Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Passage, by Justin Cronin

What makes this the "go to" book of the summer? Why is this book the hyped product it is? A more perceptive question might be "why is this even a book?" I ask, because it reads like a recap of a television mini-series. That is not a compliment.

This monster book clocks in at over 800 pages on my nook, and at that is only the first of a projected trilogy. The book skips around to many stories. Ideally, this gives us multiple perspectives on the action; in reality, it just forces us to meet and attempt to care about a bunch of two-dimensional characters with all but predictable back stories who get killed.

Of course they get killed--it's a vampire book.

At least, it's a book which contains vampire-type former-humans. Sometime in the near future, a professor's wife died. So instead of trying to cure or prevent the disease that killed her, he chooses (as so many people do) to travel to South America and find a virus or immortality. Because that does--what does that do for him? I mean think about this for a couple of seconds. Professor Lear lost his wife, and he doesn't want that to happen again? Well, she's already dead and this doesn't bring her back. If Lear becomes immortal, then he would get to watch everybody he knows die--again, not really the outcome one would be looking for, given his back story. So, what if he finds the key to immortality, and makes humanity immune to death and disease--Paging Dr. Malthus. Dr. Malthus, please answer your page!

I mean sure, Harvard-trained medical personnel can be arrogant and oblivious, but surely this guy thought about this for a couple of seconds. I mean, he had to have filled out some paperwork to get a grant, right? Surely there was some time he had to fill out a form that asked him the purpose of his research, and simply saying "immortality" is not going to be enough.

But Cronin doesn't go beyond the glib armchair psychologist explanation to create anybody who might be a nuanced and recognizably human character. No, Lear has a dead wife in order to conduct the mad experiment so the book will have vampires. And in approved movie cliche fashion, the military gets involved. And all does not go well.

This fall into cliche is so disappointing, because Cronin started off with such delicacy and nuance. Two of the stories in the beginning of the book are heartbreaking and exquisitely crafted stories of desperate humanity that totally absorbed me.

In the first section, Cronin gives us a moving series of vignettes about a slipping down life--a young woman named Jeannette who had a brief affair with a traveling salesman and wound up a single mom. Without a high school education, Jeanette ended up working poorly paid jobs, forced to leave her daughter at home alone since she couldn't afford child care. Barely making it by working two jobs, she loses one when her co-workers find out she leaves her very very young child unattended. After losing that job, she can't keep up her rent payments, and ends up living in a crummy hotel and turning to prostitution to keep herself and her daughter fed and housed. A snotty frat boy picks her up, clearly intends to have her service the entire fraternity, won't take no for an answer, so she makes a (another) bad decision and pulls a gun to get away. Of course, she kills him, and that's all she wrote. Even Jeanette can see the writing on the wall.

So she goes back to the hotel, takes her little girl (named Amy) to a convent, and pretends that she's coming back in a couple of hours. Even at age 6-ish, Amy knows she's not coming back.

That was excellent writing--sensitive to the harsh realities of a life out of control, articulate about Jeanette's deep love for her daughter, and the cruel way life can turn out. So I had some real investment in this book, because Cronin had shown me what he could do--he quickly and deftly sketched the arc of a desperate life, capping it with the heart-breaking scene of a young girl who knew she had been abandoned.

But suddenly, we are reading a cryptic series of emails from Lear who is somewhere in South America on an expedition searching for something that isn't really explained. The military gets involved, and is doing some security for the academics, as well as having some hidden agenda that Lear isn't smart enough to pick up on. And here I was a little sceptical, but not yet jaded--because I knew this was a vampire book, but it was light-years from sparkly emo kids moping around the Forks High School. This was cynical--the military wasn't involved out of the goodness of their hearts after all. Vampires as super-soldiers! If you could get a rapid-healing immortal soldier, you wouldn't have to keep recruiting and training new soldiers! It would make warfare more cost efficient! As a reader, I was enjoying thinking about all the ways this could go bad--because really, there was no way that a clueless academic trekking through rain forests with military escort wasn't going to go wrong.

Then we get the story of Carter, a man on death row. Another desperate, slipping-down life with a hint of hope that is dashed. The scene where Carter meets the woman he is accused of killing is wry and smart about the toxic mix of race, sex and class. Carter is begging at a busy intersection in Houston (I think?), holding a sign that says something like "Anything will help, and God will bless you." A white woman in a shiny SUV pulls up and opens the window. Cronin deftly contrasts the blinding heat where Carter is standing with the cool interior of a leather covered SUV. But the woman can't find any cash in her purse, and is clearly at the end of her own emotional tether. She NEEDS to give this man some money because she NEEDS God's blessing.

As she continues to fumble, the traffic light changes, and the drivers behind her get impatient. Carter can see the disaster brewing: a poor black man talking to a rich white woman is not going to get the benefit of any doubt. And indeed, as soon as the first white male driver gets out of the car to investigate the delay, the cry goes up "That man is trying to carjack that woman! Get him!"

So much about the worst of our own instincts is in play in that scene, and yet everybody is not only recognizably human, but arguably trying to do the right thing. And yet it all goes so horribly wrong--the disaster is inevitable. It is Cronin's skill with these scenes that made me so excited about this book, and the fact that he abandons this excellent writing and substitutes "competent TV quality thriller writing" that so disappointed me about this book.

As the story develops, we learn that some Agency guys are recruiting death row inmates for the secret vampire/immortality experiment, and Carter is one of them. One of the Agency guys is losing his taste for this work, and completely loses it when he's sent to pick up a little girl--Amy. (Of course, he has to have a back story about losing his only child to a terrible disease, because without some sort of traumatic history like that he wouldn't be bothered by turning an orphaned six-year old over for military medical experimentation, right?) But Amy isn't just any little girl. Apparently she has some unexplained ability to talk to animals or something, and her first trip to the zoo results in animals escaping their cages trying to get close to her. And despite the fact that this is the first time she's ever been near animals, she knows what happened, and it has to do with "what I am." And this is BEFORE she gets injected with vampirism.

There are some nicely done touches about the progression of the American Security State, and some nice atmospherics in the Sooper Sekkritt military station in Telluride, but really the point is to get the vampires created and then loosed on the population. And poor, sad, little Amy with her Peter Rabbit stuffed animal for poignancy. How many Secret Military Vampires are there? There seem to be twelve (or "Twelve" for maximum Biblical resonance), although there is a subject "Zero" who might have been one of the scientists who originally went to Bolivia, and Amy as well, so fourteen?

The expected disaster happens, the nasty vampires get loose and turn every tenth victim into a minion vampire, exponentially decimating the population and increasing the number of vampires. Nuclear weapons are deployed. Amy and the Agency guy with a conscience ride out the first year of vampire mayhem in an abandoned camp in the Cascade Mountains. This allows Cronin to show us only glimpses of the massive upheaval caused by the vampire virus. The plot then skips ahead some 93 years into post-vampire apocalyptic society.

This is potentially a major problem, because once again, we are forced into learning about a whole bunch of new characters who are all likely to get killed off. Again. If not by the vampires this time, then by the fact that the technology that keeps their little enclave safe is starting to wear out. That and the nasty way small towns have of forcing people into too much intimacy. So in this section we get a narrative of WWII-style evacuation of the children, followed by post-apocalyptic social structure and survivalism, lightly seasoned with Sinclair Lewis social analysis. This is where I'm thinking Cronin must have watched Lost.

Events transpire, and it doesn't much matter what they are, but they result in a Small But Hardy Band of young people set out on a Quest, along with Amy. That Amy. Yup. Same one. Because remember when I said we were forced to learn about a whole bunch of new characters? We are, but we are also constantly meeting the old characters from the first third of the book. In fact, time after time, people disappear or die, only to pop up again later. Amy is the first one, but not the last.

[This gets so bad, that at one point Our Small Band of Heroes recognizes somebody, and I can't even remember who he is or why I should care about him. He was just one of the many many people who had disappeared earlier in the book, and I decided not to bother going back, since this time he died for real anyway.]

Do we care about the members of the Band of Heroes? There is the boring guy with mother issues who is the leader (one reviewer called him "as exciting as a Sears shirt model"--nice!); a weapons expert who happens to be female; a pregnant woman looking for her lost baby-daddy; a younger kid in silly sneakers (comic relief, I think, although he's not actually funny); a mechanical whiz who can fix anything; a nurse who's pining for the shirt model; some dude with a beard; and Amy, (who now looks to be about 15), the psychic vampire whisperer. And none of them really rise about their cliches. And once they are on The Road (with apologies owed to Cormac McCarthy), we get all the brilliance of cliffhanger TV writing.

Using old maps from pre-Vampire days, Our Heroes head out to Las Vegas. The experience is a West Coast sort of Planet of the Apes, where Cronin can show us the ruined remains of the landmarks we know, only less movingly, since who's going to get verklempt over a 1/2 scale Eiffel Tower with views of the airport?

Once in Los Vegas, they end up trying to find safety from the vampires who infest the city. So of course they don't go find a defensible industrial kitchen in the basement of a mega-casino hotel--you know, some place with limited entrances as well as bright lights that will keep the vampires away. No, instead they go up several floors to a large suite with floor to ceiling windows, because there's no way a vampire won't break in dramatically through the glass and snatch one of their number away.

Oh wait. That's exactly what happens.

Not only does it happen, but it happens as the climax to some emotional drama between members of the Band. Accusations, emotional conflict, resignation, resolution of the confl--oh no! Vampires! Our Heroes are lost, alone in the dark, almost certainly going to be attacked by swarms of vampires when--hello! What's this? A para-military vehicle with bright lights appears out of nowhere in the nick of time and scoops up Our Heroes, saving them from an almost certain death! I can see the way it would look on screen, because we've all seen it so many times: ominous situation, bright light appears out of the gloom, hazy figures moving behind the bright light. Are they friend or foe? Tune in tomorrow!

We go to a compound of several hundred people living in an old prison. They are all nice, and smile all the time, and all the women are pregnant. Our Heroes are convinced there is something off about this situation. Of course there is! There are old men, young girls and pregnant women--it's a polygamist outpost of LDS!

Well, maybe it is that too, but it turns out that it's also a sort of human farm for one of the original Twelve. Once a month, Babcock requires the people of The Haven to give him four cattle and two humans, and Babcock protects them from all the rest of the virals. It's a Faustian bargain, perhaps, but it's kept this group of humans alive for a hundred years.

Our Heroes have nothing but contempt for this system, of course. These people aren't human, they're collaborators! But wait a second--what gives them the right to any sort of moral high ground? Because within a few pages, they find the two humans being offered to Babcock are friends! One is the missing Baby-Daddy who is also the brother of Sears Shirt Guy! The other is somebody who I can't even remember who he was before he showed up here! So they move in with weapons and kill several of the Haven residents in order to save their own friends.

Let's do the math. Haven residents offer 2 humans (and 4 cows--does no one care about the cows????) in order to save the lives of the remaining hundreds=BAD. Heroes kill 2 humans in order to save their 2 friends=GOOD? I mean, one could have a principled belief that if Haven didn't have this arrangement, they would all have died a hundred years ago, and hundreds of people would never have been born. If the calculus is 2 lives versus 300 lives, clearly the Haven solution is not completely unconscionable. But instead of exploring the moral quagmire living in such a system entails, Cronin goes for the Captain Kirk/Star Trek level of moral examination and declares this is BAD and so anybody who gets killed in Our Heroes' escape deserved it anyway.

And just to heighten the melodrama, the 4 cows and 2 humans don't just get thrown outside the walls, or tied out by people who skulk away and refuse to examine their actions--which would force the reader into an examination of how far a human being will go to survive. No, that wouldn't be sufficiently cinematic. So Cronin writes up a sort of Thunder Dome, where all the hundreds of people of Haven stand around a rigged up Coliseum, chanting in unison and calling for blood. You're getting tired of me saying this, but we've seen this before!

But have we seen anything like when Our Heroes come down from the ceiling vents and throw a grenade, only to be tossed back by the explosion? Why yes, yes we have. It's like outrunning a fireball--good guys don't explode, no matter how close they are to the epicenter. It's all about the visual. Or how about the part where somebody tries to stop A Hero from disrupting the event, and so shoots--only to hit her in the leg, which doesn't slow her down at all? Bad guys = bad aim, check. Bad guy + bad aim + bad decision of not taking a second shot? Check, check and check. So Our Hero, only minimally slowed down by a bullet to the thigh, manages to rescue her Hero Boyfriend, maneuver through a stampeding crowd, climb onto a train that doesn't stop, and only later gets even a compress to stop the bleeding.

Oh yeah, notify the Nobel committee--because this is literature.

We've seen it--sure, it's competently written, and it's somewhat engaging, but it's kind of like Lost with blood-suckers instead of smoke monsters. Episode after episode of people trying to survive, facing various threats to their existence, salvaging what they can and trying to survive in the wild, with some added mumbo-jumbo to make the story seem larger.

I have a few questions about this sequence that are not answered.
  • Babcock and the dreams--Apparently, Babcock projects dreams about the woman he killed that got him onto death row back in the olden days. Somebody spends days and weeks trying to get Baby-Daddy replicate the murder in his own dreams: to pick up the knife and kill the fat woman the way Babcock had. He refuses to do so--and we're lead to believe that B-D was unique in his refusal to do dream-murder. Is this why he becomes one of the sacrifices? But the other sacrifice is also originally from the Colony--so why did the dream matter, since outsider status is apparently enough to make him the victim?
  • Why does the rebel leader trying to escape from Haven give a powder to Fix-It Guy when she takes him out to repair the escape vehicle? There is some discussion about how it will eliminate the fat lady dreams, but it's not like he was going to be sleeping anytime soon--he's supposed to be going to fix a train.
  • Sex with willing young women makes you immune to being a sacrifice? How do they find anybody who qualifies then? What are the selection criteria anyway?
Okay, now seriously? Seriously? Justin Cronin is going to have Our Heroes drive a car alongside a speeding train so they can jump into the engine? How many westerns have this scene, where somebody is trying to match the train speed by riding a horse? Same thing, only with a Hummer. I think I even remember something like this in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Then there is a Damsel in Distress who is too afraid to make the jump and gets dragged off by the virals? The technique is supposed to heighten the suspense--will Our Heroes suffer the same fate? The problem is that the damsel was actually a Star Trek red shirt. There was never any question that the Heroes were all going to jump successfully. I won't even mention the uncoupling of all the train cars, so that only the people in the engine survive, but I do have to mention the fact that hundreds of people just died BEFORE YOUR EYES and all Cronin does is give us a Bad Ass Action Figure Quip: "They were already dead, long ago."

Then, after all Our Heroes make the jump, the train manages to travel unimpeded for 400 kilometers on century old train tracks. Frankly, I find that unbelievable--nobody has been maintaining the rails for a century, and you get 400 kilometers without a popped spike, a silted over or decayed track that would cause a derailment? Oh, no, Cronin can't afford to have that kind of obstacle, because he's got to get his Heroes to Telluride before winter, and he needs them to cover that distance. But just in case that seemed too easy, he has one of the characters suddenly notice a hatch.

The dialog goes something like this:

Comic Relief Guy in Silly Shoes: Wow! We just escaped from a literal cloud of vampire virals with no losses of Main Characters and now we are ostensibly safe! Now we are going to abandon this train and head off on foot to the mountains. So of course, since it doesn't matter, I'm going to do something that I have no reason to do, and I'm going to notice that there is a hatch here on the underside of the train engine. Since I'm not the Fix-It Guy, I have never taken the least notice of anything remotely mechanical, and there is no reason I should notice this particular hatch. So I'm going to. What's that hatch?

Fix-It Guy: (shrugs) Don't know, don't care, doesn't matter because we are abandoning this train and going on foot to the mountains. But I happen to have a wrench if you are curious, although there is no reason you should be curious, especially after just narrowly surviving a cloud of vampires and sending hundreds of people to their gruesome deaths so we could escape.

Bad Guy (with gun pops out of the hatch): BOO!

This is literature? This is what an English professor with an MFA from Iowa actually put into his novel? A Bad Guy who jumps out of a hidden spot and kills one of them? I swear to god this is an exercise in how many TV Tropes Cronin could fit into one book. When will we get the "Cool Guys Don't Look At Explosions" scene?

Then we are back to the "Wagon Train West" storyline--eight people (about--it's hard to keep track of how many paper thin characters are on this journey) are headed on foot to Colorado. Cronin does some desperate vamping to account for the number of days this takes, until they inexplicably find a nearly intact farmhouse, where the Pregnant Lady and her Baby Daddy decide to go no further. I think there was a scene like this in Lonesome Dove, where two people separate, uncertain that they will ever see each other again in this life. You can imagine the mixed emotions on both sides--the people who are staying not certain if they will survive the coming Colorado winter, the ones traveling on not certain if they will come back this way again.

Cronin give us: Peter has a hissy fit that his brother didn't stand on the porch and watch them all the way out of sight.
A small thing, but it had seemed important to Peter that Theo remain where he was, standing on the porch, until the six of them were out of sight. But when Peter looked again, his brother was gone; only Mausami was there.

When the sun was high they stopped to rest.
That's it. That's the epic emotional scope. I guess Peter was wearing his whiny underpants that morning. Geez, the McKenzie brothers showed more genuine distress over separating in Strange Brew. Too bad I can't find a clip of that.

The book goes on. There is a Lost Garrison that feels like something lifted from Dances with Wolves and F Troop. Female Weapons Expert becomes a member of the military, hunting out nests of vampires, Fix-It Guy joins the motor pool, Nurse gives up pining for Sears Shirt Model and falls in love with Bearded Guy. Lots of meals eaten in the mess tent as winter approaches. Eventually, Sears Shirt Guy and Amy go alone to the mountain where the original experiments took place, and they find. . .Ancient Magic Black Woman who just happened to be the nun who took Amy in over a century ago. She can explain all the missing plot elements, plus she has both a vampire antidote AND a small nuclear bomb!

Our Heroes use both, and it turns out when you kill one of the original Twelve, all the vampires they created die as well! So now humanity can be saved if they only find the original Twelve (or Thirteen? How many were there--do we count Zero?).

But it might be less than Twelve. See, it's starting to occur to people that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to give vampire super-powers to homicidal maniacs. But Zero was a scientists, so maybe he's different? And Carter wasn't actually a murderer (it turns out), but a victim of "Texas justice." Plus, Female Weapons Expert got bit, got the antidote, and she's mostly still human but super strong, so maybe there's a cure? Except that Amy destroyed the other vials of antidote, so what was that all about?

And then Our Heroes all re-unite and head to Roswell, where the Lost Garrison winters. Even New Mom (formerly Pregnant Lady) and Baby Daddy leave their idyllic Little House on the Prairie existence and join them. And the book ends with the information that Nurse's journal was found at the site of the Roswell Massacre. Because there's got to be a cliff-hanger.

There are about four cliff-hangers, actually, none of which I find myself caring about.

In the end, this is a book I felt betrayed by, because of the bait-and-switch. If it had all been Lost, with Bloodsuckers I would have been less irritated, because I would have gotten a perfectly serviceable summer thriller. I tend not to read many of those, but there is definitely a place for well-executed adventure novels. But when it started out as so much more, I was fooled into expecting that I was getting something really wonderful--like maybe a Michael Chabon-level genre-bender: the Kavalier and Clay of vampire novels. As it is, I got something that will doubtless be incredibly successful, but ultimately fails to live up to the promise I had been lead to believe would be there.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver

Is there a particularly rich seam of YA fiction available just now? Because on the heels of 13 Reasons Why and When I Reach You I met this book, which also struck me powerfully.

Snarkily billed as Groundhog's Day meets Mean Girls, this is the story of Sam Kingston, one of the "it" girls of her high school. She has three Very Best Friends, is dating the "it" boy, and has decided to sleep with him the evening of "Cupid Day"--a version of Valentine's Day. It is not a spoiler to say that she dies, however--the prologue explains it. The first chapter chronicles the last day of her life, before she knew it was going to be the last day.

As one of the popular girls she describes herself and her friends as (paraphrasing here) "we laugh too loud, we play too hard" but she feels that she's living life to the fullest. She goes through the day collecting Cupid Day roses, and goes to the Big Party that night. Her boyfriend drinks too much, which turns her off and she goes home with her friends. On the way home, they are in a car accident, but she wakes up the next morning in her own room. Sam is surprised, since she doesn't remember anything after the accident--and then she finds out its Friday. Again.

Oliver does a nice job of taking us through each of the next seven reiterations of "Cupid Day" without repeating--she gives us several events that serve as signposts so we know where in the day things happen. Yet Sam doesn't just repeat the day--for several days she tries to avoid the accident, including by not even going to the party at all. However, while she is safe, she finds that another girl in her class has committed suicide that night--and she still wakes up on Friday morning.

The lessons Sam has to learn are not anything new--appreciate your family, your actions affect other people, sometimes the right boy is NOT the boy you think it is. Oliver delivers these lessons in a way that makes them feel like Sam is really learning them for the first time, and the repeated day allow us to see all the ways Sam might have become a different girl based on her choices on that single day.

I really enjoyed this book, as it is clever, well written, and offers an unsentimental look at a believable teenager and her life. At the same time, Oliver deftly sketches out the better human being Sam could have become, and actually does become, if only for a few hours on the last day of her life. Thought provoking and worth a look.