California Literary Review

The Twelve by William Gladstone


September 14th, 2009 at 11:35 am

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The Twelve by William Gladstone
The Twelve
by William Gladstone
Vanguard Press, 288 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

Time Is Running Out

For those who like novels with a historical underpinning and a healthy dose of mystery, The Twelve might just deliver. More than 5,000 years ago, the Mayans devised a 26,000-year calendar, and that cycle ends on December 12, 2012; this is a fact, not something made up to make a book feel more rooted in reality. Last year, the USA Today even ran an article on this very subject, mentioning how many authors are capitalizing on this event and how there’s an increasing public interest in how on the winter solstice in 2012, our sun will be perfectly aligned with the middle of the Milky Way for the first time in nearly 30,000 years. For people who believe in astrological signs, that’s about as big as it gets. And that’s what author William Gladstone is banking on: timeliness and a nice helping of Y2K–style fear.

This novel follows the exploits of intellectual and spiritual wunderkind Max Doff who, even as an infant, clearly was set apart from the rest of humanity. He’s destined for greatness along the lines of the Buddha and other prophets. During a near-death experience from a severe case of the flu at age 15, Max has a vision in his euphoric delirium that he can’t quite make sense of yet, but it reveals to him the names of twelve people (religious overtones anyone?). As he continues in his remarkable life of success after success, Max meets each of these people in turn. The first are by pure happenstance, but he eventually recognizes that they’re the clue to uncovering the hidden meaning of that near-death moment, so he seeks them out because there is global importance in Max’s understanding of his own destiny. For those who are a little slow on the uptake, we’re constantly clued in to Max’s specialness by figures like Uncle Gupta, an Oxford-educated man who tells Max: “. . .it is true, I too, can read your aura, and there is little doubt that you truly were karma-free at birth and are a man of destiny.” As a child, Max is tormented by his older brother Louis, but Max has Christ-like patience then and throughout his life with his malcontent sibling who later shows brutal tendencies along with persecution complexes that would stump even the good Dr. Freud. He even treats the hanger-ons and rude, superficial folk well when most rational people might react a bit more vehemently . . . say with an uppercut to the jaw, or at least a serious verbal barrage.

It’s no surprise that high-profile New Age figures such as Eckhart Tolle and Chicken Soup for the Soul guru Mark Victor Hansen rave about this book because Max’s life is truly spectacular. He’s an intellectual whiz at Yale. He’s portrayed as more philosophical and spiritual than most of the world’s leading spiritual figures, many of whom he meets on his global voyage of self-discovery. He attracts interesting people, gobs of money and beautiful women in ways that Hugh Hefner might envy. Max is the Law of Attraction personified. Plus his life has cosmic importance—and that’s something many of us wish were true with our own lives.

Ultimately, the book reads like a parable, and parables tend to be more about the clear, effective delivery of a message versus a commitment to serious literary quality. Then again, James Redfield admitted that The Celestine Prophecy (which spent 165 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list) was a psychological and spiritual parable based on Mayan culture, too. Gladstone’s book is clearly connecting to a successful literary pedigree—not a bad tactic for any debut novelist.

Much of the writing, though, reminds this reviewer of Gatsby’s elusive, sketchy details about himself which are designed to give him a heroic, impressive past but end up so vague as to be clearly untrustworthy. F. Scott Fitzgerald played with that idea as a source for irony—he didn’t write the whole book that way. Gladstone did, however.

Here’s an example from The Twelve:

But Jane’s love for herself was diminished. Her affair with Howard was over at summer’s end—a hot and sultry Indian summer that lasted from September until mid-October. A healing of sorts had taken place in her, and she returned to normal life, although life for her was never the same again.

It’s almost like the text to this novel is made up of notes to be expanded on later, but then for some reason that expansion never happened. Perhaps readers will want to treat this novel like an airplane book—a quick, ephemeral read. That kind of fast-dance through the 270-ish pages works wonders. For readers who want to crawl inside the pages and live with some complex, compelling characters for awhile or be thrilled as when watching a good Michael Crichton movie, a lot of this book might blow by too quickly, like seeing beautiful scenery through the smudged window of a car zooming along at 90 mph.

Gladstone slows down, though, with passages that echo of religious or philosophical importance, such as Max’s errant essay for a Yale philosophy class that gets him thrown out of school, drugged with antipsychotics, and nearly locked away in a mental institution. All of that is over his eureka moment of “A is, and is not, A.” Gladstone also conveniently positions Max to have a number of conversations with spiritual gurus and philosophy aficionados, as well as people like Chill and Rachel Campister who won the reality game show “The Amazing Race” and now want to make motivational films that encourage faith and teamwork to achieve miracles. Nearly every person Max encounters adds to the growing spiritual conversation in one way or another. Regular people seem to simply have no place in this storyline.

While an expensive marketing campaign and 20-city national tour can do wonders for moving copies, it ultimately can’t make a book any better than it’s written, no matter how cool the iPhone-based The Twelve video game application is. If readers can get past the many coincidences, predictable plot, and thin characters, this book does have some interesting ideas in play. But if readers are hoping for The Chronicles of Narnia¸ Pay it Forward, The DaVinci Code, Stranger in a Strange Land, or even The Jehovah Contract, this book will fall far short on expectations.

  • ruby mackey milligan

    Thank you for a great read. I have quietly walk in two realms for most of my life. I had a near death experience at five years old and that is when I remember clearly that I was forever changed.In my hospital room I prayed hundreds of times each day. I am convinced that is what saved my life. I could see what I knew no one else could see. Most people can not relate to the gift God has given me and I do not try to explain. Your book brought me comfort even though it is fiction. It is definitely full of verisimilitudes.

  • Dfgghh

    It is too idealistic. The world is way more crueler and this book is rather straight forward.

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