The Passage Readalong: Chapters 1-5
Ah… What a week! If this is your first time reading The Passage, then I hope you are enjoying the ride. I think these early chapters may have surprised you a little, right? What you have probably noticed is that this is a book as much about characters and humanity as it is about vampires and the end of the world.
One thing I’ve noticed doing this readalong though, is just how economical Justin Cronin is with his words. Almost every sentence has a purpose – whether explaining backstory, creating tension, driving the story forwards or foreshadowing. It’s really impressive and is the reason why despite being almost 1000 pages long, you never feel the urge to hurry the author along.
Anyway, there’s plenty of time for that in a moment! What I’m going to do during this readalong is recap each chapter and then dive into a little bit of commentary on that recapped chapter. Some may want to read both bits, some may want to read just the commentary and others may just want to read only the recaps. It’s totally up to you.
Finally, thank you to each of our Goodreads Members who have been involved in our discussions. I have thoroughly enjoyed each and every message left there – I really feel chatting about the books is enhancing the experience. Hopefully we can keep the chatter going 🙂
Chapter 1: Recap
These events occur 5-1 B.V. (Years Before Virus)
The opening paragraph of The Passage is an example of the author using the technique of foreshadowing: “Before she became the Girl from Nowhere – the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years – she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy. Amy Harper Bellafonte.” Essentially, the author is letting us know that Amy will become all of the above and we will need to stick with the narrative to find out how and when. Because the Fantasy/Science-Fiction/Horror elements of The Passage are absent from the early chapters, this is an important promise to readers who picked up the book expecting tropes belonging to such genres.
Jeanette was nineteen years old when Amy Harper Bellafonte was born. She named her daughter after her mother, Amy, and an author, Harper Lee, who wrote the only book she’d ever finished. We learn that Jeanette wants Amy to grow up tough, funny and wise. Amy’s father is a man named Bill Reynolds. He came into the restaurant that Jeanette worked at one day and one thing led to another. He was married, but a sweet talker and seemed to be a fairly successful salesman. When he leaves, Jeanette is sad. She feels she could have loved him and upon finding out she is pregnant she refuses to tell her father anything about Bill for fear it would ruin his reputation or marriage. Jeanette’s father is initially angry, but symbolically forgives her by bringing a crib down from the attic and buying the baby the things she would need.
Jeanette believes Amy will make her life more purposeful and promises to always be there for her. Jeanette’s father dies three years after Amy is born and Jeanette considers how simply he left – he left nothing (positive or negative). Jeanette tries to contact her brother, but he doesn’t reply to her. She is alone until Bill arrives in town saying he has left his wife to be with her. Jeanette sees right away that Bill has changed – he has lost his job and his bright features, smart clothing and nice car have been replaced by scruffiness.
Jeanette has had a lot of time to reflect and we see her admit to herself that she will never realise her dreams of living a comfortable life enjoying novels in coffee shops. She agrees to let Bill move in, but quickly regrets it. She doesn’t know who he is, not really, and very quickly he becomes violent. He blames her for all his problems and has her feeling as though she deserves it. She even apologises to him after HE strikes her. One day Bill starts screaming that Amy probably isn’t his and Jeanette tells him he is right and that he should leave or she will call the Sheriff. At first Bill laughs at her and seems as though he will not go, but Amy appears and starts crying when she sees her mother is bleeding. Bill says he will go but thinks Jeanette will regret it. He says she won’t cope alone as she isn’t strong enough.
Jeanette’s life begins to spiral. We see that she cares very much about Amy and she is doing everything she can for her. However, she is leaving her alone at night without heating in order to work a part time cleaning job in addition to her daytime job at the diner. It’s obviously a catch-22 situation for Jeanette, but it is illegal to leave a young child alone for such long periods of time. When the boss of her cleaning job finds out he fires her and when her car battery dies she is fired from the diner for being absent too.
They’ve not much money left, so Jeanette decides to leave her father’s house and live in the Kia (car). Jeanette gets a night job in a gas station, but when the boss finds out Amy is sleeping in the back room he fires her too. For a short while she lives with a friend and has a part-time job cleaning, but can’t support Amy on the wages and so leaves in the Kia to see what else she can find. Whilst driving, the car breaks down and Jeanette needs a ride. The guy, a stranger, who picks her up keeps looking at her expectantly and Jeanette realises he wants sex. He reminds her a bit of Bill. Still, Jeanette doesn’t see many other options, so when they reach a motel she submits to his expectations. He leaves her $50 and is gone by morning.
Jeanette begins standing outside the motel and taking men back to her room for sex. Amy is told to hide in the bathroom, in the tub, whilst this happens. This goes on for quite some time. Despite what Jeanette is doing, we can tell that she loves Amy. She thinks about how the little should be at school studying: she seems to have a natural ability for numbers and words.
The dodgy landlord that accepts and extra $50 to allow her to keep up her activities sells her a gun ‘for her protection’. It makes her feel safer and she likes how it symbolises there being a secret person beneath the surface.
One day a college kid shows up and says he wants to take her out. He says he will pay her extra and as Amy is sleeping she agrees. Quickly, Jeanette realises something is wrong. He keeps driving past where he said he would and they arrive at a frat house where she knows there are more people inside. Jeanette says she knows what is to happen – she is either going to be forced to have sex with a group or perhaps killed – so takes the gun from her bag and shoots the boy in the head.
Having killed this boy she considers how strange her life has become. She feels sorry for Amy and never for a moment connects her birth to the sad path she has gone down. Jeanette then realises that she has lost her watch and gun – they are both at the crime scene. She knows what this means: she will very likely be caught by the police and sent away. She packs all of Amy’s things and takes her to a small church she drove by called ‘The Convent of the Sisters of Mercy’. Jeanette considers how lovely the church is. Having grown up in Memphis, she is a little taken aback when a black Nun called Sister Lacey opens the door. She tells the Nun that her car has broken down and asks if she will look after Amy whilst she goes to meet the recovery man. Before Jeanette leaves, she is comforted by how Lacey talks to Amy and her musical voice. Whilst walking away, she wonders what the Nun’s reaction will be when she finds the note in Amy’s bag saying she won’t be coming back.
Chapter 1: Commentary
Often, when it comes to writing novels, the advice is ‘start as late as possible’. Justin Cronin chooses not to do this. Instead, he goes right back to the very beginning of Amy’s life (even further, in fact, back to the early life of her mother). This is a way of Justin Cronin providing a message to the readers about what they can expect from the novel. As a member of the Goodreads Group, Elizabeth, said during one of our discussions: “the story is about human tragedy (and hopefully redemption) rather than vampires. Jeanette’s fall from grace is a parallel to humanity’s fall from grace that we see unfold in the following chapters”
Another message, by Goodreads user Steve, sums up my views on why this chapter was chosen for the very first: “Amy, the First and Last and Only, rose up out of chaos from the least likely of places. She and her mother are the marginalized in our current society, the lowest of the low. She seems an unlikely candidate for saviour of the human race, but here she is.”
Chapter 2: Recap
Jonas Lear, a Professor of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology in Harvard University, has arrived in the jungles of Bolivia. He’s with a team of scientists from UCLA, Columbia, MIT, etc and they are all excited (although a little nervous of snakes and such). Lear’s tale is told in the form of e-mails to his friend Paul who is back in Cambridge. He tells him jokingly how Tim of Columbia brought along a team of young grad assistants… the same kind that cost him three wives.
Lear is pleased the military took an interest. They are proving useful on the mission and the academics probably wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without their resources and money. Lear tells Paul that he finds it ironic that after his wife Liz’s illness he may be involved in solving the mystery of death itself.
The next e-mail Lear sends he lets Paul know that they’ve been ‘militarised’. A Helicopter dropped in a team of Special Forces agents in and they’re the real deal – M16s, camouflage clothing, Battle Painted face and they’ve even paid for aerial recon, which Paul notes is around $20,000 for thirty minutes worth. Mark Cole, a young man (not even 30) in a suit, asks Lear if he is the ‘vampire guy’. Lear says he is (although he doesn’t like the word Vampires as it doesn’t look great on grant applications) and Cole lets him know that his boss is the President.
Initially there is a lot of unrest. Some of the scientists feel as though they should pack up and head home or that the military should be forced to leave them to work alone. Eventually though things calm down. The military tell them that they are there to ensure drug lords who work in this part of the country do not kill them. Lear feels this is a lie – they are heading east to a land that is almost uninhabited and where the few people who do live there are tribes folk who’ve had very little outside contact.
Just six days in and the scientists are struggling with the lack of food, weather and the physical nature of the exhibition. The extent of it is making Lear question whether the potential discovery isn’t just him hoping for a purpose after his wife’s death. Having said that, he tells Paul that he has found an area consistent with Chuchote legend, where a great fire was said to have been sent by Auxl, the lord of the Sun, to destroy the demons of man and save the world. Close to this area they find a statue that looks like a human-being but not quite: it has ‘bent animal posture, claylike hands, long teeth and it is intensely muscular. Lear notes that it is just like the cave drawings, pillars at temples and grave sites they’ve previously found.
During the sign off Lear notes that bats have been hanging around and that a member of the research team is going to try and catch one.
The next email lets Paul know that Lear has now found 9 of the statues. He is nervous though as he feels someone is following the team.
There is another email, but it is blank.
The next email is far more concerning. Lear says that the last blank email came as a result of him leaving the camp trying to get a signal and the hitting send by mistake as he ran back to the camp following a disturbance. It seems that bats attacked the group just after sunset. They chose their moment; they knew when the group would be least prepared. In the chaos, four died (including, of course, the one who tried to catch a bat) and six more were injured. Those six who were bitten or scratched are now displaying symptoms of Bolivian Hemorrhagic Fever – bleeding from the mouth and nose, skins and eyes rosy with burst capillaries, a fever, fluid filling the lungs and coma. The next day the bats return in their thousands and kill 3 soldiers and Cole.
Lear notes in the e-mail that he has enough battery to make a distress call, but has decided he has come too far and that nothing is waiting for him at home. The stakes are high enough, in his mind, to press on. Lear says goodbye to Paul in case he does not make it.
The next email suggests that Paul has given in to the remaining members of the project and called the evacuation team. He believes that they can make it to the site before they arrive and salvage something. He notes that one of those injured is starting to look better, although the others are touch and go.
His final email says simply: “Now I know why the soldiers are here.”
Chapter 2: Commentary:
A lot of Justin Cronin’s early word count and form seems chosen to enhance the feeling of realism. We must remember that this is a novel featuring ‘Vampires’ and the novel is being marketed to the Fantasy/Science-Fiction/Horror genres. It is very easy for a reader to step away from life and enter a novel, treating them as two separate things. Whether it is by realistic e-mails seemingly taken directly from a computer, by including the name of staff from real Universities, a mention of an upcoming sports game or the inclusion of inconsequential small talk between friends – Justin Cronin works very hard to provide a feeling of these events taking place on our Earth.
Beyond that, this is the first chapter we see the word ‘Vampire’ mentioned and there is also a healthy amount of action, suspense and death for those who picked up the book for those tropes. It’s important to note though how Justin Cronin is setting himself away from traditional vampire tales. These Vampires aren’t going to be wearing dated suits, chasing virgins and brandishing cheesy lines. Rather, we should be expecting human-like creatures infected with some kind of virus that has its roots in a Bolivian jungle.
Chapter 3: Recap
We meet Texas inmate 99642 Anthony Lloyd Carter (note again: Justin Cronin deploying specific details to enhance realism). He has been sentenced to death after he killed a mother of two for whom he mowed a garden once a week. Since being sentenced he has lived a lonely and routine existence and has resigned himself to death. Most of his time is spent lying in bed waiting for a call from the guards for food or a shower. The only visitor he has had is the husband of the victim. It seems the husband found God and was encouraged to come to provide forgiveness. Anthony said he was sorry and the man said he accepted his apology. Anthology wonders how genuine the man’s forgiveness was and us also unsure about whether he should be sorry for what he said he was sorry for (murder). Anthony remembers the day. He knows he was responsible for the woman dying, but he isn’t sure he killed her in the way that the prosecution made out.
Two guards arrive and cuff Anthony. They tell him that someone is here to see him. Anthony is confused as no one has any reason to visit him: he is scheduled to die in a few short months.
We change POV now; we are with Special Agent Brad Wolgast who hates Texas. He is 44 years old and in pretty good shape, although has plenty or aches and pains. The reason Wolgast hates Texas is because his parents made him move here from the beautiful woods of Oregon. We hear that Wolgast’s father was chasing work, but the move to Texas was a temporary fix and he died a few years before Wolgast graduated, without ever managing to find the comfortable life they’d had in Oregon. Wolgast’s mother moved back to Oregon after his father died but she is dead now too. He notes that ‘everyone was gone’.
Wolgast is travelling to the prison with his partner Doyle to meet Anthony Carter. He is expecting to see another pair of eyes that will steal a piece of his soul away from him. Reading Anthony’s file he sees that he is 5’4 and 120lbs. Just like all the others Wolgast has picked up, he has no family. Looking at the case, Wolgast reads about how Anthony was helped off the streets into a hostel and offered a job by the woman he killed, Rebecca Wood. Anthony spent a long time mowing the lawn of Rebecca and her friends and seemed a nice enough guy. Then, one day, her daughter was off school and went to talk to Anthony. The girl started screaming and Rebecca, who hadn’t known that the girl had snuck out, tore into the garden and started shouting for Anthony to leave her alone. An argument erupted and Rebecca ended up floating dead in the pool shortly after. Wolgast wonders if they fell into the pool and there was an element of this being an accident. Doyle says that the fact the mother was on the swim team in college meant the prosecution convinced the jury otherwise. In court, Anthony himself said his actions were all in an attempt to stop her screaming. He doesn’t seem to know what he did that resulted in her death.
Wolgast is fairly sure that Anthony will take the deal he is going to offer him. There is no one waiting for Anthony on the outside and his only other option is death. Before learning what the deal is, we are given some background about how Doyle and Wolgast got to where they are today. Doyle is a clever guy who had just finished Law School when he joined the Bureau. He joined after Iranian Jihadists gunned down 300 shoppers, a time when everyone in the country wanted to enter Quantico. He is ambitious, so it is strange he signed up to join ‘Project Noah’, which seemed dead end. Wolgast presumes that Doyle was clever enough to see beyond first appearances.
When they arrive at the jail the Warden isn’t keen on letting them take Carter despite their credentials. He says they will need to have their bosses call him and force him into letting an inmate sentenced to death leave his care. The two agents have experienced this kind of resistance before and their boss, Sykes, says he will straighten it out. Wolgast and Doyle get a cheap hotel and head out for the evening. They drink in a bar and Wolgast thinks about how young all the men and women look. Doyle seems to have caught the attention of one of the college girls. Wolgast leaves him at the bar and reminds him not to say anything about their mission, Doyle jokes about having a pseudonym already set up. Wolgast gets back to his hotel room and phones his ex, Lila. He hasn’t been able to stop thinking about her since she e-mailed him and told him she was getting married and having a baby. Lila’s new partner answers, says it is late but reluctantly hands the phone over to Lila. Lila is friendly to Wolgast and says he needs to take some time off as he sounds tired. As the conversation goes on it becomes clear that Lila and Wolgast lost a young child and it was the pain of this loss which cost them their relationship. They still don’t know what to say to each other. Wolgast tells Lila that she should look after herself more this time, take some time of work. When Lila begins to cry, having been reminded of their daughter Eva, her new partner snatches the phone and tells Wolgast not to call back. Wolgast throws the phone at the wall in an attempt to break it, but it survives.
Wolgast lies in bed thinking about how he came to join Project Noah. He was taken to a compound near Denver, around Ouray – maybe further north. The whole journey he was in a blacked out vehicle. Once he arrived he found a huge Tudor building surrounded by military chalets and vehicles. The insides of the building had been gutted in a way that resembled a dentist’s office. He was led past guards and through metal doors to meet with the well-built Sykes whose military uniform is decorated with lots of colourful medals. Sykes tells Wolgast he needs him to collect 10-20 inmates who, upon consenting, can be taken from prisons completely off the grid. These will be carefully chosen inmates with no friends or family. Society won’t even notice they are gone.
Sykes had then told Wolgast about the 4 cancer patients found wondering a jungle after a ‘last wish’ trip. They’d suffered some kind of trauma and were rushed to hospital. Their thymus glands were enlarged, immune systems in overdrive and their cellular regeneration had accelerated massively. These 50-year-old cancer patients had not only been cured of cancer, but their vital signs and levels of energy would have placed them more akin to teenagers. Despite this, within 86 days they were all dead – their bodies were pushed too hard and too fast. Sykes reveals the people he works for are studying this virus and that they could be able to cure death within a few years. However, they need these death row inmates as human test subjects.
Wolgast was chosen for his experience in a number of areas such as negotiating, research and tracking, his lack of a political affiliation and because his daughter had died unjustly. Sykes sells Wolgast the job as a chance for him to be involved in the most important medical discovery of all time. He says that the inmates will, inevitably, be at risk but this will be minimal. Sykes reveals that the military’s reason for getting involved is because injured personnel are coming out of the army with amputations and young people are seeing these injuries and being put off signing up. Sykes believe that if this virus could lead to rapid healing of soldiers then there would be no reason not to sign up – a solider who gets shot could be healed and redeployed within a few days. He admits that he, personally, loves the idea of playing golf on his 100th birthday and meeting his great-great-great grandkids.
Wolgast asks why they chose ‘Noah’ as the projects code name. He is told to look in the bible and see how long Noah lived (950 years in Genesis 9:29). An Agent named Richards is present for the whole interview and Wolgast realises he is the one in charge and the likely liaison between USAMRIID, Homeland, NSA or whoever was running the show.
Back in the present day, Wolgast is woken up by his phone at 7am. It is Sykes to say that everything is arranged and they can pick up Carter as planned. Doyle comes out of the shower and jokes about the girl he got with the evening before. Wolgast feels envious of how Doyle looks ready to run a marathon despite not getting in until after 2am.
Once they arrive at the prison, Wolgast provides an envelope to the Warden that contains everything he will need to make sure Carter is forgotten about, including a death certificate. When he is led to Carter, Wolgast is very kind and understanding. He offers Carter a burger with fries and watches him savour every single bite. He also gives him a chocolate milkshake. Carter asks what the FBI wants from him and Wolgast makes out that he is there to see what Carter wants from him. Cater thinks it is a trick, something to do with the woman’s husband who visited him. Wolgast says it isn’t, that he knows Carter is sorry and wants to get him out: today. Carter points out how this all sounds too good to be true. Wolgast tells Carter that the people he works for don’t want him to die and so have created a job for him. During their discussion, Wolgast considers that “Something had happened that day in the yard; the woman had died. But there was more to it, maybe a lot more”. Wolgast realises that there is a kind of uncertainty surrounding Carter about what happened that day and that he probably shouldn’t be killed for whatever he has done until he and the courts really know whether it is truly deserved. Eventually Carter decides upon what he wants. He tells Wolgast that he needs time, time to think about what happened that day. Wolgast says that if Carter agrees to sign up to Project Noah he will have that time.
Carter eventually signs, believing Wolgast, and Wolgast heads to the airport. Whilst waiting for his plane he considers how he is too good at finding that last little bit of life left in a man and exploiting it. It scares him, he feels exhausted and his conscious is nagging him. On the way home, Wolgast has a dream he is still with Lila. He gets these ‘tricks of the mind’ quite a bit. He doesn’t mind them; in fact he rather enjoys them. Once they land, an Agent Williams is waiting for Doyle and Wolgast. He has another person for them to pick up for Project Noah. Upon reading the file Wolgast turns to Doyle and exclaims that it is a civilian.
Chapter 3: Commentary
This is probably the most detailed and revealing chapter of this week’s reading. Agent Wolgast is a broken man who has ended up in a job that takes all his time. Although Wolgast thinks about finding a new partner or running a small shop, we know that he has seen too much in his life and that this job is keeping him from having to face those things. Should he return to reality he’d have enough time to truly reflect upon everything he has lost and given up, and he doesn’t seem quite ready for that yet. Rather, he seems like a man who needs a purpose – one such as finding the key to eternal life.
That said, this key comes at a cost and whereas Sykes and company feel that Wolgast will simply accept this cost (human experimentation and possibly the death of an already sentenced to death inmate or two), they make a mistake when sending him to acquire Carter. Carter’s case isn’t as clear-cut as the others he has worked on. Whereas the others were obviously guilty and knew it, Carter isn’t quite sure what happened that day. With this in mind, Wolgast starts to wonder about whether he is doing the right thing.
Perhaps also the conversation with Lila makes him questions whether this is the kind of legacy his daughter deserves. As Goodreads user, Elizabeth, says, throughout the chapter: “we’re given a hint of [Wolgast’s] innate ‘goodness’ … an innate goodness that has been challenged by circumstances and desperation.” Should his daughter’s death have resulted in the way his life is now going? Should he be handing over people who may not be guilty to the military who are doing goodness knows what to them?
Chapter 4: Recap
Sister Lacey knows God wants something from her, but doesn’t know what. She hears God’s voice in all things and feels sorry for those who cannot. She describes Amy as 6 years old, thin, pretty, dark haired and with long lashes that curl at the ends. Sister Lacey seems a little uncertain about how to act around Amy at first and Amy being alone with herself, even in the presence of another person, makes her fearful. Sister Lacey suggests they tell each other a secret. She begins by telling Amy about a time she fell out with her mother and decided she was going to run away. She snuck from her house intending to make her mother worried and think she wasn’t coming back. After a few hours out in the night though she calmed herself and was no longer angry. She snuck back into the house before anyone ever knew she was gone. Lacey says that now she has told Amy a secret Amy can tell one to her. Amy says: “I don’t think [mum] is coming back.”
The police arrive after Lacey calls them and she tells them about what happened. The police don’t seem keen on taking Amy into the system right away. Perhaps they’ve experience of a parent coming back or being found. They feel that because it is the weekend they won’t be able to get her in until Monday anyway. Lacey agrees to let her stay with her. Lacey being a Nun, the police are happy with this arrangement.
Lacey realises that she should have checked with the other sisters and especially Sister Arnette. Lacey decides she will need to lie to the other sisters when they return. She comes up with the story that Amy’s mother is a friend who dropped her off on the way to look after a sick relative. She tells Amy the story and realises that Amy will go along with the lie because she is used to keeping secrets.
As expected, Sister Arnette isn’t happy, but the other Nuns are excited to have a little girl to fuss over. Sister Lacey decides Amy is in trouble and God has sent this little girl to Lacey to be looked after. She also decides it was the Holy Spirit that spoke the lie about the circumstances through her. By the end of the evening, Amy has had hamburgers, hot dogs, ice cream, colouring books and new pyjamas.
The nuns watch a movie together and Sister Lacey takes some time to send out a prayer. God is being elusive and doesn’t give her answers about what she is to do. Once she has done this she gets Amy washed and ready for bed. There is a sad scene when Amy asks if she should sleep in the tub. Lacey is shocked, but doesn’t ask for an explanation. Instead she shows her to her bed.
Whilst in her own bed, Lacey hears monkeys howling from the zoo. She thinks about how sad it is they are locked in cages and are without purpose. This leads Lacey to think about how her purpose is Amy and it becomes obvious she thinks that Amy is here to stay. She starts thinking about how the story she told the other Nuns about her mother picking her up on Monday will soon unravel.
Lacey falls asleep and begins to dream. There are gunshots, her mum screams and tells the children to run. It is dark, but Lacey can hear men chasing after her and the others. She makes it to the woods and hides. A man is close and Lacey keeps low. She tells herself to keep quiet as possible. Eventually the man leaves and she is alone. Lacey wakes up and by the door stands Amy. Amy comes into Lacey’s bed and asks her not to let anyone take her away.
We move back into Wolgast’s POV. There is a discussion about New Orleans and how much Wolgast loved it there. He spent many days partying within its borders. Now though it is wiped out and genuinely makes him feel sick. He thinks about how the city went from being so vibrant to nothing more than a slum full of people barely able to survive… how the murder rates are so high and the place is almost lawless.
Doyle and Wolgast reach a military checkpoint. The solider doing the checking is so young that Wolgast thinks he should be at home watching movies or chasing women. Their credentials need to be checked and at the slightest of complaints from Wolgast to hurry things along a gun is pointed at him by a highly strung solider.
Wolgast quickly agrees to the checks and his credentials come back as being in order to pass through the checkpoint. When a soldier asks where he is going, he lies and says he is off to Nashville (as opposed to Memphis). As Wolgast and Doyle leave it is revealed that their orders are to retrieve a Caucasian female named Amy with zero footprint and leave no evidence of them having done so.
Chapter 4: Commentary
Lacey’s actions, lying as a nun, are initially a little bit shocking to readers. However, as we hear a bit more about her experiences, both in Sierra Leone and at the Covent, it begins to make sense. The dream where Lacey is outside and running away from men with guns suggests that she lost her family to these men in Sierra Leone before coming to the US (we will learn a bit more about it next week too).
There were mixed feelings about whether Lacey was able to speak with God or not in our Goodreads Group. At this point in the novel, it is certainly open to interpretation. Is Lacey sensing God or is she just rationalising everything that happens with a God-like entity? We may find out, we may not…
What is very clear is that Lacey feels very sorry for Amy and feels she has a purpose by helping her. When Lacey considers the monkeys trapped in cages without purpose, we can’t help but feel that Lacey is the monkey and the cage is the Covent ran by Sister Arnette.
The reflection from Wolgast on New Orleans is interesting. It seems a clever attempt by Justin Cronin to remind us that thriving cities can be reduced to almost nothingness as the result of an actual event. This contributes towards making the ‘end of the world’ scenario more believable when it hits.
Wolgast was obviously troubled at the news he would need to pick up a citizen, Amy, at the end of the last chapter. The fact he has been told to stay off the grid and avoid as many checkpoints as possible will inevitably make him feel that this is shady and questionable. We will see him start to question things more and more now – it started with Carter’s questionable guilt and will continue with Amy’s certain innocence.
Chapter 5: Recap
Subject Zero has been hanging in the corner, not eating for 6 days now. A man named Grey watches him from behind a desk and sees him as a white-hot blur on a monitor. He is hot, hairless, shiny and smooth (this is due to an almost impenetrable exoskeleton), has orange coloured eyes and long teeth that drop out at the rate of 6 a day. He cannot talk, but there is a wet clicking noise that each of the subjects make which Grey considers is them ‘chattering’.
There is something about Zero that Grey feels is different compared to the others kept in the compound. To Grey, Zero is more aware. Although he hangs there and does nothing, Grey can sense something going on within him. He is a coiled spring ready to release at any moment. It makes Grey uneasy.
Grey’s job is relatively simple, all he does is clean and record what Zero eats and craps out. This has always been just rabbits, but Zero won’t touch them at all recently. There is a strange rule where if you give the Vampires 10 rabbits they will eat only 9 and 1 will be saved. Grey doesn’t like watching them eat; he says it is enough to make you turn veggie.
Grey is 46 years old and he feels that due to his heavy smoking he only has about 10 years left to enjoy himself. That’s why he took this job: it pays really well and once you had done your year, you’d have enough to be comfortable for a while back in reality. That said, Grey is finding the fact he is allowed no contact or knowledge of the outside world a real task. He can’t watch the news or even visit a local bar and that is getting to him.
We find out that Grey is a sex offender – as are all the staff who work at the compound. He has reason to want himself away from society for a while – his picture is on a website. This appeals to Agent Richards who offered him the job and takes him to the facility in a blacked-out vehicle. On the way, Grey desperately needed to urinate and he has a medical condition that means he can’t go when people are watching. He begged Richards to pull over and when he did he ran out of sight. Richards pulled a gun and aimed it at Grey ready to shoot him. Grey was seconds away from being shot when he finished urinating and started walking back towards the car.
In order to help Grey with his inappropriate urges, he has been taking drugs that shrink his testicles and suppress certain parts of his personality. Another condition of his release into society was that he must avoid children, mothers and schools. Whilst watching a war program on television, Grey wonders what his father might think of him now that the urges were gone. His father had done two tours of Vietnam.
Jack and Sam, two men who came to the compound with Grey, disappear. Grey finds it crazy they’d do this. He thinks about the pay he will receive covering for them: if he does 3 x $500 overtime sessions in a single week he gets a $100 bonus. That’s $1600 for 3 days work!
Grey is lying in bed and can’t stop thinking about Zero. He keeps hearing his name whispered and a bright orange light. He is told by the voice he is dreaming. Grey thinks about how he was once told he was easily hypnotisable. His thoughts then take him to the day his cousin and he were fighting in a barn. Quickly it became sexual and Grey thinks about how much he enjoyed it. Grey’s step-father beat him for that. The voice reaches out to Grey again and his dream shifts to the day he found his dad dead in the family vehicle. Grey had seen blood splattered on the window, approached and opened the car door. His dad had shot himself and his blood leaked into the snow. In the dream his dead father is replaced by the form of Zero, who repeats his name over and over.
We change to the POV of Agent Richards who is playing Free Cell (you guys who used Windows 98 will remember that game!). We hear of a young boy who completed all 91,048 games of Free Cell within 4 years. Richards rarely sleeps more than 4 hours, he spends most of his time playing this game and watching the computer monitors, that cover every inch of the facility, from his office. It would seem Richards has a very addictive personality.
The way Richard’s POV reads, we see he is very much detached from death and the devastation some military operations can result in. To him, the world must always be in a state of war. It is its natural state. Without war there is nothing for the military to do and countries start fighting themselves. For this reason, 9/11 was both glorious and terrible, because it gave the US someone to fight. He sees himself as one of the faceless people, one of the soldiers in the war of us and them, haves and have-nots, my gods and your gods. On the point of gods, he considers how in reality although a god is given as a reason for many wars, the reality is always that the war would boost someone’s bank balance.
To Richards, Project Noah is a way to get way ahead of the opposition. He thinks back to the A-Bomb. When America first invented it they had 4 years where they were untouchable. To his mind, Project Noah would result in a much longer period of control.
Richards thinks about how he was employed. We learn Cole (that was the guy who landed in the jungle) needed someone who was practical and off the books. Thinking of Cole leads Richard’s to think about the man’s recent death. Richards reveals to us that only 3 made it out of the jungle alive: Lear and two others (a soldier and graduate student). There was also Fanning who became… something else (one of the Vampires). After the people from the jungle were secured, missiles were sent down to the area they were in and the military blew everything up. They then wiped any record of what happened.
Richards thinks about whether his intrinsic fear of the Vampires is something that comes from deep within human DNA. He starts to wonder whether there is some dark power buried within human beings that his ancestors experienced that could be reactivated and whether this is what they have found.
We learn that since coming back from the jungle, Lear has pretty much locked himself away on Level 4. It was Lear who sold them all the dream of slow ageing and regeneration, should they be able to restore the function of the thymus gland, but Richards has since done some digging. He found out that Lear’s wife died a year before he convinced the military to head to Bolivia and Richards now wonders how much of what happened there and since is the result of a man failing to deal with the death of his wife. The thoughts of Richards then go to the fact that after hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on this project, they’ve nothing more than a few useless Vampires to show for it.
They’ve sacrificed more than money too. We learn that six months ago a technician had been exposed to the virus. No one knows how, all they know is that whilst within the facility he caught the virus and began having the seizures. Richards watched him puke in his suit and then slowly die. Once he was dead he sent in a clean-up crew who disposed of him. Richards doesn’t even remember his name.
It is no surprise when we receive confirmation that Richards shot both Sam and Jack after they tried to escape. They were rambling about not being able to handle the dreams – the orange eyes, the teeth, the voices and so on. Killing them both hasn’t upset Richards too much – he knows they were too sex offenders and won’t be missed. However, the fact Lear has now asked for a girl to experiment on has concerned him. Sykes says Lear has told him it’s because the Thymus glad is in a better state to fight the initial disease in a young person. Once that disease is beaten, he believes the subject will be in stasis. Additionally, a brain not filled with ‘junk’ may give a better result too.
Whilst all of this is going on, Richards listens to a Vampire called Babcock click. Richards speaks twelve languages and he is sure the clicks have a pattern constituting a language. Sykes enters into the room where Richards is playing on his computer and the resulting conversation makes it clear that Zero is Fanning. Richards finds it strange that Fanning has become a subject when he and Lear were once friends. Sykes asks if Richards is his friend and Richards says he is, but Sykes shrugs it off and says it doesn’t matter either way really. Richards presumes that Sykes knows he shot the Sam and Jack and seeing as the man has two boys about the same age is probably bothered by it. Richards is concerned about how Sykes will react when the girl arrives and moves the conversation onto the fact that Carter is due to arrive soon. Sykes says it is probably best he stays up and Richards seems to decide the same thing too.
Before Sykes leaves, he tells Richards that the shortcuts they are taking with Carter – rushing to get in to the compound instead of transferring him through various prisons to make sure that people lose track of him – is dangerous. He reminds Richards that nobody is nobody. Sykes leaves and Richards is left thinking about the girl and whether Babcock is trying to talk to him.
Chapter 5: Commentary
Vampires! For those who had been waiting… You got a good glimpse of them in this chapter!
Well… sort of… Maybe! Beth says in our Goodreads Group that the first time she read the book: “I never saw ‘vampire’ or ‘zombie.’ There is so much about this virus that I still don’t understand.” However, another user, Julie, felt quite different, saying: “It is stated in the book that the creatures are created by a virus that has been around since possibly the beginning of time and has emerged at different points throughout time. Lear discusses it in his emails [Chapter 2].” She continues, “They are ‘vampires’ when you take all the information about them and compare it to other descriptions of vampires. The biggest difference is that they are not a romanticized version of a vampire (cape, bad romance, sparkling, etc.)”
To clarify the symptoms so far: the Vampires have high temperatures (likely due to their immune systems and regeneration being in overdrive), an exoskeleton (with a thiner area where there thymus gland is), orange eyes and sharp teeth (that fall out). We should also accept they have some kind of psychic powers based on Sam, Jack and Grey all hearing Vampires in their dreams (more on this soon).
In addition to all the things on Vampires, it was interesting learning a bit more about Richards and Sykes. They both seem to be a bit fed up. Sykes seems morally rocked, but Richards seems far less so. His problem seems more about boredom (the game: ‘free cell’ is telling). However, both know that there is no escape and so they are just digging themselves deeper and deeper into an inescapable hole and hoping that there is something a few feet further down to justify the time they are spending here. This theme continues in the next chapter – people within the military feeling fed up and not putting in the same kind of strict procedure they began with. The problem is, it was that procedure which was keeping everything secure, secret and safe…
Until next week, my friends! 🙂