THUNDERTOME II: ROUND 4
SURVIVOR: anna karenina (leo tolstoy)*
CHALLENGER: the passage (justin cronin)
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.