By Charles Matthews

Sunday, October 10, 2010

3. The Passage, by Justin Cronin, pp. 55-92

The PassageI. The Worst Dream in the World, 5-1 B.V., Four-Five
Lacey Antoinette Kudoto, the nun with whom Jeanette left Amy, believes that she hears the voice of God and that it's telling her something about Amy. Jeanette has left a note in Amy's backpack: "I'm sorry. Her name is Amy. She's six years old." Amy "had a way of neither looking nor speaking, of being alone with herself even in the presence of another person, that Lacey had never encountered. ... When the girl did this, it was as if she, Lacey, were the one who vanished." She tries to get the child to open up to her by playing a game of telling secrets: Lacey's is that once as a child she ran away from home but came back before anyone knew she was gone. But the only secret Lacey can elicit from Amy is, "I don't think she's coming back."

Lacey calls the police to report the abandoned child, but they suggest that since the weekend is coming up she keep Amy with her. They'll report the incident, put out a description of Jeanette, and enter Amy in the database of missing children. They can call Child Protection if she wants, but Lacey decides she'll do it herself. She is alone at the convent, having stayed there because she was getting over a cold, while the other sisters worked at the Community Pantry. When they return, Lacey lies about Amy, telling them that she was watching the girl for a friend who has gone to visit a sick relative in Arkansas. Sister Arnette, who seems to be in charge of things, disapproves but agrees that Amy can stay in their spare room until Monday. The other nuns are more welcoming, and go to buy food, clothes and toys for the girl.

When she gets ready for bed, Amy asks if she has to sleep in the bathroom, which puzzles Lacey. That night, Lacey dreams that she is a girl again in Sierra Leone and that she is hiding from "men who sounded like soldiers but weren't dressed like soldiers, who swept the ground before them with the barrels of their rifles." Just as one of the men is about to discover her, she wakes up in terror. She is startled to find Amy standing in the doorway. The girl says nothing, but Lacey takes her into her bed. "Her body was giving off waves of heat -- not a fever, but nothing ordinary, either. She was glowing like a coal." Amy tells her that she wants to stay, but Lacey realizes that she is going to have to tell Sister Arnette the truth: "by lying about Amy, she had wrapped their fates together.

Then Amy says, "I won't tell anyone. Don't let them take me away." But when Lacey asks who, Amy is silent. Lacey spends the rest of the night wide awake.

Wolgast and Doyle are on the road in Louisiana, north of "the Federal Industrial District of New Orleans." The city has been destroyed by hurricane Vanessa, a Category 5 hurricane that happened a few years after Katrina, with "180-mile-per-hour winds, pushing a storm surge thirty feet tall." What used to be the city is now "a giant petrochemical refinery, ringed by flooded lowlands so polluted that the water of its fouled lagoons could melt the skin right off your hand." The workers at the refinery are housed in a vast, crime-filled slum of trailers known as the N.O. Housing District, "radiating outward for ten miles in all directions." Even airplanes are not allowed over the area; the skies are patrolled by fighter jets.

The Interstate highways now have checkpoints on them at various places, and Wolgast and Doyle have to go through one at the Mississippi border. They are patrolled by heavily armed guards wearing Kevlar vests, and there are long lines waiting to be cleared through. Wolgast shows a young guard their FBI ID's so they can be waved through quickly, but his eagerness to move on attracts the attention of another guard who points his weapon at them. The first guard cools him down, and they are sent ahead to a station to be cleared: "everybody was on a centralized system now, their movements tracked." The Homeland Security officer even knows that they had been booked on a flight to Denver, so he needs to check on that. Wolgast tells him, "We were redirected to Nashville to pick up a federal witness." When they return to their car, Doyle asks him why he said Nashville, when in fact they're going to Memphis. Wolgast explains that he knew this was the last checkpoint before Nashville, "so the system won't know we never went there." They can make their pickup in Memphis and, by using several unchecked detours, make their way through Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas on their way to Colorado, where Sykes can arrange their clearance further.

Their mission has been spelled out in the message from Sykes:
Caucasian female. Amy NLN. Zero footprint. 20323 Poplar Ave., Memphis, TN. Make pickup by Saturday noon latest. No contact. TUR. Sykes. 
TUR: travel under radar.

Lawrence Grey works as a "sweep" in the Colorado facility supervised by Sykes and Richards. Grey is puzzled by the behavior of Subject Zero, who hasn't eaten for six days and moves only when Grey isn't watching. He doesn't know what Zero is, other than that he is "sort of human," with two arms, two legs, a head with ears, eyes and mouth, and even "something like a johnson." But he also glows much brighter on the infrared scans than a normal human heat source would. His body is hairless, "smooth and shiny as glass," and it looks like his "skin was stretched over lengths of coiled rope." His eyes are "the orange of highway cones" and he sheds his teeth, as many as half a dozen daily. They were as "long as the little swords you'd get in a fancy drink." Grey's job is to sweep them up every day and incinerate them. With those teeth, Zero could "unzip a rabbit and empty it out in two seconds flat."

For Grey, Zero is somehow more unnerving than the other "glowsticks" (or "sticks"), as they're called. Grey had been working on Level 4 for six months and has come to know the differences among them: Number Six is shorter, Number Nine more active, "Number Seven liked to eat hanging upside down and made a goddamn mess," and "Number One was always chatting away, that weird sound they made, a wet clicking from deep in their throats that reminded Grey of nothing." Zero is creepier because he seems to pay more attention to the observers behind the glass. Grey has to put on a biohazard suit and enter the room occupied by Zero, who has been enclosed behind bars, to clean up or deliver the rabbits Zero eats.
Even now, a wall of glass two inches thick between them and Zero hanging so that all Grey could see was his big glowing backside and spreading, clawlike feet -- Grey could still feel Zero's mind moving around the dark room, trolling like an invisible net.
Grey lives in a barracks along with other civilian workers. He is saving up his pay, which is comparable to what he made working on an oil rig, in an offshore account arranged for him. He pays no taxes. He plans to work at the facility for a couple of years longer and move someplace far away. He's forty-six and a smoker, and his father died just before turning sixty, so Grey figures he has only about ten years left to live. He's unable to leave the facility, which he figures from the license plates he's seen is in Colorado. The TV in the facility is censored: no news channels or even MTV or E!, and the commercials are blue-screened out.

He doesn't know how he has been selected for the job: He had been out of work for a year when he was called in for the interview. They knew about his record as a sex offender: Grey takes drugs, including Depo Provera, that amount to chemical castration. And they were pleased when he told them he had no family and no friends, and didn't even know his neighbors. He was flown to Cheyenne where he was met by Richards and put into a van with two other men, Jack and Sam -- they were told only first names were allowed. Along the way, Grey needed to urinate so badly that he finally persuaded Richards to stop and let him out, but he discovered that he would have been shot if he had used the occasion to escape.

 Lying in bed, Grey thinks about Jack and Sam, who had left the facility even though they had to stay a year or forfeit the money they made, so Grey volunteered for a double shift. He thinks about Zero, whose vital signs are monitored by a chip in his neck. His heart rate stays at a constant 120 beats per minute. [Normal human heart rate is 60-100.] He seems to Grey to be always awake, or like a cat: "A cat sleeping on a step wasn't really sleeping. A cat sleeping on a step was a coiled spring waiting for a mouse to totter along. What was Zero waiting for?"

Unnerved by his thoughts about Zero, Grey uses a relaxation technique the prison psychiatrist taught him to fall asleep. He dreams are based on memories of being caught in a sex act -- it's unclear whether it's masturbation or a homosexual act -- with his cousin Roy and being beaten with a belt by his stepfather, a man named Kurt, who seems to have sexually abused him. The six-year-old Grey had found his real father dead of a gunshot wound in his truck on a snowy morning. In Grey's dream, throughout which a voice is calling out to him, the snow turns to rabbits like the ones eaten by Zero. The rabbits "knew what he had done, not to Roy but to the other ones, the boys with their knapsacks walking home from school." And then Zero takes over the dream. Grey "opened his mouth to scream but no sound came."

Richards is awake, playing a computer game. He thinks about the escalation of terrorism since 9/11: "now the war was everywhere, metastasizing like a million maniac cells run amok across the planet, and everyone was in it." Richards had joined NOAH at its inception five years earlier, contacted by Cole, who called it "the new Manhattan Project" or even bigger. Cole was dead now, and only three people had survived the expedition, "not counting Fanning, who was already on his way to being ... well, what?" The site, and any other survivors, would have been obliterated by the missile that was fired at it. Fanning is "locked away" and Lear is at the facility in Colorado.

The secret that underlies the facility is a virus that promotes VSA -- Very Slow Aging -- by restoring "the thymus gland to its full and proper function." Lear had hypothesized in his early papers that it had extended human life and physical vigor "at select moments, throughout human history." Richards thought of it as "vampire stuff." The speculation was that the legend was based in fact, and that if it could be discovered and manipulated it could be used for good. The Bolivian excursion had been an encounter with the virus in its uncontrolled form and its only survivors were Lear, Fanning, a soldier and a grad student named Fortes. Lear had been brought into the excursion by Cole and "Special Weapons" -- though we don't know yet what that is: governmental, military, industrial or some combination of all of them. Now Lear spends all his time on L4. Richards speculates that what brought Lear into the project was the death of his wife: "how much of Project NOAH was really just one grieving man sitting in a basement, trying to undo his wife's death?"  

Now the project consisted of "eleven former death row inmates who glowed in the dark and scared the shit out of absolutely everybody."
The virus had turned their skin into a kind of protein-based exoskeleton, so hard it made Kevlar look like pancake batter. Only over the breastbone, a strike zone about three inches square, was this material thin enough to penetrate.
A technician who had been exposed to the "sticks" had died in agony of the virus they carried. Richards has contemplated pulling the plug on the whole thing, using what Cole had called "the Elizabeth Protocol." "Only cole would have actually named it for the guy's dead wife." Richards has also been forced to hunt down the escapees, Jack and Sam, and kill them.

Lear has now requested a young female subject for the project because the thymus gland in such a subject would be better able to fight off the "unpleasant side effects" of the virus. And Richards had found the right one in a convent in Memphis. He trusts Wolgast to handle the nuns.

As Richards, who speaks a dozen languages, is listening to the "clicks and grunts" of the test subjects and trying to figure out if it's a language, Sykes appears, unable to sleep. He adjusts a monitor and looks at Zero, who turns out to be (if we haven't already guessed) Fanning. Richards tells Sykes that Carter is due to arrive in about three hours. Sykes wonders why there has been such an apparent rush to get him here, and Richards says the order came from Special Weapons, probably urged by Lear. Sykes worries that the haste may attract notice -- the usual protocol for transfer involved thirty days and three prisons. "There's always someone who's interested," he observes, even when Richards assures him that "Carter is already nobody." Richards goes back to listening to Giles Babcock, who is the "Number One" that Grey observed was "always chatting away."

[Fiction is a game. Sometimes it's Let's Pretend and sometimes it's Hide and Seek. And often it's both. The test is how well the author plays the game of pretending his story is real and of hiding just enough of it to keep the reader searching for it. The risk is that readers will become so annoyed or burdened by the suspension of disbelief or so frustrated by the puzzles they're asked to solve, that they'll give up playing. Cronin so far has kept the plausibility high, with a nice dovetailing of the realities of 2010 with the potential realities (the annihilation of New Orleans by another hurricane -- he could not have foreseen the BP disaster -- and the escalation of the war on terror into Iran). 

Where he runs into trouble with his version of Hide and Seek, I think, is in his choice of narrative voice: a third-person narrator who assumes various points of view -- Jeanette's, Wolgast's, Carter's, Lacey's, Grey's, Richards's. Although he could tell us everything as a third-person narrator, he chooses not to. He chooses only to tell what the person whose point of view he has assumed for the moment is thinking, feeling, or seeing. And that leads to a certain coyness in the narrative voice. We are being played with when he withholds details such as the exact nature of Grey's sexual offenses, or what really happened when Rachel Wood drowned, or exactly what the expedition in Bolivia was all about, and so on. It's forgivable because we all know the conventions of the thriller demand that we not be told too much too soon, but I sense that Cronin is a better writer than the conventions allow him to be.]

No comments:

Post a Comment