As Charles Mudede writes to the left, summer is the time for enormous books—books so long you can read for hours just for the endless pleasure of reading, eventually forgetting that there's an ending that you're working toward. Taking a huge book on vacation is a joy that e-books will never be able to replace; the omnipresent tug of the book's weight in a backpack or suitcase reminds you that it's waiting for your attention, and the tremendous feeling of accomplishment when the pages boil down as you speed toward the conclusion is untranslatable to the Kindle or iPad experience.
The important question before you leave town for a week or two: Which enormous book do you take? Do you want something light and propulsive, or dense and rewarding? America is currently choosing the former: Justin Cronin's The Passage is the buzz book of the summer, a 766-page postapocalyptic vampire novel with an adoring blurb by Stephen King on the back.
So far as a distracting vacation book goes, The Passage meets all the necessary requirements: It's not as poorly written as, say, your typical Dan Brown mess, the threat (a super-fast, unimaginably brutal horde of glow-in-the-dark, mindless vampires) is suitably apocalyptic, and the holes in the plot are so minor that the narrative just barrels over them with no real consequence. Cronin has some annoying tics (on at least three occasions, he remarks on a female character's "handfuls" of hair, causing the reader to wonder, by the third invocation, whether Mr. Cronin has an out-of-control hair-tugging fetish) and his characters are mostly blank slates, but the high stakes and seemingly unstoppable foes are more memorable than the book's flaws.
The biggest problem with The Passage is its lack of a conclusion: Cronin clearly intended the book to be the opening of a trilogy, and while he does establish a kind of main bad guy for the heroes to confront (note to aspiring thriller authors: Naming your primary villainous vampire something as unthreatening as "Babcock"—"We are Babcock" is repeated, faux-ominously, throughout The Passage's last half—is not a good idea) the book, like a bad horror movie, just doesn't manage to end. By the time the book is done, the casual reader is drained and happy, but ultimately unsure if he wants to dedicate another few weeks of his life to reading the 1,600 or so pages to come.
If your idea of a great mammoth vacation novel has less to do with Stephen King and more to do with Thomas Pynchon, there's a vacation book for you, too. Joshua Cohen's new novel, Witz, is the kind of ambitious, intelligent novel of ideas that will demand your full attention for 824 pages and repay you by rewiring your cerebral cortex in a fundamental way. Like The Passage, it's high-concept: All the Jews on earth die in a horrific plague on December 24, 1999, except for the firstborn sons. Eventually, they, too, all die, except for one lonely Jew named Benjamin Israelien, a schlub who doesn't particularly care one way or the other about his religion. Benjamin is manipulated by the usual suspects—the government, the media—and a shocked and saddened America adopts superficial Jewish traits like ringlets and yarmulkes the way every car sprouted an American flag in the days after 9/11. Eventually, Benjamin (Cohen capitalizes all uses of He and Him in reference to Benjamin, because what else is He in this novel but a kind of bizarro Messiah?) runs away from his responsibilities, taking the hopes and dreams of goy America with him.
Unlike The Passage, the high concept isn't the book's reason for existing: Witz is a linguistic marvel. Cohen writes long, lyrical sentences packed with neologisms, and the novel galumphs along with the cadence of an old joke told in Yiddish, as when Benjamin eats his first bite of pork:
An estimable mouthful, a steaming morsel—such virginal schmeck weighs upon his tongue yet to be downed, the meat and not the lingual anatomy that if swallowed itself would choke and make bestially dead, which is why the drink, grained booze more and more of it He plunges, too much and profane of a Kaddish, it's never enough: L'Chaim, L'Avram, L'Benjamin, too... come on down's the idea, the digestion's fine—the flow tasting like antiseptic, thousandflushed with the tinkle of blue chemical toilet deodorizer, potpourri sprinkle, faint hints of moldy potato peel, onion skin, and low notes of musky piss vintaged last week; it washes past and with it the hunk of pork flows down whole to gag swallowed, without bitten chew; it would've snuck up again and out if not for a slap, quick and feely from Leeds leaning over.
This is heady stuff, a challenging book about matters both specific to Jewish history (it's impossible to read Witz with its scenes of claustrophobia and ash falling from the sky and not think of the Holocaust) and universal in the broadest sense (Twain-like, this is a satirical book about an innocent running away in a world packed with corrupting sin and wonder). Unlike The Passage, you can't plow through Witz, but Witz plows through you, filling you with the sacred and the profane and the sweet, glorious succor of language untamed, used to its fullest potential. I can't think of a better pursuit for a summer vacation than that.