theoscillatingfan ([personal profile] theoscillatingfan) wrote2012-11-19 11:18 am

The Twelve by Justin Cronin

I hated this book. I'll just put that out there. I hated this book. The only reason I finished it was because my husband and I were reading it together and he would've been disappointed if I'd just quit, after he read the whole thing. But I wanted to quit. And almost every word of this book was work, read with a McKayla Moroney scowl on my face. I hated this book.

But I didn't want to.

I didn’t like The Passage, first book of this trilogy, per se, but it had definitely stayed on my mind in the three years between reading it and the publication of The Twelve. I was intrigued to see where Cronin was going with it all, and I wanted to see if/how he would recoup or redeem the more puzzling and/or problematic bits of The Passage.

Short answer: he wouldn't, he didn't, and he was really only going to make everything much, much worse.

Somewhere in the middle of The Twelve, I looked Justin Cronin up on Wikipedia. It informed me that a) Cronin is a professor of English and b) he counts Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy among his influences. But I could've guessed all these things from the text, because Cronin name-drops nothing but major works of classic literature throughout the book—which would've been fine if any one of them connected back to the story in any meaningful way, rather than reading like Cronin was one of those guys trying to show how erudite and well-read he is—and so many parts of the story and characters feel like they were cribbed directly from King, McCarthy, Atwood and other pretty major authors. Danny is just a version of The Stand's Tom Cullen; Lila is Nadine Cross from same, and Carter reads like John Coffey from King's the Green Mile. All of Sara's adventures in Homeland read like Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, down to the veiling of 'attendants' and the secret resistance. Cronin's bad habit of cutting away from moments that should be narratively & emotionally important to go into exhaustive minutiae about things that, ultimately, don't really matter and don't add the textural elements I feel he's going for, as well as the off-putting sentiments/viewpoints about women, feels like it's pulled straight from McCarthy's playbook.

I don't necessarily mind pastiche/homage in my media—hell, Tarantino's made a career on it and one I largely enjoy—but Cronin falls down because he doesn't do any of it well.

So let me try to break this down a little bit.

1. Bad Writing. First, I stipulate that bad writing is a very subjective thing. There are tons of glowing reviews about The Twelve and very few negative ones. However, Cronin's writing a) really didn't work for me, personally, in a number of ways and b) even the people who loved the book and gave it amazing ratings managed to point out quite a lot of flaws in the story, even if they didn't mind as much as I clearly do. But let's talk about what I mean by bad writing:

1a. Style. I find the writing itself clunky, pretentious, genre-inappropriate, and way too prone to purple prose by the protagonists, who are just so damn grateful for every moment of their lives! Even if I hadn't read that Cronin is an English professor, I could've guessed it because the entire writing style of the book seemed to regress to a bygone literary era…and I don't even mean just the prologue, where Cronin attempts to emulate The Bible itself. The prose and character dialogue are stilted, overly intellectual—and, given the time period and the likely linguistic drift in the meantime—anachronistic. The characters are supposed to be the product of a post-apocalyptic event and yet their internal and external dialogue sounds more like university post-graduate students than hardscrabble, desperate survivors. Again and again, I was thrown out of the story by prose and dialogue that were completely wrong for the setting Cronin wanted to create. Voice matters. Cronin made poor choices about the voice he told his story in, and, as a result, it was difficult to impossible to give him my willing suspension of disbelief.

1b. Digression. As well, large chunks of the story are spent on events and characters that, at least to date, don't matter and don't pay off. As with The Passage, Cronin starts The Twelve with a long and winding peek into the "past"; the escape of the source virals from captivity and the collapse of civilization. And, while on the one hand, there's a certain voyeuristic interest in these chapters, it's too many pages and too much time spent on characters who are not the major players of the real story and all the information contained in those chapters is then 'revealed' or otherwise summarized again later on, when the characters actually make their appearance in the main narrative. My husband's review says that he could tell/feel that this was a book written on a deadline; I felt more like this was a book written for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), where would-be authors try to write 50K in 30 days. That is, there's so much here that feels like filler, that feels pointless or—worse—takes away from the point of the story that you have to wonder if Cronin was being paid by the word. And why a good editor never took him, and the story, in hand.

1c. Lack of realism. I found it interesting/amusing to be reading The Twelve now, because there was a kind of ivory tower tone-deafness to Cronin's viewpoint that felt Mitt Romneyan, particularly in the way Cronin would group and characterize echelons of the working class, i.e. "They were men of the fields, their hands thickened from work, hair shorn close, crescents of dirt under their nails, no beards." Or "But Lucius was a soldier, with a soldier's sense of duty; he had accepted his [prison] sentence without question." or the characterization of all the human inhabitants in Homeland as either stricken and immobilized sheep or cunning members of the resistance. As well, there's no nuance to characterization. The good guys are pure and virtuous and determined and completely unfazed by all obstacles to their goals, even rape or torture. The bad guys are rock-stupid, bumbling, confused and without virtue (even the evil Sod's knife is noted to be badly balanced, because a bad guy can't be seen to have a good weapon).

But now, I'm getting bogged down in details (and they are legion) and bypassing the increasingly unbelievable absurdity of the plot. The vague, woo-woo mysticism that permeated The Passage is back in The Twelve in spades. Characters can (and do!) look at each other and are able to glean each other's inmost secrets and past pains, or look into the eyes of virals and see the human soul trapped in the immortal, vampiric drone flesh. All the characters (LIVING AND DEAD) are connected by some unseen astral space that allows them to communicate and coordinate across incredible distances and share each other's dreams. I want to say that the heroes (because they're not just protagonists, they're definitely heroes) are able to parse events from the random noise of human life and connect them—correctly—to their conclusion, but with the way the story is presented, there are no random events. Everything is ordained by an unseen hand that no one thinks to question or doubt, but instead, obeys unquestioningly and downright serenely, like the perfect (unrealistic) constructs that they are.

Sociologically, it's not much better. After giving us a perilously isolated world on the brink of extinction in The Passage, Cronin opens up the world dramatically in The Twelve; large scale societies that seem to have had no technological or linguistic drift in the intervening years and who have adapted to the virals in such a way that they're only really a threat to the incautious or in the case of an ambush. That part feeds into my next bullet point, but at the end of the day, it doesn't feel real or sustainable. There are other, character-based traits that feed into this, but I'm saving them for when I start to talk about characterization.

But, going back to the story itself, the entire climax of the book requires the pro-tem villain, Guilder, to behave and have the logical deducting power of a Snidely Whiplash type villain, down to the lengthy absurdity of, after over a hundred years of somehow doggedly clinging to the bureaucratic suits and ties of his past life, dresses himself in a woman's robe, a belt of neck-ties and the tasseled tie-backs from the curtains in his quarters. In fact, all of the book's major moments and scenes pretty much rely on the bad guys being uniformly dumb as a bag of hammers and having the survival instincts of moths, while the heroes are equally uniformly insightful, united and always right about the course of action to be made. Which moves into my next point:

1d. Lack of tension/danger. Both because of how Cronin chose to write the story—the terse dispassion of his prose, often telling the outcome of narrative events before he relates them, especially in ways that let us know ahead of time that our heroes survive the encounter, the fact that we know from the first book that Amy will live a thousand years (and this is only around a century later)—and the fact that no one, through the course of the book, not one of his darlings seems to die! (Okay, except Tifty, who was a stepchild at best). Even characters that we thought were dead from the last book, like Sara and her unborn child, seem to somehow, improbably, impossibly survive encounter after encounter in what's supposed to be a humanity-barely-clinging-by-its-fingertips future.

(Oh, and going back to the UTTER lack of realism: the magic of parenthood that allow parents to identify children that they haven't seen in years, or possibly have NEVER seen before, as in the case of Sara and Kate, and being able to unquestionably identify them as THEIRS with a look. WTF was THAT?)

In any case, though a number of faceless redshirts and, of course, villains die throughout the course of the book, I never once worried about any of our heroes, especially our core group of Peter, Alicia or Amy, who are very clearly his especial darlings. Given that the book's climax revolves around the perceived threat of danger to Amy, specifically, it all falls incredibly flat because a) it's Amy, b) this is only the middle book of the trilogy and c) we know she goes on to live a thousand years. Not to mention that the entire novel is so jam packed with action movie clichés and conventions that all of this was both visible from miles away and completely predictable. Complete lack of impact.

1e. The Author's Hand of Handwaviness. I seem to remember that there's a name for this, but I can't remember what it's called. But it's basically where an author tries to negate the holes and problems in their text by calling attention to them, in-text (see Guilder's "Sorry we made vampires; it seemed like a good idea at the time." And, "You decided to reengineer an ancient virus that would transform a dozen death row inmates into indestructible monsters who live on blood, and you didn't think to tell anybody about this?") while, at the same time, doing nothing to actually fix or redress those problems. What I basically learned in school was: Don't. Don't do that. But Cronin does it throughout The Twelve. Sometimes in a way that seems to deprecatingly poke fun at himself, like the quotes above, sometimes in ways that feels like he's trying to prove himself to his critics, in the same way his frequent name-dropping of works of literature and art feel like an insecure man trying to show that he is, too, smart.

As well, the Author's Hand of God is too visible throughout the text. The plot is held together by incredible, unbelievable, inexplicable coincidences, unexplained magic/mysticism and superhuman insights that are waved away as God's influence/God's will. While reading The Passage, I'd frequently wondered if I'd stumbled into a Christian treatise masquerading as genre fiction; that feeling only increased with The Twelve, except, as before, it didn't feel grounded enough in any particular branch of Christianity that I knew of for that to make sense. Then and now, it feels like Cronin just needed some kind of deus ex machina as glue, to hold the gaping ends of the story together. It's one of those things I was hoping that Cronin would improve upon or explain in this second volume, but instead he only embroidered on it, made it bigger and less sensical than before (changing some of his previous mythology in the process, something that feels like cheating, to me), with the addition of the astral dreamspace and magical human hive-mind that allows everything to be known with a single look. It's disappointing to me that Cronin is either still spinning this out into the third book without any more explanation than before or that it's exactly as it seems: a murky and pasted on mystical system inserted to explain/justify otherwise improbable/impossible events.

2. Characterization. Though it technically also falls under the umbrella of bad writing, I have characterization as its own bullet point, because there's as much flawed here as with the story itself. I can often stomach a story with bad plot if it has great characterization; I can take a story with horrible characterization if it has great plot. What's unforgivable about The Twelve, for me, is that it has neither.

2a. One Note/One Story. The Twelve has a huge cast of characters (and a list of dramatis personae that's hidden away at the end, where it doesn't do you much good). In that light, it makes sense that not every character would be fully fleshed out. But what doesn't make sense is that none of the characters are fleshed out. This was one of my complaints with The Passage, but I think Cronin actually did a much better job in the first book of lifting the characters from their obvious character tropes than in The Twelve. Characters in The Twelve are caricatures, often literally reduced to a single note/single story as the font and source of ALL their motivations and concerns, a past moment that they're trapped inside and relive indefinitely. And that is repeated ad nauseam throughout the text. This is something Cronin not only does, but has Alicia observe it, in text, as characteristic of The Twelve. In reality, it applies to most of the characters.

2b. Lack of Growth/Movement. Being already so incredibly perfect or so egregiously evil, the characters really have no moments of development or change or growth. Amy changes physically, but she remains the same serenely, inhumanly confident and opaquely enigmatic character she's been through two long novels. Alicia is a Valkyrie badass who never wavers or flinches from her goals, even after prolonged rape and torture, jumping into the saddle without a pause even after her noble attempt to kill herself so as to avoid becoming a monster like the ones she's battled (don't even get me started on her fantastical, ridiculous relationship with the preternatural horse, Soldier, who only avoids being a unicorn by his lack of horn). Things happen—sometimes horrible, terrible things, as in the case of Alicia—but the characters are never more than momentarily fazed by it, resuming their quests with barely a blink of the eye and no time to process or recoup. They are the same saintly cardboard people at the end that they were at the beginning.

2c. Lack of realism. This is also a broad umbrella that could cover the previous two points, but it filters down into small things. Alicia and her magical horse. The way none of the heroes gets mad or confused or acts irrationally, they never make wrong decisions or jump to the wrong conclusion. They all agree on every course of action. I've talked about the mystical soul-gazing, which is flat-out absurd (and, incidentally, extends to non-human relationships like that of Alicia with her horse). The dialogue doesn't sound like anything from the current day, let alone anything I'd imagine from a hundred years into a post-apocalyptic future. Everyone—except Guilder, who couldn't find his way out of a wet paper bag—is eerily, unrealistically self-aware: of their own motivations and the thoughts, feelings and motivations of everyone else around them. Though some of the villains can be chalked up to unreliable narration, the heroes are always right and to be taken largely at face value.

I also want to put something in here about the almost puritanical viewpoint that permeates the book and the characters; pretty much all the characters (except Lore, who is problematic in different ways) and especially the heroes, have an ongoing disdain for sex. Though the relationship with Amy, Alicia and Peter is definitely pitched as a romantic triangle, it's always portrayed as a pure love that never goes any further than hand holding. Which could be interesting if it wasn't also combined with the need to show Alicia's ancestor April specifically and unnecessarily as a virgin and to portray Lore, the only character who openly enjoys sex and sexuality, as "masculine", "carnivorous" and embarrassing. Though I'm not going to sit and wave a flag for alcohol or drug use, there's a similar contempt for the (largely nameless) characters who sully themselves by drinking booze or smoking.

I feel like I could pull out a hundred or a thousand other details to illustrate all these points, but this review has taken all day to organize and get out, so I want to move on to the areas of my final issues:

3. Racism, Sexism, Heteronormativity & Mental Illness. All of these things are problems. And, more irritatingly, they're problems in the way you find when someone often thinks they're doing a better job with them and being more aware and savvy than they actually are.

3a. Racism. One of the things I really actually liked about The Passage is that it featured a fairly racially/ethnically diverse cast of characters and that Cronin wrote them without falling into most/any of the normal pitfalls or stereotypes that writers so often fall into. Incredibly disappointingly, this regressed sharply in The Twelve. Most of the characters of color were killed off, between books or off-screen and the characters who remained were explicitly called out as or were coded as non-racial/white.

And though Cronin gives a tip of the hat to the Latin@ population in Texas by sprinkling in some words in Spanish, his portrayal of visibly/explicitly Latin@ characters leave a LOT to be desired. See the aforementioned Lore and her "carnivorous", overwhelming and outrageous sexuality and a Latin@ transsexual: "She moved forward from the shadows. Neither young nor old, her body so thin it was nearly boyish, yet the sensual confidence of her voice and the way she stood—shifting from one foot to the other, her pelvis pushing gently against her tiny skirt—combined with the heavy-lidded declivity of her eyes as they trolled the length of Peter's body, to give her an undeniable sexual force." There's a long and ugly history of portraying people of color as hypersexual and insatiable that Cronin feeds right into, despite racism theoretically being no problem at all (another point of unreality) in his post-racial post-apocalypse.

3b. Sexism. There's a real and weird Madonna/Whore kind of thing going on with the women in The Twelve. Amy and Alicia, and even Lila are portrayed as pure, asexual and inviolate, perfect and beloved by many, while Lore, highly sexualized and insatiable, can't even quite manage to be openly loved by Michael, the man she's having a monogamous relationship with. Lore is also portrayed as being jealous and possessive, without merit, a sharp contrast to the more perfect Amy and Alicia, who balance their mutual love and desire for Peter with lofty equanimity.

But even with Amy and Alicia (or April or Sara) there's a kind of model minority skeeviness to their portrayal. Their awesomeness comes from their difference from other, ordinary (less interesting, more flawed) women. They're emotionless and dispassionate and have no needs beyond the group goals of saving humanity. Moreover, the way they're continually described is reverent, almost worshipful, placing them outside the more ordinary context of humanity. But reverence—placing women on a pedestal—is not equality and that fact seems to escape Cronin.

Especially when you contrast that with the fact that the only viral women that we know of, Amy and Lila, are shown as having the specifically female power of manipulation; to maze and confuse people's (men's) minds as an extension of the disease in their blood. With Lila (not as pure as Amy), this manipulation trait is explicitly tied to sexuality, as both characters and the narrative show Lila's behavior as bordering on orgasmic, the closer to the virals she gets. As well, in the ambush on the oil caravan led by Michael and Peter, Lila is portrayed as her younger, more beautiful self while controlling the virals, while most of the rest of the time, her appearance is described as old, and crone-like. UGH.

There's also a problem in the portrayal of rape in The Twelve. On the one hand, I'm of course grateful that Cronin doesn't go the route of sexualizing or glamorizing rape by describing it in loving detail, but, at the same time, I feel that he tips too far in the other direction in the attempt to be respectful by glossing over the systematic rapes by the Homeland cols and by Alicia's rape and torture. Cronin handwaves it with blithe and brief mentions that make it seem like something that just happens, an authorial choice that to me, at least, seemed to minimize and trivialize it instead. Rape: yes, it's horrible, but also no big deal.

3c. Heteronormativity. Without looking up my old review, I think I called out Cronin in The Passage for the lack of any LGBT or even questioning characters. Characters either paired off heterosexually or were briefly mentioned to not pair off with anyone at all with no in-between. This is still true in The Twelve (other than the one transsexual, who is a prostitute, obvs) and feels even more aggressively pushed.

One of the more eye-rolling moments for me was, after the liberation of Homeland, the provisional government put, among their TOP priorities, legitimizing the (heterosexual) relationships among the flatlanders by allowing them to marry. Add to this the magical emphasis on (heterosexual) biological parentage by Sara (and Hollis) being able to identify her/their daughter with a single glance, Kate's ability to recognize Sara as her 'Mummy' (what, are we British now?) and Tifty's immediate recognition of an adult Nitia, and it feels incredibly, skeevily heteronormative and "traditional family values".

3d. Mental Illness. Both Grey and Lila are portrayed as mentally ill. Both Grey and Lila, though given superficial fleshing out to make them sympathetic are, at the end of the day, villains. In Grey's prior life, he is a pedophile. We don't see any of this throughout The Twelve, because the virus renders him asexual, but it's this trait that brings him into the story and makes him (un)suitable to be the chosen Renfield of Zero. Lila's mental illness is a spiral of madness coming from the loss of her baby with Brad Wolgast, civilization collapsing while she's pregnant again, and then her being transformed into some kind of semi-viral state by Grey. And, like Grey, though much of her villainy is off-screen and thus, less impactful, Lila is responsible for the death of an unknown (but large) number of people from ambushes performed with her pet virals, through attrition, by kidnapping humans back to Homeland for slavery and a similarly unknown number of female attendants and children.

When Grey is freed from his pedophiliac tendencies by his conversion to viral form, he's able to form a pure, loving (asexual) connection with Lila, which gives him both purpose and, at the end, salvation. When Lila regains her sanity, she's able to save Sara and give her back to Kate, she helps destroy Homeland and the red-eyes and nobly frees herself and Grey. So, when they're in the grip of their mental illnesses, Grey and Lila are monsters. It's only when they're able to "overcome" their insanity that they can be sympathetic and obtain their redemption. It's easy and it's skeevy and it falls deep into old and long used tropes of the mentally ill as monsters and villains.

And, though developmental delay/mental retardation is not, in any real sense of the world, mental illness, we see Cronin also lean heavily on the mentally retarded as "special" trope in the persons of Danny and Carter. (Carter's virals are even called dopeys, really?) Carter also falls, like Sister Lacey in the Magical Negro trope and the familiar ground of Black characters serving as spiritual mentors and guides for White children. Carter isn't even allowed to act heroically, ceding his place in the final act to (White) Brad Wolgast.

A lot of these things were present to a smaller or greater extent in The Passage, but it straddled an uneasy line where you hope—and give the author the opportunity—to improve and prove you wrong. But, sadly, Cronin failed that test on all fronts and lost the thin thread of interest and unpredictability that made The Passage at least readable. The Twelve was long, it was boring, it was increasingly ludicrous and predictable. And though there are still many unanswered questions that, presumably/hopefully will be answered in the trilogy's final volume, I find I don't care about the answers any more and the price paid—out of pocket, in time and effort and energy—are not worth the pain and aggravation I felt through the entire ordeal of reading this book.

I really hated this book.
nilchance: Picture of a pomegranate with spilled seeds, text "I think you're confused, I'm not Persephone" (Default)

[personal profile] nilchance 2012-11-20 12:08 am (UTC)(link)
Talk nerdy to me.

There's so much of this that gives me the secondhand heebs. *shakes it off*

[personal profile] asj2013 2014-01-17 11:26 pm (UTC)(link)
Best review of the book that I've ever read. Comprehensive and insightful and helpful too as I am writing a post apocalyptic story myself. Thank you and thumbs up ;-)

From the future!

[personal profile] theatomicsiberian 2016-05-03 02:55 am (UTC)(link)
Oscillating Fan, I'm writing this from the future! (Having found this review after googling "Soldier" and "unicorn" haha) Verily I say upon thee, heed my warning: the third book in the trilogy is even worse than "The Twelve."