Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A "Passage" worth reading

I finished Justin Cronin's novel "The Passage" yesterday, to coincide with his sole Seattle bookstore signing.  That pairing gives me a chance to comment on both - the work and the marketing.  The more time I spend looking into the marketing and selling of the book, the more I see the business-side as an artisanal sausage-making job.  A whole lot more mystery still goes into properly writing and crafting the reason for the selling.  But they're obviously both part of the gig.

Most importantly, "The Passage" is a grand, impressive hunk of work.  My rating - a hard-earned A-minus.  The plot is apocalyptic, the monsters are unleashed by our own stupidity, and they are quite a bundle of trouble.  But the heroes are why you'd choose to come along for a nearly 800-page ride.  The writing is lyrical in places, the action is described with lean, strong prose, and you come to know his characters almost immediately.  All those things are incredibly tough to do, but Cronin just piles it on and on until you don't want this volume to leave it where you know it must be lain as you near the approaching back cover.  Which leads to my only reason for not ticking up my rating that last notch - this big ol' hunk of dead tree is just the first of three grandly planned books.  Cronin said last night that the next two will be published in the summers of 2012 and 2014.  Accordingly, the ending of this book seems like a bit too much of a cliffhanger.  The resolution will not allow the book to stand alone.  So for anyone that reads it, likes it very much, but just wants to move on to feast upon the millions of other writers out there...well, they're going to be disappointed.  Call it obligatory fiction.  Once you start, you just can't stop.  That being said (and it is far from the most important thing to say about this giant kegger of a brain party), this novel will find a massive audience of eager fans.  I asked Cronin whether he was already encountering people quoting back to him the mythology he's created (perhaps too cleverly I termed them "gestational Trekkies", even though my geek side knows they prefer "Trekkers").  He answered with the joking question of "what have you heard" and followed through with a colleague's comment about painful doctoral dissertations to come on the world he's created.  Let's hope not.  I know he was joking.  But people will certainly squish and squeeze this work to fit their own contorted desire to attribute far grander provenance to something that is basically just a well-written story meant to entertain readers.  Vampire fans are probably good people, too.  I'll just be damned if I want to listen to them talk smack about greater truths to be drawn from such activity.

Which draws me what may seem far afield to mention a story I read this morning about Harper Lee - the reclusive author of "To Kill A Mockingbird".  Some enterprising Brit got her to agree to an extremely rare interview just prior to the 50th anniversary of her only book's publication.  The profile is fascinating.  Mainly because it shows that Harper Lee is just a person.  One whose sole offering of brilliance has become something far grander that she surely ever expected.  It might have stifled her.  Drove her to drink.  Pushed her into the full Salinger.  What was done with the lessons of her novel, however, seems to me to be the most fascinating.  By unleashing a conversation that you merely whisper to a reader, you don't know what they're going to then do with it.  That is the beauty and the power of the job.  And it can be an unruly bitch.  Maybe that sounds vague and half-baked.  But it makes sense to me.

So to finish up what I'd said earlier about seeing the marketing and selling of a book as an important thing to observe from Cronin's book, I can offer the smallest bits of anecdotal insight.  For my own benefit, probably, since I learn something from every author I meet.  I asked Cronin if he has the same agent for these books as he had for his two prior well-received but very modestly sold novels.  I was pleased to hear that he stuck with that person.  Somebody's got a nice place in the Hamptons this summer, if you know what I mean.  Aside from that, reading for an audience of readers is performance.  And all the little details mean a ton to the sort of folks that show up at these for fun.  Like how you notate your signature (Cronin chose his own creation from "The Passage" that served him well in both places - "All eyes.").  And how much you read (he went on a bit too long as observed by a crowd shifting in the seats well before he'd finished).  And whether you have personal connections with the crowd (a past student from Rice University where he's still on faculty came to ask a question, and Cronin remembered him by name).  In the end, I suppose the trick is to encourage folks to not only buy the book.  You want people to talk about it and tell others that they should look into it.  Duh.  Because Justin Cronin ain't going anywhere near Harper Lee territory - he'll be out there talking about this book and the movies Ridley Scott is prepping to make from them and the books to come for the next handful of years.  Along the way, we'll get to know a lot more about his monsters and the war humankind will fight against them.  And how he got to writing this story as a way to bond with his 8-year-old daughter while she rode her bike alongside him running, meant to showcase a girl who saves the world.  And whether humanity can once again be metaphorically forgiven for doing what we always do.

Wherever this trilogy goes, I think you should join in.  Unless you plan to write some sort of bad goth term paper on it.  In which case, you should read "To Kill A Mockingbird" and get outside for an afternoon.  Trust me, it will do you some good.  In either case.

1 comment:

Jon said...

Even though I internalized only a small fraction of what you wrote, I somehow still want to check out Cronin's novel. So, mazel tov I guess.