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Book Review: The Twelve by Justin Cronin

The Twelve by Justin Cronin (Ballantine Books; 592 pages; $28).

                In 2010, Justin Cronin set the book world on fire with his bestselling blockbuster The Passage, in which a secret government experiment went horribly awry.  Cronin imagined a post-apocalyptic landscape so alien and frightening that it gave readers good reason to keep their lights on.  Critics were enthralled, too, and compared Cronin to Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy.  Horror was not even Cronin’s forte; before the release of The Passage, Cronin was best known for writing Mary and O’Neil, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Stephen Crane Prize.

The Passage introduced readers to a little girl named Amy, “the Girl from Nowhere—the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years.”  Amy, Peter, and Alicia waged war against the virals.

Amy, Peter, and Alicia are all back in The Twelve but lack the spark that made them so intriguing and multi-dimensional in the first book.  They cannot carry this story.  Not even Amy can save The Twelve.

The Twelve does not pick up where The Passage ended.  Cronin takes readers back to Year Zero, a tactic that will frustrate most.  He wants us to see a new window into the aftermath of the virus that decimated much of humanity and destroyed civilization.  Before long, I was mesmerized by the new characters Cronin introduces, especially Lila, a pregnant woman who blocks out the end of the world happening around her.

Cronin’s strongest new characters, though, are three very different men: Kittridge, Danny, and Guilder.

Kittridge, or “Last Stand in Denver,” is a survivalist holed up in a high-rise.  He shot 7 virals the first night he was there.  “It was the last one that made him famous.  The creature, or vampire, or whatever it was—the official term was ‘Infected Person’—had looked straight into the lens just before Kittridge put one through the sweet spot.”  In a nod to the times in which Cronin sets Year Zero, our times, the video was uploaded to YouTube.  The picture “had traveled around the globe within hours; by morning all the major networks had picked it up.”  People were curious about Kittridge: “Who is this man? Everyone wanted to know.  Who is this fearless-crazy-suicidal man, barricaded in a Denver high-rise, making his last stand?”

Meanwhile, Danny, an autistic bus driver, is home with his mother’s dead body.  All alone with no electricity, a stinking corpse, and sour milk, Danny is terrified.  But he feels a kinship with the kids he drives to school.  He worries about them and is determined to see if they are all right.  Maybe Danny will find other survivors and news about what is going on.  “Because maybe he wasn’t the only person still living.  Because it gave him the happy-click, driving the bus.  Because he didn’t know what else to do with himself, with Momma in the bedroom and the milk spoiled and all the days gone by.”  Danny sets out in his school bus; he finds a changed world, but one in which he has a real place.

Guilder is the character you love to hate in The Twelve.  He is the Deputy Director of Special Weapons who is desperate to get his hands on little Amy or another test subject who was given a very special virus.  “And the virus was moving.  Spreading in every direction, a twelve-fingered hand.  By the time Homeland had sealed off the major interstate corridors…the horse was already galloping from the barn.”  Through Guilder, we see the government collapsing.  Cronin has Guilder make some tough decisions, making us empathize and sympathize with him.

Just when you get comfortable with new characters in the Year Zero, Cronin removes you from your comfort zone.  This can be a good thing, but not in this case.

When Cronin advances the story 100 years into the future, the novel loses ground.  The characters we got to know in The Passage, people we came to like, people we rooted for, fall flat in The Twelve.  Five years have passed and each has undergone many changes, but I found their dialogue awkward.  I could not get a feel for them this time around.

Furthermore, the alien world that Cronin illustrated so well and beautifully in The Passage is less alien here.  There is nothing new or unique or strange about it; it is all too familiar.  Instead of being awed by the eccentricity of the plot and setting as I was in The Passage, I found myself scrutinizing Cronin’s fondness of coincidences.  Too much of what he wrote was improbable.

The one shining light in this part of the story takes place in Fort Powell, Iowa, where a demagogue feeds humans to virals.  Cronin comes up with lots of surprises here.  But, sadly, it’s too little too late.

Fans of The Passage have waited a long time for its sequel.  Sadly, The Twelve is not worth the wait.  New blood made the story compelling in parts and highly readable at times.  However, the characters we came to love in The Passage come across as lackluster and even boring.  Amy is no savior here.

 

Justin Cronin

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Book Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (Random House; 288 pages; $26).

Forget armed conflict, viruses, terrorism and nuclear war. The people in Karen Thompson Walker’s elegiac, dark and gripping debut novel, “The Age of Miracles,” have other, more important things to worry about — namely, the effects of “the slowing” of Earth.

Walker, a former Simon & Schuster editor, combines science fiction and speculative fiction with a coming-of-age story. The effect is somber yet dazzling; I had never read anything like it.

(To read more of this book review that I wrote for the Mobile Press-Register, please go here.)

 

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Spotlight on Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles

Today is the publication day for former Simon & Schuster editor Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel The Age of Miracles.  Critics and readers are calling it THE summer read.  I wholeheartedly agree.

I have read it and am lucky enough to be reviewing this book for the Mobile Press-Register.  Walker combines science fiction and speculative fiction with a coming-of-age story.  The tale is really one huge flashback in which an adult woman named Julia narrates what happened the year she was 11.  Time slows.  At first, it is only minutes; then, it is hours; then, it is days; and, finally, it is weeks that are gained.  The world is in a tailspin, and so are its inhabitants.

Julia tries to navigate her way in a radically changed world.  It is not easy.  Walker takes a somber tone in this dark, gloomy, and very human story.  Julia’s account is an elegy of a lost way of life and of an irrevocably changed world.

The Age of Miracles is my recommendation for the week.  We are talking must-read here.

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Mark Spitz Vs. the Undead

            We are a culture fascinated by zombies.  Movies, television, books, comics, and graphic novels reflect our obsession with everything undead.  It all began with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead way back in 1968 and has seen a resurgence in recent years with AMC’s series The Walking Dead and movies such as Dawn of the Dead (2004), Zombieland (2009), The Crazies (2010), and the upcoming World War Z (2012) starring Brad Pitt.  The zombie craze has also extended to novels with World War Z (2006), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), and Ashes (2011).  One might write off Zone One as being yet another novel in the zombie genre but Colson Whitehead is the author, and that makes it a whole different ballgame.

Whitehead takes a satiric look at the whole zombie genre in Zone One.  The result is refreshing, sharp, and dazzling.  However, a novel about the undead is not the Harvard-educated Whitehead’s usual fare.  He previously wrote Sag Harbor, The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, and a book of essays called The Colossus of New York.  Whitehead was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the Young Lions Fiction Award.  He lives in New York City.  Many, including this reviewer, consider Whitehead a “highbrow” novelist.  But it is a mistake to dismiss Zone One as a “lowbrow” book; it is anything but.

Although zombies play a role in this novel, it is only a peripheral one.  Zone One is, above all, a human story.  Whitehead deposits “Mark Spitz” in post-apocalyptic Manhattan.  Spitz is not the character’s real name, only an insult-given moniker. Spitz always loved New York City, the city in which his favorite uncle lived and the place where Spitz always hoped to abide as an adult.  That city has changed drastically.  Indeed, a plague has ravaged the population and turned people into flesh-eating zombies.  Whitehead cleverly writes of former Human Resources clerks, a fortune teller, and even Spitz’s own mother as members of the undead circle.  This critic laughed aloud many times.

Mark Spitz encounters both “skel” and “strag” alike as a member of the Armed Forces ordered to reclaim the island of Manhattan.  A “skel” is a zombie that tends to stay in a place that meant something to him or her, now only a skeleton of his or her former self.  A “strag” is a straggler.  Acting on orders from the provisional government in Buffalo, Spitz and his team try to clean up the streets to bring back a semblance of civilization.  Despite the efforts of Mark Spitz and the reconstruction teams, packets of stragglers remain.  The city cannot be considered safe until all these packets of resistance have been removed.

In clever vignettes throughout the novel, Spitz relates stories of the people he has encountered along the way.  Everyone suffers from PASD, or post-apocalyptic stress disorder.  Corporations now sponsor everything from clothing to food to liquor.  Buffalo even has its own anthem “Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme from Reconstruction).”  Spitz’s fellow soldiers, Gary, No Mas, and Kaitlyn, are obsessed with the well-being of triplets.  Gary is also preoccupied with Gina Spens, a former porn star turned zombie killer who is now Italy’s delegate to a summit.  One by one, the teams kill strags and skels.  It seems as if conditions are improving, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Whitehead takes his time telling the story, revealing only bits and pieces here and there.  Zone One is not a novel for the impatient: the reader is on a need-to-know basis.  In some instances, the reader just does not need to know everything at that moment.  While this tactic often can be frustrating, it shows Whitehead’s amazing talent.  He keeps the reader guessing, even until the end.  One minor criticism is that Whitehead is overly fond of the metaphor.  It is almost as if he is keeping count and seeks, like the real Mark Spitz, to constantly break his record.  This critic thought it curious for Whitehead to name his character Mark Spitz and not Michael Phelps.  Phelps is more well-known, certainly.  Near the end of the novel, Whitehead reveals that his Mark Spitz is African American.  This was rather interesting and led this reviewer to question the relevance of such a revelation.  What did it matter the race or ethnicity of this character, especially in a world where those things had no bearing.  Then again, Whitehead is African American.  Could he have been putting himself into this story?  Whitehead also lives in New York and loves the city.  If Whitehead were not an author, and the unthinkable occurred, could he be Mark Spitz?

 

The edition I read was an Advanced Reader’s Copy.

 

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