Monday, August 09, 2010

Wherein this Blogger Reviews Two Novels, one being 'The Passage" by Justin Cronin, and the other being "The Secret Speech" by Tom Rob Smith

Been reading a bit this summer. Just finished a couple books I thought I'd let you know about.

1.) "The Passage" by Justin Cronin. This was billed by some as the event book of the summer, none more vehemently than by Stephen King. He gave the slobberiest blurb for the dust jacket, called into 'Good Morning America' while Cronin was on to gush about the book, and hell, during my moment with the King during a book signing in November of last year, this was the book he told me to read, (not, as I first thought, "The Bastard" by John Crowley, which doesn't exist). So, massive doorstop in hand ("The Passage" is 1,000+ pages long), I was primed for a sweeping, "Stand"-esque post-apocalyptic vampire story that would wash away some of the residue of awfulness the 'Twilight' stories had deposited all over the popular culture. And though the book hasn't had a 'Twilight'-like cultural impact its publishers (or King) hoped it would, it compensates by being a pretty good novel.

For the first and best section, we follow a young girl named Amy while she's in the care of a wide and harrowing assortment of people. First her mother, than a nun, then an FBI agent whose own daughter died some years ago, and finally a secret project in the Rocky Mountains that's attempting to weaponize something that really shouldn't be weaponized. In short order, that which was contained within the mountain escapes, mere horror is loosed upon the world, and the world's population is quickly divided into 3 camps: the dead (most), the infected (plenty), and the survivors (very very few). That's about all I can tell you without giving you more information than you need to enjoy the book, but I will say that a lot of readers, including myself, found the 2nd section of the book to be a bit jarring.

Though "The Passage" is clearly intended for a wide readership with its horrific and energetically described violence, visual action sequences fit for a Tony Scott movie, and a big cast of identifiable likable characters, it is not without its own moments of prose-poem lyricism that seem more suited to a more staid "literary" novel, perhaps written by a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop (which Cronin happens to be). "The Passage" is long, and I like that Cronin takes his time when needed, particularly in the second section. I was disappointed that more practical considerations seemed to take precedence over his artistic motives as the third section unfolded. I felt like Cronin realized he'd lingered too long over the plot previously and now had to get things moving if he wanted to have the book wind up where he'd envisioned. The effect makes the fast-moving third section feel like a summer action pic, and, worse, a summer action pic that was rushed into production without a strong script.

The acknowledgments at the end seem to confirm my suspicions somewhat, as quite a few words are dedicated to thanking Ridley and Tony Scott and the fine folks at Scott Free productions for ... well, it's not clear what Scott Free did for "The Passage" pre-publication other than buy the movie rights, but I wonder. I like my novelists to keep on one side of a bright white line between their work and the films Hollywood sometimes makes from them, and including a 'thanks' to a production company in one's novel would seem to blur that line. I want the filmmakers to have to figure out how to adapt a novel into a movie, I don't want the novelist trying to tailor their book to make it more multiplex-friendly. The suspicion this may have happened is, I think, a reasonable one.

Which is not to say that part 3 of "The Passage" is lousy, because it's not, but it wasn't as nearly as impressive as the first parts, which is a shame. Two more books are set to follow this, so I'm hopeful Cronin will turn off his inner screenwriter and concentrate on putting out two novels that work best as novels and let Scott Free worry about adapting the stuff into good movies.

2.) The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith. The follow-up to Smith's brilliant debut novel, "Child 44", "The Secret Speech" has a lot to live up to, and for the most part, sadly, falls short.

Set in the Soviet Union shortly after Stalin's death, we are once again joined with former MGB Chekist (MGB was the precursor to the KGB), Leo Demidov who, with his wife Raisa, is now raising two girls orphaned when Leo's MGB team murdered their parents during the events of "Child 44". The horror that brought this family into existence continues into the fraught Demidov household. Though Leo has resolved, naively, to be a loving father to his adopted daughters to counterbalance the evil of what he did to their parents, 14-year old Zoya, the elder of the two daughters, is consumed with thoughts of vengeance against Leo. She sneaks into his room each night and places the edge of a kitchen knife to his throat, daring herself night after night to kill her adoptive father and avenge her parents. Soon, other ghosts from Leo's brutal past emerge to make Leo's life hell and the novel gets going.

With "The Secret Speech" Smith continues the ghastly tour of Stalin's USSR he began in 'Child 44'. In that book Smith showed how Stalin's MGB terrorized an entire society into submission by turning all citizens into informants: even a close friend was capable of sending an innocent person to the gulags; often, if they did not inform, it was they who were shipped off to Siberia to be worked to death. And though Stalin's notorious gulags are referenced in "Child 44", it isn't until halfway through "The Secret Speech" that Smith manages to steer the action into one of them. But the exigencies of the plot give us not a dramatized depiction of the gulag's horrors, a kind of airport-y distillation of Solzhenitsyn, which is what I'd hoped to read, but rather a fast-moving prisoner revolt inspired by the secret speech of the title. The day-to-day of the gulag is not explored here, which I found disappointing.

If "Child 44" read like a talented writer's bid to pen the thriller everyone would talk about for years, 'Secret Speech" reads more like the second book the author had to write to fulfill a contract. It's a page-turner, no doubt -- the short, snappy sentences and short, snappy chapters make the pages seem to turn of their own volition -- but this fast pace may be "The Secret Speech's" fatal flaw. Smith's engineered this thing to move so quickly that "Child 44"'s moral fog and pungent atmosphere of dread -- novelistic effects achieved only when the plot is allowed to slow down -- are almost entirely missing from this second novel in this series. The result is a story that vanishes from the imagination the instant the last page is turned.

Though I was disappointed with "Secret Speech", the quality of "Child 44" gives me room to hope that the third and, I would assume, final book in the Leo Demidov trilogy will exceed this installment.

No comments: