Monday, 6 May 2013

Justin Cronin: The Twelve

When I finally got my hands on a manageably sized copy of The Twelve, I'd been putting off buying it for about a year. I felt the heft of it - slightly smaller than The Passage, but not by much - and pondered the problem of memory. It had been two years since I finished The Passage, and I was wondering if I could spare the time to read it again and get back up to speed with Cronin's world. I decided not to bother. But it's worth unpicking why. I couldn't quite remember everything that happened in The Passage, but neither could I be bothered reading it again. The Passage isn't well enough written to have left an indelible imprint, nor quite enjoyable enough to be worth going back to for a refresher. Therein lies Cronin's problem, really.

Having finished The Twelve this morning, I took a look at what I'd been thinking after finishing The Passage, and blinked in surprise. Although The Twelve feels like a different book - albeit not a better one - everything that bugged me about the first book is still there bugging me about the second. There's a strong opening section set during the collapse of our contemporary world, then a meandering and somehow uninvolving middle set a hundred years later in the aftermath, and then everything gets speeded up and sorted out in a thoroughly confusing way before setting up the conflicts for the third book. And I'm sitting here thinking, why make the same mistakes again? Well, because the first time it resulted in a hell of a lot of books sold, so from where Cronin and his editors are sitting, it probably doesn't feel like any mistakes have been made at all. I was in Sainsbury's the other day, where the only books they sell are ones which they know they can pile high and sell cheap, and there was The Twelve discounted to £3.99. That's when you know something is going to sell in truckloads. Not too dusty for a self-consciously literary doorstop about life after vampires.

Still, it bugs me. Cronin's a good writer, by which I mean that he rarely jars you with a dud line. He can knock together a character who makes sense, and who you want to see more of, but he doesn't seem to deploy that talent the right way. Some of the most interesting characters walk on and walk off without ever living up to the thought which has gone into them. Life's like that, but fiction shouldn't be; if you create someone compelling, either hang the story off them, or do them in; there's nothing so jolting as the death of a character who's been carefully built up (Philip Reeve pulls this off splendidly again and again in his fiction). But don't walk a superb character into the action and then walk him back off again with nothing in between. Particularly when half the characters you've got in the foreground have the texture of magnolia emulsion paint.

When someone self consciously sets out to write a trilogy (if only postwar paper shortages hadn't forced The Lord of the Rings into three volumes!) there's always a serious risk that there's going to be a horrible flat spot in the middle. You know how you're starting out; every book begins with a vision of its beginning or it can't begin at all. You know where you want it to go to end, even in the roughest outline. It's that debbil bit in the middle which consigns most book ideas to the middle drawer in the desk, never to be seen again. And with a trilogy; the beginning is book one, the ending is book three; what's going to fill book two other than people marking time, doing stuff to set up book three? All of this was in the back of my mind over the past year or two; The Twelve came out in hardback about six months after I'd read The Passage, and I didn't feel the same sugar rush to get it and read it right now that I did when Neal Stephenson brought out Reamde. 

Where I think this middling middle book goes wrong is sticking with the principal cast of the middle of the first book. Age has not made them more interesting. They lack the fire and crackle of the characters from the more contemporary sections. Worse than that, they get in the way of the villains. At the heart of this enterprise lies the notion that the vampire plague comes from one guy, whose virus infection is cultured in twelve death row prisoners, who in turn become the source of the infection that  sweeps through the USA, carrying all before it. Those twelve prisoners are the titular Twelve, but it's almost as though Cronin felt he'd done all he needed to do by throwing their name in the title and then getting on with the travails of his everyman survivors. The Twelve are literally walk-ons in their own book. 

It's almost like a microcosm of the larger puzzle. The Twelve concentrates on the featured cast of the first book, making the whole world revolve around them and their dilemmas and losses. Apparently no-one else in what's left of America is up to anything of relevance to the fate of the world. All that matters is the little bubble of the main cast. But equally, all that matters in the work as a whole is the little bubble of the USA; a hundred years have passed since the catastrophe, but there's no hint of the wider world beyond North America. Cronin's made a decision to show us only what his characters can see, so it's understandable that there are no wider horizons to their action. Still; there's a whole world out there. The dynamic Cronin has chosen for his vampires confines the plague to the USA; there are only twelve masters, and they're homebodies who stick to their hometowns. So we, the readers, can infer that the plague didn't make inroads on the rest of the world. The fallout - that's another day's work. Take away the world's superpower and its appetite for consumer goods, and does the rest of the world go into unrecoverable crisis? Maybe that's enough to silence all the other voices, who knows? But a hundred years have passed; ample time for some kind of recovery to begin. Where are the European and Asian looters, come to pick over the bones of the fallen giant? 

Cronin does make one interesting choice in the middle of things; he tries to tackle head-on the age-old problem of overgrazing. I'm not absolutely sure I buy the answer he comes up with, but at least it's an attempt to face up to the logistical realities of filling the world with indestructible predators. It's possible that in a couple of years' time, when we get to the third book, it might all start to make sense. What I'm dreading is that the third book is going to repeat the sins of the first two, and give me a great opening and a long drawn out letdown.

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