Book review Monday: The Passage, by Justin Cronin

Generally, I like to use Book Review Monday to help spread the word about great books that are worth your time. But sometimes, I need to use this space as a public service announcement, to warn you off of books that have received positive reviews or lots of hype but are, in my opinion, crap. Today is one of those times. Brace yourselves.

The Passage, by Justin Cronin, was billed as a thrilling, sprawling vampire novel and received positive reviews from such respected publications as The Washington Post and The New York Times, among others. But I disliked it so much, I couldn’t even finish it. Let me emphasize that for me, to not finish a book is a rare thing. I struggle through books that I feel lukewarm about all the time. But my policy, since discovering at age eleven that I wasn’t obligated to read all of the Sunday comics, including the ones I hated (looking at you, For Better or For Worse), is that I shouldn’t feel bad about abandoning ship on a book, movie, or TV show that I’m not enjoying. Life is too short, right? To be fair, I made it 67% of the way through The Passage before calling it quits, so no one can say I didn’t give it a fair shake.

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Here were my issues with this book, in convenient list format.

1. It’s derivative. No, like, really derivative.

I don’t throw around the word “derivative,” because when you think about it, everything created by a human being is in some sense derivative of some earlier work. But The Passage goes beyond “derivative” and lands firmly in “blatant rip-off” territory. Cronin has put together a poorly rendered copy of plot points and themes from Stephen King’s The Stand and Salem’s Lot, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and a number of other better written books. Even the reviewer from The Washington Post, Ron Charles, concedes this point, writing:

Imagine Michael Crichton crossbreeding Stephen King’s “The Stand” and “Salem’s Lot” in that lab at Jurassic Park, with rich infusions of Robert McCammon’s “Swan Song,” “Battlestar Galactica” and even Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” A pastiche? Please — Cronin is trading derivatives so fast and furious he should be regulated by the SEC. But who cares? It’s alive!

That last sentence is where I part ways with Mr. Charles. This book is not alive. It’s so boring and unimaginative as to be dead on the table. If I wanted to read a well-rendered and chilling vampire novel, I’d read Salem’s Lot. If I wanted a futuristic, post-apocalyptic vision of the world, I’d read The Stand or Cloud Atlas. If I wanted a boring supernatural saga with a strong but sexy female lead, I’d watch Battlestar Galactica (except I wouldn’t, because Battlestar Galactica sucks).

Let’s talk about how badly Cronin rips off The Stand, in particular, in case you’re not convinced yet. Here are the main elements Cronin lifted wholesale from Stephen King’s masterpiece:

  • Government-created super virus with fun nickname kills everyone in America and the rest of the world;
  • Survivors of virus experience dreams of forces of good and/or evil as embodied by a good woman and an evil man;
  • Survivors escape to the Western United States, including Colorado and Las Vegas, of all places; and
  • Elderly African-American woman, aged 108, delivers homespun wisdom.

When one considers these elements together with the fact that The Passage is a vampire novel (because we don’t have enough of those already!), one starts to wonder if there is anything original in this book at all.

2. The historical details, including the characters’ vernacular, are bizarre and inconsistent.

The book opens in 2018, when the US government is testing the vampire super virus on death row prisoners (as you do) and then fast forwards 100 years, after the experiment has inevitably gone awry and vampires are roaming the Earth. The story’s Mother Abigail clone, Ida “Auntie” Jaxon, is now 108 years old. That means she was eight years old in 2018, which would mean she was born in 2010. We learn that she’s from Philadelphia. Okay. So first question: how many babies born in 2010 are named Ida? More importantly, how many babies born in 2010 who grew up in urban Philly would say things like the following:

“Folks call me Auntie, on account of I never could have no children of my own, and I guess that suits me fine.”

“There were other trains, I do believe.”

“I’d been sick myself so it scared me about out my skin when she told me this.”

AND SO ON. Let’s give Cronin the benefit of the doubt and assume that Ida somehow picked up her old-timey, vaguely Southern vernacular from her parents. Even with a generous reckoning, assuming Ida’s mother gave birth to her when she was forty, her mother would have been born in 1970. What person born in 1970s Philadelphia says stuff like “I do believe” and “suits me fine?” It’s like Cronin got so caught up in recreating King’s Mother Abigail, who was supposed to have been born in Nebraska at the end of the 19th century, that he lifted her patterns of speech and transplanted them onto the character of Ida for no other reason than that they are both elderly black women.

Another inexplicable and weird vernacular thing I noticed: instead of using normal curse words, the characters say “Flyers!”. This is never explained.

I only have one question: WHY?

3. The dialogue is painful.

Just trust me on this one.

4. The plot is repetitive and boring.

The characters nearly get killed by vampires — but barely squeak by! — every. single. chapter. There are also long, plodding descriptions of where the characters are walking and what, exactly, they are thinking about as they walk. The characters are so dull as to be forgettable, and I found myself rooting for them to all be eaten by vampires. Also, did I mention this book is a million pages long?

*****

Perhaps alone, each of these issues would have been surmountable. But together, they added up to a book that I couldn’t truck with, and thus The Passage has been relegated to the proverbial dustheap of my Kindle. Have you read The Passage? Did you like it? I’m curious to hear if other people were as bothered by it as I was. If you haven’t read it, save yourself some time and pick up The Stand instead. You’re welcome.

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