I stealth-borrowed The Age of Miracles from my friend the Enthusiast on a day when he wasn’t at work and I forgot my Nook at home. The subway ride with nothing to read was so unbearably boring I wanted to rip all of my hair out of my head just to have something to do. The Enthusiast has one and a half shelves full of readable books at his cubicle, but I didn’t want most of them. I almost borrowed Coetzee’s Disgrace, but luckily Lil Liv Tyler, who sits at the desk across from the Enthusiast, warned me that (spoilers, but the kind you want to know about if you are like me and hate reading about sexual violence) the daughter gets gang-raped! What! I did not know about this. So I borrowed The Age of Miracles instead, although I think the title and cover are boring.
I don’t know, y’all. I know that authors make up their own titles, but I wish someone at Random House had proposed an alternate title, and I wish the cover design team had designed a different cover. The Age of Miracles is sort of chilling, and the title and cover make it look like it’s going to be kind of heartwarming, but then you’re like, No, it’s probably too literary to be heartwarming, so maybe it’s one of those sort of very sad suburban desperation novels.
If that’s what you’ve been thinking, good news: FALSE! It’s much more like the adult version of Susan Beth Pfefffer’s Life as We Knew It. Except not obviously more adult. And not as scary. Look, I don’t even know what the distinctions are. Why is this not young adult and the Pfeffer series is? What is happening in this world?
Here’s what happening in the world of The Age of Miracles: The earth’s rotation has slowed down. Suddenly the days are forty-five minutes longer. Then ninety minutes. After a while, each day lasts for 72 hours. Nobody knows why this is happening or how to make it stop. Birds fall from the sky. Gravity weighs more heavily on everybody, so sports don’t function the same way they used to. Some people — it’s not clear why those people and not others — come down with a mysterious collection of symptoms they call, for lack of a better term, gravity sickness. With no idea of what to do, the government institutes “clock time”, which means that everyone will keep living on the same schedules they’ve always kept, no matter what the sun is doing in the sky. As all of this is happening, thirteen-year-old Julia is growing up, nursing a crush on a boy at her school, going to piano lessons, watching her parents argue.
I loved about The Age of Miracles that the world was perpetually on the verge of unlivable disaster, and it never quite came. The changes to the world are ominous because they seem to portend disaster, and as that degree of catastrophe fails and fails to materialize, the situation becomes more tense, not less. The characters adapt and carry on with their lives, but the reader knows that worse must be coming. Sometimes the characters seem to know this too — the protagonist’s mother stocks up on canned foods and stores them in the back against the day that groceries are no longer available — and sometimes they are too occupied trying to find some semblance of normalcy to pay attention to what’s coming.
I shall now coin the term process dystopia, which I doubt I’ll ever need to use again because it’s such a rare category of dystopian book. Ordinarily — I said this when I was reviewing The Uninvited — the dystopian novel begins long after the Events. You hear about them in narration, or else sometimes in flashback, and that’s your glimpse into how the world shifted from our normal to the protagonist’s. The Age of Miracles gives it to you piece by piece, every step of the process of building the new normal: First they don’t notice, then nobody knows what the hell to do, then it’s clock time, then people who won’t keep clock time are treated with suspicion, then birds are dropping dead on your porch every day. And so forth.
So I like this. I like a process dystopia. I like watching people inspect their circumstances and figure out how to behave in ever-changing circumstances so that they can have some semblance of routine and normalcy. I like this because I am a person to whom routine is stupendously important. In particular, I liked how the world’s testing of its new rules — clock time? let’s give it a try! — paralleled the process you go through in adolescence of testing the rules of adulthood, figuring out where you fit into it, establishing what is normal and right for yourself. Julia is navigating both of these things simultaneously, and it makes for fascinating reading.
Disregard the title and cover of this book! It’s all bad marketing. Embrace the process dystopia! If you are still reluctant, I’ll add that this is a very very quick read. I read the whole thing on two subway rides: home from work after borrowing this from the Enthusiast, and back to work the following morning.