Sunday, March 3, 2013

Continent of Vampires

The Twelve by Justin Cronin (2012): Cronin's first book in his epic-apocalyptic-science-fantasy-vampire trilogy, The Passage (2010), was an enjoyable mess that derailed about two-thirds of the way through as it suddenly transformed into a pitch for a Hollywood CGI spectacle. Cronin had won literary awards for his mainstream fiction, but The Passage was his first entry into genre work. I think a better editor could have really elevated that work, in part by cutting about a hundred pages. The Twelve is the second book in that trilogy.

The Twelve is a better book in pretty much every way, though the horror elements have all but disappeared, replaced by a greater focus on epic fantasy and survival fiction and even a well-imagined dystopia. The battle between North America's surviving humans and the vampire-like armies of The Twelve -- the twelve super-vampires created in a Black Ops science experiment gone awry in 2015 -- continues in the future one-hundred years from now, and (roughly) the present-day, and twenty years before the (sort of) contemporary future of the narrative. And there's a frame narrative that will remind people of The Handmaid's Tale, notes from an academic conference approximately 1000 years after the events of the novel. Man, that's a lot of timelines to keep track of.

One problem from the previous novel remains, while a new one rises in prominence. The returning problem lies with Cronin's decision to divide the narrative among those various timelines spanning 1000 years. This doesn't help narrative momentum. More importantly, it's become obvious by this point that the division exists so that Cronin can keep some vital information about the origins of the vampire plague hidden until the climactic pages of the third book. It's a clumsy way to create suspense, and I think a good editor could have fixed this. And because of the frame narrative, we know that things must have turned out OK. See what I mean about dramatic problems?

The (mostly) new narrative problem lies with God. The Lord of the Rings probably represents the ideal form of how to have an epic fantasy in which God (or a God-like being, in that case Eru or Iluvatar) has rigged the game so as to ensure the triumph of Good without this fact detracting from the dramatic tension or, indeed, being apparent to the reader without at least some critical consideration of the events of the novel. Good ultimately wins in Lord of the Rings because good people -- most importantly Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam -- were in the right place at the right time and made the right choices. In a world run by a benevolent God, this is not a coincidence. But it should probably look like one because if it doesn't, even the illusion of free will vanishes.

Now imagine if, instead of Sam and Frodo having a conversation on the steps of Cirith Ungol about the story of Beren and Luthien and their own inclusion in that story that never really ended, we instead had five pages of Sam and Frodo listing all the coincidences and chance meetings that had occurred up to that point in the novel before realizing that these couldn't all be coincidences and that, instead, some higher power was moving them around the chess board. Now imagine this same sort of conversation happening with every character in The Lord of the Rings, every 50 pages or so, just in case you hadn't had the point hammered home enough that there were no coincidences. Throw in some scenes from the afterlife, too, so that we know characters don't simply die.

All this God stuff really saps the drama from the narrative even as it also verges on the metafictional. This is a work of fiction, after all, and the characters are pretty much going where the author tells them to. See, he's sorta like a god! No wonder they keep having these fortunate chance meetings, and no wonder even things that initially seem bad often serve ultimately to advance the cause of Good! So metaphysics becomes metanarrative.

As Cronin is a talented writer, at least in the stylistic sense, I imagine at least some of these problems will work themselves out. Right now, because of the big book deal he signed for this trilogy, we're watching him work them out on the big stage with a big advance whereas other genre writers have at least been lucky enough, if they were being published, to figure these things out in paperback originals and rejected novels.

The novel does do a number of things well -- the characters are well-drawn, even the terrible ones: Guilder, the CIA agent whose secret project helped start this whole mess, comes across as a convincingly self-deluded tin-pot dictator whose "best intentions" have been polluted by his essential qualities of self-interest and self-pity. Cronin also manages some terse, tense action set-pieces, though things seem to go a bit too easily in the novel's concluding battle with the eleven remaining lieutenant Virals. The uber-Viral has yet to be seen in his/Its entirety.

In summation, I'm glad I've read the first two novels in this trilogy, flawed and occasionally annoying as they are. I'll be interested to see if Cronin remains a genre writer after the third novel, or if he returns to mainstream fiction, hopefully in either case with some lessons learned. Recommended.

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