Thursday, September 20, 2012
Genre fiction is, quite simply, fiction that fits inside a certain genre of story -- like science fiction, mysteries, romances, thrillers, horror and so on. The author's main purpose is to create a story pleasing to the people who like to read that sort of thing and to do it reasonably well. Although I've never heard an equally clear definition of literary fiction, I understand that most of it has to do with an author's intent to describe some aspect of the human condition -- sometimes through the narrative or sometimes through the use of the language itself -- and the story being told is not the main reason for the novel's existence.
The lines aren't always that clear. Some genre authors comment on the human condition within the boundaries of their own arena, and others are obviously paying as much attention to their use of language within that field as any literary author does. Dan Simmons, James Lee Burke, Robert B. Parker and some others are often recognized for the quality of their writing as for their yarn-spinnin' skills. Literary authors cross the bridge the other way, too. Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood and Michael Chabon, for example, have all written future dystopias or alternative history novels, usually a province of science fiction.
Justin Cronin's first two novels were strictly literary. His first, Mary and O'Neil: A Novel in Stories, won the Pen/Hemingway Award and the Crane Prize, two pretty distinguished honors in the literary field. It's got 42 customer reviews on Amazon the day I type this. The first novel in Cronin's vampire/post-apocalypse trilogy, The Passage, has almost 1,500. But as mentioned above, he's not the first literary author to make a move into genre or popular fiction.
The Passage tells of a world decimated by a plague that turns people into mutants that resemble the vampires of legend. It opens with the story of Amy, a six-year-old abandoned girl picked up by a government lab selecting subjects for experiments with a strange virus uncovered deep in South America. The initial virus promoted quick healing and made those exposed to it tough to hurt or kill. Experimentation has enhanced those factors, along with the strength of the people injected with it and even some of their mental powers. But they crave blood from mammals and other warm-blooded creatures, and when they escape, chaos swiftly follows. These "virals" kill many people but infect a small percentage, creating new monsters to join them. Amy escapes with the help of a sympathetic FBI agent, and the first section closes with her facing the new ruined world.
Cronin then switches to almost 100 years later, to a small city in California guarded by battery-powered searchlights at night. The virals shun light and even when they enter it they're slow-moving and much easier to kill. Peter, a young man living in the town, waits for his brother Theo to return as a viral, remembering the power station supply expedition in which Theo was taken. If Theo returns, Peter will kill the monster he has now become.
Over the next few weeks, the community's carefully-structured society begins to break down as strange influences creep into the minds of many of its people. Peter and several friends decide to travel to Colorado, accompanying Amy, now appearing to be an early adolescent and containing clues about the start of the virus -- and maybe how to stop it and defeat the virals themselves.
Much of The Passage is travelogue, as the company travels through what used to be the Western United States and deals with attacks by the mutants, the need to forage supplies and encounters with other uninfected communities. Peter is our source of reflection though his own musings on what he's seeing and learning, although we occasionally work through the senses and thoughts of some of the other characters. The problem is that the reflections are frequently repetitious, and many of the different scenes and events are themselves repeated: A character believed to have been lost is found again several times, for example. Careless storytelling is also common, such as telepathic vampire creatures that seem unaware of some important actions being planned by their human enemies. Such attributes make The Passage a slow slog, and don't inspire great desire to revisit this world in the next two books of the planned trilogy.
The ending, in more ways than one a middle finger upraised in the face of the audience, closed the book on any plans I had to finish out either next month's The Twelve or the projected 2014 conclusion to the series. Cronin may have got some of the blockbuster-novel writing technique down in slathering an undisciplined narrative over far too many pages, but he must have been absent on the "Don't tick off your audience before the series is done" day.