If you haven’t heard about this book, you will soon. It will be adapted for film. It will cost a lot and be heavily marketed. It will either become the greatest movie in the genre since 28 Days Later or the most fantastically incoherent mess since Tom Hanks’ Da Vinci Code.
Apocalyptic is the favoured genre of our age. There may be a collective prophesy in there, who knows? I once heard Terry Eagleton speculate that our appetite for the zombie/vampire/end of the world scenario is driven by the fact that we are in fact the living dead- unable to countenance any reason to live bigger than our own living. There may be something in that. I once read Caitlin Flanagan muse that the Twilight scenario was a post-feminist anti-body reversion to patriarchy. I can’t tell you if that holds water.
But what I do know is that an apocalyptic novel is easy to get off the ground. Think of World War Z. It is exhilirating for the first half. Then it becomes a proto-psychopathic excursus through the nerdy details of what kind of gun to use if the other kind of gun has run out of ammo. It is easy to get these novels off the ground and much harder to keep them going.
Coupland manages it in Girlfriend In A Coma by translating the apocalypse into a spiritual quest. That reveals something else about the genre- everywhere it goes, if it wants to get anywhere it has to admit spirituality into its domain.
This is most clear in what I think is the most successful apocalyptic novel I’ve read: Stephen King’s The Stand. It is nothing but a dark retelling of Christianity. Its spiritual themes are barely hidden as the virus that separates the wheats from the tares run rampant. But even it ends with a fizzle, albeit in the guise of an atomic light.
In The Passage, Justin Cronin manages to craft an apocalyptic tale without reference to the supernatural. This is not unique, but it is admirable. Those of us with a low tolerance for fantasy are not deterred as in the first 200 pages the yarns is spooled taut, prepared for spinning. That this tale free from supernature is thoroughly informed by the Scriptures (Cronin was a student of Marilynne Robinson after all) is the icing on the cake for this reader. The pacing is curious, because the plot is actually not centre stage. This is a summer page-turner about the end of the world that is driven by character development. That alone is almost unnerving as the plot.
It is volume I of a trilogy. It is gripping and it is complex and it is satisfying. At almost 800 pages long, it will fuel plenty of lazy summer reading sessions. And in its main characters, a six year old girl and young man, it might just have enough to keep your interest through the next two books without reverting to deus ex machina and a cheap “Lost”-style ending.
A sample quotation from a stunning scene inside a zoo:
Three bears were basking in the sun, lounging like gigantic rugs by a fire; a fourth was paddling in the water. While Amy and Lacey watched he swam right up to them and, fully submerged, bumped his nose on the glass. The people around her gasped; a jolt of pleasurable fear shot down Lacey’s spine, into her feet and fingertips. Amy reached out and touched the sweating glass, inches from the bear’s face. The bear opened his mouth, showing his pink tongue.
“Careful there,” a man behind them warned. “They may look cute, but to them you’re just lunch, little girl.”
Startled, Lacy turned her head, searching for the source of the voice. Who was this man, to try to scare a child like that? But one of the faces behind her returned her look; everyone was smiling and watching the bear.
“Amy,” she said softly, and put her hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Perhaps it’s best not to tease them.”
Amy seemed not to hear her. She leaned her face closer to the glass. “What’s your name?” she asked the bear.
“There now, Amy,” Lacey said. “Not so close.”
Amy stroked the glass. “He has a bear name. It’s something I can’t pronounce.”
Your Correspondent, His day is not getting any younger