SURVIVOR: anna karenina (leo tolstoy)*
CHALLENGER: the passage (justin cronin)

randall flagg

after all that talk of beach reading for our trip to iceland back in march, i packed predictably:** i ended up burning the midnight oil in reykjavik with a massive advance reader's edition of justin cronin's the passage, thanks to a friend who knows of my fondness for vampires, apocalypses, and vampire apocalypses.

cronin, an iowa writers' workshop grad and the author of an award-winning collection of interconnected stories and a novel about a fishing camp in maine, was instructed by his daughter to "write about a girl who saves the world;" less than overwhelmed, perhaps, by the revenues generated by collections of interconnected stories and novels about fishing camps in maine, he wrote about vampires. more precisely, he wrote about an unscrupulous military research project which zaps hardened criminals' thymus glands and (instead of just making them more or less immortal, makes them immortal and) turns them into vampires. for reasons which are never made especially clear, the project's final subject is not a murderer/rapist plucked from death row but amy, a keane waif from iowa whose desperate mother dumps her off with a magical nun. instead of turning her into a twelfth slightly-phosphorescent killing machine which lopes across the country unzipping hapless victims' rib cages like so many bananagrams carrying cases, amy's tweaked thymus turns her into an insufferable child messiah/vampire whisperer who's inexplicably irresistible to government employees such as her kidnapper, fbi agent brad wolgast, a good man haunted by his deeds.

still with me? now it's ninety years later, the beast is loose in the streets of bethlehem, the rats are in the corn, and nearly everyone has long since been bananagrammed. survivors have walled themselves into first colony, a fort which they defend from the "virals" with bright lights and off-putting new social conventions. children born in the fort, for example, are separated from their parents at birth and supervised by guards and caretakers who refer to them as "littles." the fortified-nursery strategy is a perfectly sound one, but "littles" - look, i have dear friends who love and have used the term often and affectionately in non-vampire-apocalypse contexts for years. i'm the daughter of an art history major, "littles" as a term for children takes me straight to the terrifying baby-men who hang with the virgin mary in medieval art, and it creeps me out. know what else was all over the place in the fourteenth century? the black death, and there's a lesson in that. i think we can differ in our feelings about various terms and remain respectful of one another, but don't come crying to me with your buboes, is what i'm saying.***

sister lacey the magical nun is approximated in the fort portions of the story by ida "auntie" jackson, the sole survivor of a convoy of children dispatched decades upon decades ago to escape the virals' assault. sympathetic readers see her cryptic nattering and mysterious tea preparation as a tip of the hat to mother abigail in stephen king's the stand; i decided cronin's a shoplifter long before i got to auntie's uncharming repartee, and i have little patience for characters like her as expository devices anyway. ditto for alicia "starbuck" donadio, a tough-as-nails (hot) maverick soldier type whose bravado endangers the colony. how can i be expected to believe cronin isn't simply exploiting sci-fi and horror fans when he populates his story with other writers' characters?

the passage is a page-turner, make no mistake; cronin delivers some fine action sequences, his highbrow petticoat peeps out regularly in his (non-vampy-death-scene) descriptions, and his plotting is tight. i had a grand old time reading about the end of the world late at night at the hotel borg. that said, i genuinely love some of the houses at which he's trick-or-treating,; going forward (like deborah harkness's a discovery of witches, the passage is the first installment in a trilogy****), i expect substantial proof that he isn't simply in the neighborhood for the sugar.

VICTOR: anna karenina; how does one say "bananagrammed" in russian?

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 how old will cronin's daughter be when she's allowed to read the passage?

02 is it even possible for military medical experiments to be a good idea?

03 who determined that suspenseful horror-novel killings should sound like someone removing a windbreaker and eating a fruit salad in the next room?

04 do medieval baby-men bother you?

05 have you read and/or seen the stand?

06 is being a page-turner an excuse for lack of originality?

07 why do you think cronin wrote the passage?

08 can you forgive me for that weird halloween conclusion? not sure what happened there.

*previous battle here.

**i read zeitoun when we were in montreal this past fall; i was better about not waking joe up and reading him the especially depressing parts this time.

***full disclosure: i call chuck our little bubo.

****per interviews, this is the road novel; the sequel will be spytastic, and the finale will be all-out war, man.


Amanda said...

01 Twelve
02 No
03 Steve. The answer's Steve, right?
04 When they do I tell them to go fuck themselves
05 Not allowed
06 I can't believe you'd even ask me that
07 I heard he was instructed by his daughter to "write about a girl who saves the world"
08 When I see a sour-patch kid I call it a sour-patch kid

Rachel (heart of light) said...

I just love your new term bananagrammed. Will need to start incorporating that somehow.

kidchamp said...

06 i granted that dispensation to sense and sensibility and sea monsters last year. it was, admittedly, a bit shady.
07 if that's truly the case, he should be poaching from buffy the vampire slayer. everyone's daughter needs to be in on that. 

@Rachel note that if you bananagram someone during a game of banagrams you run the risk of creating a black hole of awesome. be on your toes.

Milkmaid's dumb friend said...

0?: Twenty armed men with a priest at their head, bearing a crucifix, entered and captured the ghoul, which, thinking to escape by the stratagem, had transformed itself to the semblance of a well known citizen, but was nevertheless hanged, drawn and quartered in the midst of hideous popular orgies.  The citizen whose shape the demon had assumed was so affected by the sinister occurrence that he never again showed himself in Amiens and his fate remains a mystery. –from “Ghoul, n.” The Devil’s Dictionary

kidchamp said...

hey, i would almost certainly shun the flesh of the dead.

Rachel (heart of light) said...

Okay, so I suspected you were the person most likely to have brought this book to my attention, but I couldn't find this post! I enjoyed it enormously, despite the borrowing. It ended up feeling like a mish-mash of various genres and books but I was okay with that. And it was incredibly fun to go into it with NO IDEA what it was about. 

01. I'm guessing 12. It's scary, but no worse than what I was reading at that age (my mom told the bookstore clerk that her daughter loved Agatha Christie and the clerk enthusiastically recommended Patricia Cornwell. Because pyschologically disturbed serial killers are basically the same thing as upper class british people politely poisoning each other over cocktails). 

02. Only in novels, in which case they are one of my very favorite tired plot devices. I'm a sucker for medicine gone wrong. 

05. Nope

06. I was okay with it because it had enough re-mixing going on that it kept it from feeling too tired. It felt more like an fan appreciation novel than a wholesale lifting. Granted, I haven't read many of the original sources. 

P.S. - I agree that Amy is absolutely insufferable. What is up with that? And it sounds like the second book is going to feature her heavily, so I'm apprehensive.