Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Last Werewolf vs. Zone One vs. The Passage

by Glen Duncan, Colson Whitehead, Justin Cronin

Glen Duncan + werewolves + ? = The Last Werewolf
Colson Whitehead + zombies + ? = Zone One
Justin Cronin + vampires + ? = The Passage

three individualistic, well-acclaimed and well-awarded but not exactly a household name literary wunderkinds decide to take a go at writing genre fiction. specifically Horror and three of its Big Bads. why did they do it? to reach a wider audience? to rake in the greenbacks? to see if their personal visions can somehow avoid degradation (or at least not be completely diluted) during larkish forays into the lucrative world of page-turning Scary Adventures? some mysterious combination of the above? who knows!

let's play a few rounds of Compare & Contrast

I, Monster
The Last Werewolf (The Last Werewolf #1)
Cronin's vampires are expertly realized: terrifyingly monstrous, completely hideous, totally devoid of charisma - and yet with certain of the central vampires, genuinely sympathetic in their wretched backstories. these monsters are a great antidote to current trends of sexy vampirism; their appalling malignance is downright scary. Whitehead's zombies are also reinventions; existing as un-living metaphors for the human condition and featuring a new addition to the zombie stable - the near-harmless sorta-zombified zombies called "stragglers". because these zombies are basically literary conceits used to give legs to the author's themes, i only experienced the slightest of shivers. mainly i was terrified by the potential of so much annoying existential ennui - i'd rather be dead! Duncan's title werewolf is actually a nicely develped manimal, a real human and a real monster, one who is capable of kindness & generosity, and who has also enacted the sickeningly monstrous. but let me just get a little assholish here and say that this monster is more pussy than wolf. a carefully three-dimensional pussy, but a pussy nevertheless. the predictably passive, futile reactions of our protagonist as he gets repeatedly beaten, tricked, abused, and generally fucked-over became almost hilarious in their pathetic constancy. Big Bad Wolf indeed! rather a fail in terms of scare.

"Literariness" and Stylistic Bravado
Zone One
lauded genius Whitehead probably couldn't write a straightforward genre novel if his life depended on it. practically each sentence in Zone One is a frickin' work of art. this is prose at its most lusciously heady... i got so lost in all of the beautiful sentences that i continually forgot about being tense about any particular situation. i was surprised once by an attack, and that's all; otherwise i was just digging the gorgeous word scenery. great job, Whitehead, your Macarthur Genius Grant will not be rescinded! literary miniaturist Cronin's novel is also written with painterly flair, full of scenes that drip with startling imagery and moments full of lovely stillness, sinister quiet, chaotic beauty... swirling sandstorms containing terrible dangers and haunted road trips full of fear and loss, etc, etc. he also pulls off a startling transition through a bold narrative break; a challenge that many literary readers are probably well-equipped to deal with but a decision that drove many genre fans up the wall in irritation. of the three, maverick British writer Duncan probably does the most streamlining of his literary style to fit his novel within the modern genre novel's aesthetic. but he is still at heart a literary writer, and i think his cred probably remains intact... if only for the novel's primary bit of ongoing literariness: when near potential prey, our protagonist experiences that person's life in a kaleidoscopic montage of tender, even wistful defining moments. the results are some brilliantly meaningful and moving splashes of literary finesse that were awesome to read and reread.

Depth of Characterization
The Passage (The Passage, #1)
Cronin, you win. that's pretty much the sum of it. to use a predictable compliment: his characters live and breathe. phenomenal work. Duncan is not far behind. besides those brilliant flashes of lives mentioned above, the title character and a few key supporting characters are lovingly detailed, realistically quirky, and truly alive. as far as characterization is concerned, Whitehead is left far behind. his boring cipher of a protagonist seems more of a vehicle for the author's various critiques than an actual person - his flatness would be perfect for a Bret Easton Ellis novel (if Ellis had even half of Whitehead's poetic sensibilities). and so the result was that i rolled my eyes quite a bit at the predetermined lack of character resonance. i found little empathy for Zone One's characters; instead there was a lot of intellectual target practice. but is this even a critique? i guess it depends on the literary preference of the literary reader - the history of literature is full of amazing authors and provocative subgenres where the invitation to create empathetic and "human" characters is firmly declined. simply too bourgeois! so if that's your preferred cup of tea, then Whitehead is definitely serving your flavor.

Adult Themes

i found the themes in The Last Werewolf to be the most personally moving. aging, alienation from routine and perhaps life itself, the dangers of empathy and the pitfalls of love... wonderfully profound stuff and often deeply emotional. Duncan approaches his themes with warmth and vigor. Cronin's themes are also serious - as serious as his mysteries. and yet, because of those mysteries, The Passage's themes are in many ways entirely familiar to genre readers... what does the future hold for us... how does human nature survive transformation... how does a person cope with the horrible unknown... is there a greater meaning to it all? and back to Whitehead. Zone One is clearly intended to be a means for serious contemplation, i.e. it does not rollick and it does not roll (over). reader, you are meant to be provoked: in your understanding of life & death & death after life & death while living; in your experience of New York City; in Whitehead's detached and cynical presentation of humankind's apparently pitiful and meaningless essence. but there is a one-note quality to these themes, a kind of hollow and jaded sophistication that i found to be interesting, but also quite sour. i prefer Duncan's more robust and full-bodied vintage. compared to The Whitehead's chilly and somewhat lofty perspective, Duncan's concerns just felt more human. Cronin seems like a wise man that i'd trust with my children. Whitehead seems like he would be amusingly cerebral at a dinner party. i'd go on a road trip with Duncan - i bet we'd have a lot to talk about.

Writers and Storytellers

...or, Literary Skills versus Narrative Skills. Whitehead is a Writer with a capital W. A+ on the writing itself. but as far as storytelling is concerned... not so much. totally boring story; totally wondrous jewels of unique prose. Cronin's writing may not soar to Whitehead's heights, but it still glistens on the page. his storytelling is a win as well - The Passage is occasionally a challenge in its narrative structure, but first and foremost it is a thrilling page-turner. of the three, Duncan seems to have most clearly chosen the route of storyteller. despite the moody thoughtfulness of our hero's various ruminations, this is a novel that wants to quicken the pulse and heat the bloodstream; it wants the reader to think on things, of course, but it mainly wants you to quickly turn the pages, to rush forward, to delve deeper into the fascinating mysteries that have been carefully strung out before you. in that respect, it succeeds. i read this one straight through to the two-thirds mark by staying up all night, and the last third in one long afternoon. i will definitely recommend this one to literary and genre lovers alike. but it will be Zone One that i will be thinking & arguing about in the future and it will be The Passage that i will love as a favorite novel. The Last Werewolf is a bit less exalted: a smart, entertaining, and exceedingly well-written minor-league diversion.


  1. This is great stuff, mark. You've got me deep thinking. For reals. Here I go: hmmmmmm.

  2. yay, deep thinking! you must tell me what that's like, not sure i've had the experience...

    1. haha, I have my doubts about that.