Out Now: The Twelve by Justin Cronin
(There are some spoilers for The Passage here, which are needed to contextualize its sequel. Proceed at your own risk.)
Justin Cronin’s The Passage was my favorite of 2010. I loved it as much as I have ever loved a genre novel. It was an achingly human epic that took the base parts of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy and made them seem miraculously new. The Passage delivered an unforgettable cast, a twisting nimble plot and a climax that set up a hell of a path for Cronin to follow in the next two books. All of this was capped with a gut punch of a closing line, that casually eliminated half of the characters. And all was told in Cronin’s elegant, layered, yet superbly readable, prose.
To say I anticipated the sequel would be an understatement.
When The Twelve arrived in my hot little hands (and after I finally managed to stop bouncing around the room hooting like Daffy Duck), I have to admit that I was worried that Cronin had miscalculated. After a brief prologue told in Biblical prose, and a briefer check-in with the surviving characters from The Passage, Cronin abruptly sends us back to the past, back to the rise of the creature called The Zero who along with his Twelve Apostles ended our world. This was an odd choice, after all one of the most bracing and defining choices that Cronin made in The Passage was to deftly side step the apocalypse, leaving the whole of humanity to die more or less “off screen,” sidelining the reader with the grace and brutality of a dirty linebacker. Going back seemed like a mistake, a bow to convention.
If these books have taught me anything, it’s that I really should stop assuming I have any idea what Cronin is up to. All of the scene setting is to a purpose. The Twelve ends up unfurling with as much confidence as The Passage did, and its dip into the past is anything but perfunctory.
The Twelve does eventually return to its brave new world, a world decimated by The Virals, a race of bestial super vampires. It finds the heroes (somehow an ordinary word like protagonist doesn’t fit Cronin’s vision) at the end of an unsuccessful five-year hunt for The Twelve, the original carriers of the virus who hold the rest of their race enslaved to them in a hive mind. Unsure of what to do, Peter, Alicia and Amy, (the inscrutable possible saviors of humanity, whose very existence is tied to the creation of The Twelve) suddenly find fate forcing their hand as the long dormant Zero sets his endgame in motion.
If in the opening half, The Twelve seems a more pensive, less immediately involving novel than The Passage, it is because it’s dealing with characters who have lost their way forward. It’s another of Cronin’s narrative sleights of hand. The Passage ended with the way forward clear. The Twelve begins with that road already dead ended. The tight band separated physically and emotionally from one another. However, as Cronin regroups the characters and refocuses them, The Twelve builds a steady, yet propulsive momentum that rivals The Passage.
More problematic is an ugly rape scene that crops up near the end of the book. To me, this scene was emblematic of how depressingly perfunctory rape has become as a threat in genre fiction. Necessary or no, it is depressing to see Cronin, who has delivered some of the best written female characters in modern genre fiction, fall back on this device. On the other side of the coin, The Twelve is a novel with God on its mind, a more metaphysical novel than even The Passage, which had plenty of such material. If Terrence Malick ever decides to try his hand at genre movies, it might look a little something like this. Your mileage, as they say, will vary.
But these issues are minor. Beyond the sheer pleasure of Cronin’s storytelling abilities, beyond the richness of his language (like The Passage, The Twelve is a title of layered meanings), what I find truly moving about The Twelve is Cronin’s portrait of human decency surviving under impossible pressure.
In the book’s finest moment, tucked away in our journey back into the past, one character describes an impossibly horrendous situation to another. When asked what else he could have done he replies, “I could have held his hand.” When presented with an equally horrible situation a few pages later, that is exactly what he does. If (as they say), the purpose of fiction is “to break the icy seas within ourselves,” then perhaps the purpose of genre fiction is to make us just a little braver. If this is true, then Cronin has cemented his place as one of the greats.