Culture's Last Stand
Life as we know it is gone in Justin Cronin's post-apocalyptic future ... except for in Texas
In his epic 2010 bestseller, The Passage, Houston-based author Justin Cronin imagined an America brought to its knees by top secret government malfeasance, undergirded by a heartwrenching empathy for the least among us in the forms of Carter, a homeless black man wrongly accused of murder and sentenced to death, and Amy, a neglected girl deposited with nuns by a desperate single mother on the run. The first half of that novel traces the origins of the virus, which turns humans into flesh-eating monsters, and the chaos of its early days spreading across the continent. The second half picks up many decades later to follow the journey of a small group of survivors led by the sensitive Peter Jaxon and his childhood friend-cum-badass-with-a-blade Alicia Donadio from their walled California colony to Colorado, the site of the disaster that also houses the secret to reclaiming the world from the viral menace. Nothing is as it was before, and the "new normal" in 90 A.V. (After Virus) is no normal we would recognize.
Within the universe of The Passage and its recently published follow-up, The Twelve, apocalypse serves as a reset button of sorts, stripping culture of its contexts and providing humanity with new uses for the cultural tools – and baggage – left behind. On one hand, The Twelve introduces us to Kittridge, a veteran of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, part of this country's legacy of 9/11, who deploys both his military training and the power of social media to enact a grisly form of citizen journalism and survivalism in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak. On the other, 100 years later, the approximately 100,000 survivors populating what remains of Texas and an outpost in Iowa comprise a post-racial society in which certain genetic traits remain ("Jaxon hair" is meant to be understood as African-American hair) while racial boundaries have been erased by both necessity and generations of intermarriage. "The only good thing about an apocalypse that decimates the population is the end of racial distinction," says Cronin. "Everyone has the same cultural framework, it's now a survivalist culture. We lose the need to talk about it and, as a consequence, people just become people."
And yet, what goes around comes around, culturally speaking. A century isn't enough time to eradicate the world's oldest profession, nor poker, nor moonshine, nor bureaucracy and propaganda. Hell, The Twelve even indulges in a moment of extremely post-Marxist ambivalence when Peter collects his military pay and puzzles over the assignation of value to his labor. (Cronin mercifully avoids any rabbit holes about alienation and the means of production.) What animates the narrative most thoroughly, though, is a keen sense of Texas as a haven for survivors, the one place on the planet that will see its way through the end of the world.
"I used Texas in the novel for a number of reasons," Cronin explains. "One, I live there. Two, if anybody was going to survive, it would be Texas. Texas has a very strong sense of itself, and I find that a satisfying and fascinating aspect of a state that is now my home and where my children are raised, but I came to it having lived in the Northeast all my life. There isn't really another place in America that feels so strongly about itself, and it seemed to me to be a source of psychological strength that was part of what helped them to survive."
Much of the action in The Twelve takes place in Texas, primarily in the stronghold of Kerrville (chosen by Cronin because that is where his daughter has attended summer camp) and the petroleum refineries of Freeport. One harrowing scene in which a convoy traverses the 300 miles separating the two cities lays bare the terrifying reality of postapocalyptic Texas: It's not for weenies, especially when you are contending not only with the broad expanse of the landscape, but also with virals hell-bent on destroying you. And while Cronin plans to contend with the niggling question of what happened to the rest of the world in the third novel, The Twelve centers on what some might consider the most important question of all: What happened to Texas? Sorry about how you melted into toxic sludge, Houston.
A Conversation With Justin Cronin
Moderated by Owen Egerton
Sunday, Oct. 28, 11-11:45am, House Chamber