Book Review: The Passage

It’s the end of the world… again. And Harold Camping has nothing to do with it.

Apocolyptic fiction of any kind greatly interests me. Done well, it can be a superb tool for exploring strong emotional, moral, and philisophical themes. McCarthy’s The Road is a magnificent example of this, showcasing the relationship of a father and son against the backdrop of a ravaged world.

Enter Justin Cronin’s The Passage. It caught my eye last year, and I added it to my list of potential reads for 2011. I eventually discarded it in favor of other books and had all but forgotten it when, out of the blue, a friend recommended it to me. I took his advice, picked up a copy at the library, and bingo! I was hooked. It’s equal parts science-fiction epic, end-of-the-world nightmare, and touching human drama all rolled into a single, 800 page volume of ambitious apocalyptic literature.

When a vampiric bat virus is discovered by expeditionaries in South America, it’s transported to a clandestine government facility in the Colorado mountains. There, a team of scientists soon discover that the virus’ potential benefits are incredible: it has the power to make human beings immortal and virtually indestructible. Thrilled by their findings, they attempt to engineer the virus in hopes of creating the ultimate super-soldier. Meet Project NOAH.

Unfortunately, these profound advances come at a cost no one could have anticipated; and when the virus is injected into the human blood stream, it becomes clear that something is very wrong. The test subjects of the experiment – twelve men who were convicts on death row – transform into a superhuman race of vampire-like creatures called Virals. And when a security breach at the facility where they are held unleashes them on the outside world, all hell breaks loose. A night of chaos and death marks the beginning of a nation, and ultimately of a world, forever changed.

As civilization swiftly crumbles, two people flee in search of sanctuary. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is a troubled man, haunted by the death of daughter and by his involvement in certain morally-questionable activites. Six-year-old orphan Amy Harper Bellafonte is refugee from Project NOAH – one of the few to survive. Wolgast determines to protect her from the bloody fallout, but for Amy, escape is only the beginning of a much longer journey – over many miles and many years – towards the time and place where she must finish what never should have begun.

I used the word “literature” intentionally when describing this book. The Passage isn’t some cheap apocalyptic horror novel like those that often litter the bargain section of the bookstore. Rather, it is fascinating, intelligent, and thoughtful piece of fiction with impeccable prose, finely-drawn characters, and a relentless pace. It is, in my opinion, a work of art.

Though the premise of his story sounds similar to others of the same genre, Cronin spins it in an entirely new and interesting way. His writing style is polished, smart, and easy to engage with. I’m not exactly a fan of Stephen King, but I think he summed up the quality of the story well when he said, “Read fifteen pages and you will find yourself captivated; read thirty and you will find yourself taken prisoner and reading late into the night. It has the vividness that only epic works of fantasy and imagination can achieve. What else can I say? This: read this book and the ordinary world disappears.”

One major theme of the book is that of retaining humanity in an inhumane world. The characters – even the ones that don’t play particularly crucial roles – are crafted with care and skill, and the reader feels their struggles, joys, and pains. Amy, in particular, is one of most lifelike little heroines I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and her relationship with the troubled Wolgast is heartfelt without a hint of saccharine sentimentality.

Another aspect of the story that I really enjoyed was the author’s gritty take on vampires. These are not sparkly, angst-ridden, misunderstood bloodsuckers a la Stephanie Meyer; nor do they resemble Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The vampires in The Passage are hairless, insect-like killers: super-fast, super-strong, and extraordinarily difficult to destroy. Elements of vampire lore are present, to be sure – the creatures are immortal, drink blood, and mostly hunt at night – but on the whole, Cronin’s interpretation is quite unique.

Surprisingly enough, faith is neither mocked nor ignored in the story. In fact, one of the key characters is a devout Christian, firmly believing (as it turns out, rightly so) that Amy is God’s answer to the terrible catastrophe. Not only that, but Cronin’s narrative closely resembles that of the Fall in Genesis 3: man brazenly pursues his quest for godlike-ness, and consequently unleashes unimaginable evil on the surrounding world – evil that touches everything and everyone, even the generations to come.

This is not say The Passage is entirely or even explicitly Christian, and readers should still exercise caution and biblical discernment. That said, there’s much to think about, and the book is all the richer for it.

The post-apocalyptic world of The Passage is a dark, threatening, and horrific place; it’s not surprising, therefore, that Cronin’s narrative is punctuated by violence. Humans and virals alike are shot, stabbed, maimed, dismembered, and blown apart in a number of vicious encounters; these sequences are never excessively graphic, but jarring nonetheless, and easily unsettled readers should know what they’re getting into.

Sexual content is surprisingly limited, and when it does pop up, it’s brief and easy to skip. More objectionable is the foul language. It’s not as pervasive as, say, Robopocalypse; and thankfully, after the first couple hundred pages or so, the swearing lightens up considerably. Even so, there’s still quite a bit of it and, when it does pop up, it’s generally strong R-rated fare.

All in all, I recommend The Passage, bearing in mind the cautions given and the fact that it’s only for the most mature of readers. Apparently, it’s only the first installment of a proposed trilogy, the second of which will be released next year. Am I looking forward to it? Definitely.

Flotsam & Jetsam (11/3)

Announcement! – One of the movie review sites I write for (The Film Dissectors) was providentially discovered by none other than Joseph Darnell, the co-founder of American Vision’s Movieology webshow. The result? Articles from T.F.D. will now be periodically featured on Movieology’s site. Pretty cool, huh? Soli Deo Gloria.

Movie Review: Cars 2 – Aubrey Hansen gives one of the few positive reviews of Pixar’s latest offering that I’ve read. “See, I’m a self-proclaimed Pixar geek, so their 2011 release is a big deal for me. However, I decided in the interest of cost not to see the film in theaters… Yeah. Remind me to splurge and see it in theaters next time.”

The Unrighteous Shall Not Inherit the Kingdom of God (Pt. 3) [CAUTION: MATURE] – The third installment of a new blog series from Michael Wright. I strongly encourage you to check it out.

How to Make Chain Mail – Stupendous, right? You betcha.

Dude, Where’s Your Bride? – If I could have the honor of giving Kevin DeYoung a high-five, I’d totally do it. This article is an absolute must-read, for guys and gals – even if you (like me) are still a youngster. Here’s a snippet: “As I speak at different venues across the country, one of the recurring questions I get comes from women, young women in particular. Their question usually goes something like this: ‘What is up with men?’

“History is the memory of time, the life of the dead and the
happiness of the living.” ~ John Smith

The Importance of Clarity and Simplicity in Writing

In the second chapter of The Book of Writing, Paula LaRoque addresses a common ailment among aspiring – and sometimes even seasoned – writers: the tendency to use “pretentious mumbo jumbo”.

This topic was of particular interest to me because 1) I used to struggle with it, 2) I sometimes still do, and 3) I’ve always wondered what is so attractive about using gargantuan words. Why is it that we writers often feel the urge to use “fuzzy but important-sounding language”? Why are we often tempted “to impress rather than to communicate clearly”?

When I first realized that writing was something I really wanted to pursue, I thought the best way to go about crafting masterful prose was to grab a thesaurus and find the most complicated-sounding synonym for the simplest of words. Why say “used” when I could say “utilized”? Why say “walk” when I could say “ambulate” or “locomote”?

*sigh*

As I soon discovered, reading what I wrote was a royal pain – even for me, the author. Far from sounding “intellectual”, my prose sounded clumsy, jolting, and just plain weird. Forget a smoothly-paved highway – my reader would inevitably feel that he was on the bumpiest of dirt roads, with potholes the size of meteor-craters. Ouch.

Take, for instance, the following sentence:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

It’s a mouthful, isn’t it? And worse, it’s rather hard to understand. Would you like to know where it came from? I’ll tell you. That sentence is George Orwell’s deliberately turgid rewrite of one of the most famous passages in Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Simple, easy to understand, and yet profound. Does Orwell’s rewrite sound smarter? Would you, as an intelligent reader, prefer it? Speaking for myself, the answer is no.

Simply put, clearer is better. “… one hallmark of intellect is the ability to simplify, to make the complex easy to understand. Anyone can be unclear.”

Now, that’s not to say we should be over-simple in our writing, for that is not the same as simplicity. We’re not talking about “See Spot Run” here, nor are we advocating the dumbing down of language. But as LaRoque points out, “simplicity is neither barren nor elementary; it is just immediately, attractively, and interestingly clear.”

LaRoque asks us to consider some of the great speeches of history. Did Lincoln’s audience gripe about the simplicity and shortness of the Gettysburg address? Was Churchill wrong to say: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and on the streets, we shall fight in the hills”? Wouldn’t his intelligent listeners have preferred something like, “we shall engage in hostilities with incursive combatants in multiple locations”?

“The way to credibility,” says LaRoque, “is to speak and write plainly without language that bewilders or misleads. And the way to lose credibility is to veil the message in showy blather.”

Good advice, to be sure. If only it were heeded more.

My writing is still far from perfect. But it’s certainly better than it used to be, and I hope it’s getting better. At any rate, I’m not helping things when I refuse to call a banana a banana, and instead call it “an elongated yellow fruit”.

Flotsam & Jetsam (11/1/11)

Women of the Reformation – Yesterday marked the beginning of a new series over at the Heavenly Springs blog, and I would strongly encourage you to check it out.

I Would Have Blogged That… – Something to tickle your funny bone, courtesy of Gregg.

Reel Quick – Click here to read my review of Ken Loach’s anti-Capitilist propaganda piece The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006). And if you’re a lover of smart sci-fi like I am, click here to read my thoughts on Moon (2009).

Send in the Clowns – Something else to tickle your funny bone, courtesy of Truthinator.

Steve Jobs – Tim Challies offers his thoughts on a book I would very much like to get my hands on sometime: Walter Isaacson’s newly-published biography of Steve Jobs. It looks like a fascinating and thought-provoking read.

“I am only an average man but, by George, I work harder at it
than the average man.” ~ Teddy Roosevelt