful, still “literary.” Still artistically worthwhile, in the way that something like Twilight, satisfying as it is for teen readers and the employee of the blood donation center (!) near my apartment who has a “Forks or Bust!” sticker on her (his?) Ford Explorer window, isn’t.

I read Justin Cronin’s The Passage because about five people on Twitter recently posted about how it “lived up to all the hype!” I remember first learning about it because of the hype, since the world seems to be tremendously amused by the idea of a writer of literary fiction — Ron Charles calls Cronin’s first two books, one of which won the PEN/Hemingway award, “a couple of small literary novels” — producing a big sprawling genre book and then, gasp, selling it for a load of money. I remember reading about Cronin’s book deal a while back and being totally tickled that a fiction writer with an academic job had hit it big with a post-apocalyptic vampire novel. As always, I’m a little wistful about the suggestion that it takes a literary writer to make genre tropes shine. (Read Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. Read Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang and Necropolis and “The Naturalist.” Read Alice Sola Kim’s “Beautiful White Bodies,” which I just discovered thanks to Wiscon and the Tiptree shortlist.) But Cronin himself is hearteningly sensitive to false distinctions of this sort, too:

I think literary is shorthand for appreciated, and commercial is shorthand for sells. I did not undertake the writing of this book thinking that it was one thing or the other, or even that books in general have to be one thing or the other. Those are descriptions of what happens to a book after it’s written.

I read the book in a day and a half, and now T.’s racing through it — he started reading it while I was working and has been agitating for me to finish. Verdict: The Passage does live up to the hype. It’s not perfect; the ending is a little weird because it is the first in a (giant) trilogy; some bits are a little slow even for me. (Also, there are a surprising number of typos and misspellings, which my resident editing/typography nerd cannot forgive.) But you know what? It’s better than The Road. It’s as grabby as Tana French’s The Likeness or as The Secret History. It has a sense of humor, one that penetrates the very structure of the book — a few times, when reading, I could picture Cronin (and his daughter, with whom he apparently plotted much of the book) thinking something along the lines of: “You know what would be even more awesome? Nuns!” or “And then, they watch Dracula!” This is fabulous; this is what Kelly Link was talking about in the post I linked a few days ago. You put what you like in your book, and that makes it appealing.

What makes it appealing to me is its mixture of joy and melancholy. Many people die in this book. (Some others don’t, and that’s just as bad.) Here’s what Cronin said about that in the Times interview I linked above:

“The vampire narrative deals with the fundamental question, the basic human question, and that is, what part of being human is defined by the fact that we’re mortal?” Mr. Cronin said. “If you got to be immortal, would you be trading away your humanity? It’s the fundamental question of what is death to being alive. The vampire story gets at the heart of that. It reassures us that we’d rather be human.”

I wasn’t entirely sold on some of the more mystical aspects of the book, but nonetheless it made me think. What I’ve been thinking about most is the Colony, the group of survivors’ descendants who live in a walled town defended largely by banks of lights run by aging batteries. These lights aren’t just a “peculiar plot point,” as Janet Maslin calls them. For me, at least, they seemed far more central than that. Some of the inhabitants of the town are able to forget that the lights will go out eventually, and some aren’t. How they handle that knowledge, how it controls them — this is at the heart of what happens to the townspeople and the rest of the world.

Maslin’s review mentions the creepiness of reading Cronin’s projection that the future Gulf of Mexico would be an oil slick. I’ve spent way too much time in the last month reading and retweeting appropriately outraged articles about the spill and BP and our terrifying reliance on oil. I signed petitions and made some donations, and I tried to plan ways for us to cut our household energy consumption further. But once I’d done those things, I can’t say my reading those articles, or any of the other links I find on Twitter to the horrifying things we do to each other and our planet, really did much good for anyone, including me. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since reading Alexander Chee’s fine blog post — some good things do come from reading links on Twitter! — about the urgency that online news sources often make him feel, and the anger their content inspires. I feel conflicted about my own relationship to Twitter and to online news in general. I think the act of being outraged about something that you are not forced to experience personally can be absolutely necessary for change, and I fully realize that the choice to step away from something horrible is the epitome of privilege.  But sometimes that moment of outrage before retweeting, etc., isn’t leading to any real change at all. Sometimes it’s performative of identity, consciously or unconsciously: I will retweet this thing because I am the kind of person who is outraged by this thing! Which is not to say that the outrage itself is any less vital or valid. But sometimes it’s also a reminder, a little wearing reminder, that the lights will go out someday. There are some things none of us can step away from, and among them are death and grief. I loved The Passage because it acknowledges that — honors it, even — and also acknowledges that the world is beautiful, even when you’re in the dark woods, unsure of what’s waiting for you in the trees.

This morning, after I’d finished reading at 1:30 last night, I found this post via Shauna James Ahern and Elizabeth McCracken on Twitter, another post that, like this one, starts with the death of a parent but means to talk about love and joy more than about death:

The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of it. And, Johnny, on this front, I think you have some work to do.

Don’t be strategic or coy. Strategic and coy are for jackasses. Be brave. Be authentic. Practice saying the word love to the people you love so when it matters the most to say it, you will.

We’re all going to die, Johnny. Hit the iron bell like it’s dinnertime.


1 Comment

  1. Wow. This is one hell of a post. In particular, thanks for the link to the Rumpus Advice column post. I, like you, also think a lot about death and the comment about diving into a bucket of shit really hit home. So, off I go into the shower to wash off the little bits of shit that are still sticking to me.

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