Ballantine Books, 2010. 784 pages. $27
Justin Cronin’s third novel hardly needs another reviewer’s comments. At time of writing, his book stands at #14 on the New York Times Bestsellers List, having been on the List for 8 weeks. I bought into the hype and bought the book the day it came out, devoured it in 3 days, and passed it on to my dad to read. Not because I necessarily recommended it, but because my disappointment was so pronounced that I needed another person’s opinion to offset my own.
By way of disclaimer, Cronin is a professor in my department at Rice, though I’ve never met him. The week before The Passage came out, the Houston Chronicle had a long write up about it, and Cronin held a book signing at a local bookstore. I didn’t go to it because I was too busy reading the book. By now, you probably know the plot: it’s Stephen King meets Michael Crichton. Well meaning but misguided scientist unleashes super-human “virals” into the world. Of course they find the viral thing in the jungle. Of course the situation gets out of control. Of course there’s a middle-aged lonely man who’s caught in the middle of it and tries to make it right. Only to fail miserably.
To Cronin’s credit, the first 250 pages are gripping, fast-paced, and exciting, despite the well-used plot gimmick. There are cutesy references to Texas (Jenna Bush is governor) and the characters are interesting. Then, like a train heading off a cliff, Cronin slams on the brakes.
Fast-forward 100 years. Post-apocalyptic society. World building.
Cronin’s novel has been praised as a blend of literary novels and genre fiction, as if to say that genre fiction writers can’t write. I’ll pass over the thinly veiled snobbery of that last assumption only to say that Cronin’s editor should have taken a red pencil to the middle of the manuscript and chopped it to bits. Cronin’s novel is planned as the first part of trilogy, but that doesn’t mean that he needs to spend 200 pages talking about nothing. Keeping up the fast pace of the first third in the middle would have made this a stronger book, and killed less trees in the meantime.
I don’t dislike long books; I read Clarissa last summer, and loved all 1500 of its micro-font wonderfulness. Still, I think a summer blockbuster needs to be aware of its audience. Less is more.
I’ll probably be reading the second book of the trilogy when and if it comes out. But I’ll buy it used.