Thursday, July 15, 2010

Soon to be a major motion picture: Dispatch #1 from the vacation front

I've done a little of this and a little of that but mostly I spent the first few days of my vacation reading The Passage by Justin Cronin. I finished it last night. Well. It's an okay story, written okay. It more or less kept my interest. This novel is very very much like a Stephen King novel, minus most of King's irritating tics like the annoying fake-folksy colloquialisms clogging up the dialogue, the ubiquitous italics, the constant product placement. So okay, there's that to its credit. But there's also all this, straight out of the Stephen King School of Fine Literature: an ancient/wise/magical Black woman. Another ancient/wise/magical Black woman. A Black man portrayed as dimwitted, childlike, described in one place as eating the way a dog eats, in others as confused and humble and grateful and you get the picture. A pale glowing mystical immortal savior-of-humanity white child. An FBI agent who is a fine, wonderful fellow with a conscience (although, granted, it only kicks in after he's helped destroy a dozen or so hapless death-row denizens) and a heart full of love. A deep, dark, gate-of-hell region where the secret that will lead to the near-destruction of humankind is first found--in, what, you think it would be in Dubuque or Paris or London--no, you big silly, it's in the scary mysterious interior of Bolivia.

Then there's Cronin's depiction of what we at first think might be the only surviving outpost of people, nearly a century after the vampiric cataclysm, of its inhabitants, how they've organized their little enclosed society and then their heroic little band that sets off on its crucial epic quest. I've complained before about the stupefying lack of imagination most post-apocalyptic dystopian stories display, and The Passage is no exception. Somehow, in all these books, no one in the future has come up with any better way of organizing society, even though it was the old social system that created the whole mess they find themselves in. Wait, that's not fair, for there is here only scant evidence of the profit drive and resultant material inequalities; in a society with no surplus, there is a certain cooperation with regard to food and shelter and other basic needs, which I'm glad Cronin allowed into the narrative. My beef is with the hidebound social relations. For example, there's a creepy high body with supreme power, composed of patrilineal descendants of the "first families." Women can serve, but when a woman marries she automatically becomes part of her husband's family, so any woman with a First Family seat is either representing her husband's family or destined to lose her seat once she marries. And yes, they pretty much all get married. And fulfill typical roles like nurse and teacher. There is at least one great female warrior but there's not a man anywhere doing anything but What Men Do.

In case you were wondering, FutureWorld is hetero all the way. I guess all of my kind were wiped out, weak links that we are, and somehow not another same-sex lover or gender-crosser has been born in the ensuing 95 years. Hey, is this book sponsored by the Mormon Church? Not so farfetched, given the Twilight series. ...

Structurally, this big fat bestseller tried my patience. Perhaps it's because I rarely read these sorts of stories, but I can't remember the last time I found myself thinking, 'oh this scene will work well on the big screen.' Which is fine, I guess, that cinematic sort of plotting, but it struck me as overdetermined. Not quite formulaic, but close to it. I mean, our brave little band would be trudging through the high country of the Southwest, finding shelter here, eating squirrels there, and the pacing was so predictable that at a certain point I'd just know that when I turned the page they'd stumble upon a nest of Virals. Or tumble into a human-laid trap. Or be taken in by another group of survivors who Are Not What They Seem. And so on, until the last page whose last line might as well have been To Be Continued, so obviously does the tale end with a cliffhanger.

For all my carping, why did I plod on and finish the damned thing? For one thing, because I'd bought it with the last of my holiday-present bookstore gift certificate, and I couldn't stand to have wasted it. And because it was, if not stay-up-all-night engrossing, at least diverting. It helped me empty my mind out as I entered into vacation mode. Now I've nary a thought in my head, a deeply to be desired and difficult to attain state.