Saturday, 1 December 2012

The Twelve by Justin Cronin

A hundred years ago, humanity just about destroyed itself. It'd be easy to think that God doesn't like us very much. Or that there is no God, there's no rhyme or reason to anything and we might just as well hang it up and call it a day. Thanks, planet Earth, it was nice knowing you. But that's not you, Peter. For you, hunting the Twelve isn't an answer, it's a question. Does anybody out there care? Are we worth saving? What would God want from me, if there is a God? The greatest faith is the willingness to ask in the first place, all evidence to the contrary. Faith not just in God, but in all of us. It's a hard place you're in, and my guess is you'll be in it for a while. But it's the right one, and it's yours.

I previously briefly reviewed The Passage by Justin Cronin as part of this article on American vampire fiction. The book impressed me with its literary ambition, the sheer scale of the narrative proposing a fangster apocalypse that results in a hundred years of slaughter across the American continent, and finally the incisively sketched characters that entered the story at different points. The opening of The Passage introduces the reader to young Amy and her mother. Their financial hardship, living well below the bread-line, is compellingly described, leading to the tragic decision for the child to abandoned at a convent. The vampire storyline was still waiting in the wings and here was a story so well told there was no suspicion of filler, or padding.

The Twelve also confounds expectations by returning to 'Year Zero' the time of the vampire epidemic, reintroducing several characters presumed dead in the previous book. There's Grey, the convicted sex offender who unwittingly let the vampires loose and is slowly becoming a familiar to the enigmatic Zero, the originator of the virus; Lila Kyle, the ex-wife of Agent Wolgast from the first book, driven mad by witnessing the outbreak of the epidemic first-hand; and Kittridge, an 'I Am Legend' style survivalist who is being hunted by both vampires and the military for his online webcasts documenting the spread of the epidemic. It is quite a shock to meet these characters again, as part of the appeal of The Passage was to have these well-captured individuals abruptly vanish, the skip forward in time to a century later tearing the identification of the reader with these people away. In a sense that made the scale of the apocalypse more compelling than endless descriptions of limbs and torsos being ripped from bodies.

Thankfully Cronin is not simply indulging in continuity-porn by revisiting Year Zero - although the increasing linkages between characters does become oddly disconcerting, more on that below. Really the purpose of this return is to expand on the hints dropped in the first book that there are a number of human quislings in America that are actually aiding and abetting the reign of Zero and the Twelve. 

The already capable Alicia, transformed by her experience in Colorado, has now become a one-woman army on the hunt against the 'virals'. She leads Peter Jaxon and the army to a vampire lair, only to discover that the Twelve are on the move, resulting in disaster when their plan of attack quickly falls apart. Peter begins to suspect that the Army are more aware than they let on of the true nature of the Twelve and their symbiotic relationship with the multitude of vampires across the land. Amy meanwhile has disguised herself as a child once again, happy to play with the other children living in the Fort. The behaviour of the Twelve though forces her to launch the next stage of her inscrutable plan. Finally Michael, the pathologically erudite young man from before has become Sangamon Taylor from Neal Stephenson's novel Zodiac - physically buff and direct from years working on an oil-rig. The unfolding plot draws the friends together once more into another quest - albeit one that will pit human against human this time.

Cronin repeatedly hints at several different timescales being in play, with The Passage quoting liberally from supposedly official documents written a thousand years in the future. The other tool employed is to draw on Biblical language, overtly in the opening to The Twelve which summarises the plot to date in a series of verses. Not only are we being led to believe that a new Bible of sorts is being written, composed from diaries and survivor accounts of America's struggle to survive, allusions to the Christian Bible itself appear. One character actually endures their own Garden of Gethsemane moment, and of course the exchange of life-giving blood is an enduring symbol from the New Testament. This is at times irritating - the book's opening certainly is - and the hints that a divine purpose is moving these individuals from goal to goal feels too on the nose. Characters meet again in extraordinary circumstances that would make Dickens blush. We are in danger of Stephen King's divine finger entering the proceedings - 

The Stand Hand of God

That said the story is so compelling, the reader's investment in the lives of these survivors so total, that occasional irritants can be excused. The Twelve can also be a very distressing read, with the quislings liberally employing rape and violence to subdue their enslaved victims. When a character who has been built up as a proficient and deadly fighter is captured and subjected to this abuse, it feels all too much like the common pulp fiction/comic book trope that trots out sexual assault whenever the opportunity arises. This is due to Cronin's absorption of so many aspects of horror and science fiction writing, taking these tales at face value so that he can explore the imagery used in these books to greater literary effect. He is not a judgmental writer, and so we are left with a mixture of the good and the bad. There is a skittishness in his descriptions of Grey, whose paedophilia is described as an unfortunate psychological response to childhood abuse. Grey, we are assured on at least two occasions, is more or less heterosexual - he just happened to touch a boy once. This is almost as disturbing as the rape sequence, because the reader is being tacitly asked to forgive the crimes of a fictional child abuser. Nabokov never asked readers to forgive Humbert Humbert - and in fact mocked the very notion of justifying the man's crimes with a supercilious narration.

These aspects of The Twelve are problematic, but the sheer scale of the story that is unfolding remains gripping. My only fear is that we are careening towards a Stephen King-style anticlimax.

The Twelve Justin Cronin

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