I have just read a tremendous epic about 12 chosen men and the one who leads them and the multitudes they call to join them, and those whose oppose them and wish to destroy them. There is a traitor among the 12. There is a crucified martyr. There is life after death. There is a kind of resurrection.
No, it’s not the New Testament, King James Version, but Justin Cronin’s sequel to his wildly successful novel The Passage.
In this age of the sexy vampire, Cronin put the horror and then some back into the blood-sucking beasts. Project Noah, a secret military experiment (is there any other kind?) in Colorado, goes haywire, unleashing 12 predators, former death-row inmates injected with a DNA-altering virus, who, in a matter of weeks, lay waste to the entire United States, aided by their millions of bitten followers. (There is no mention of Canada or Mexico, and the world beyond reacts with haste to enforce a quarantine of the North American continent, laying mines along the entire coastline and blowing up the vessels of those who try to flee.)
Like The Passage, The Twelve is a series of road trips across a post-apocalyptic American landscape almost a century after the initial crisis, as well as a spiritual journey, a horrifying thriller and a love story.
More dystopian than the first book, The Twelve continues the story of the survivors from the First Colony, a pioneer-like community in California, five years after The Passage ended, as well as revisiting the days and weeks of initial horror after the accident from the perspective of some new and memorable characters. In this way, The Twelve can been read not as a simple sequel, but as a kind of palimpsest.
The most menacing creature in the novel is not a viral, not even The Zero, the first and most powerful among them, but a government bureaucrat turned dictatorial demagogue. The (d)evolution of this man (to name him would to give away too much) over the course of almost a century is a study in how a human being loses his moral compass to become a being of unadulterated evil. Cronin also manages to wring sympathy from the reader for all manner of cretins, including a hapless pedophile who gains humanity through becoming inhuman.
Yes, there are a few too many coincidences and rescues in the nick of time, and the novel is at times an odd mix of the bloody and the sentimental, and there are many writers I know who would categorize and dismiss The Twelve as “genre fiction.” This would be a mistake.
Cronin, a graduate of the precious and prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the author of two award-winning but little-known literary novels, can whip up swell sentences with the rest of them. He invests a dizzying array of primary and secondary characters with satisfying backstories, emotional lives and distinct voices. The dialogue is terrific, and some set pieces stunning. The Twelve makes a lot of contemporary, mimetic literary novels seem pretty anemic in comparison.
(Wouldn’t it be great if some of our iconic writers of fine prose and character studies followed Margaret Atwood’s lead and speculated about the future and other levels of reality, combined soulfulness with page-turning narratives? Anne Michaels writing about fallen angels, Michael Ondaatje spinning a global epic involving werewolves or zombies, M.G. Vassanji setting a novel on a space station orbiting Mars? Not as exercises in camp, but as serious endeavours?)
Both The Passage and The Twelve are framed by excerpts from papers and unearthed eyewitness reports presented at the Third Global Conference on the North American Quarantine Period, held 900 years in the future in the Indo-Australian Republic in New South Wales. In this way, Cronin leaves the door open for a third novel, a mighty task considering so many of his best characters are killed off during the course of The Twelve. Maybe that’s the reason no one has yet come up with a sequel to the New Testament.
Contributing reviewer Zsuzsi Gartner is the author of Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, a collection that includes fallen angels, and editor of Darwin’s Bastard’s, an anthology of dystopian and post-apocalyptic tales.