Review: The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker; plus, a new term I coined and feel good about

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.

34 thoughts on “Review: The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker; plus, a new term I coined and feel good about

  1. I have a process dystopia suggestion – The Hopkins Manuscript by R C Sherriff, republished by Persephone. It’s all about what happens when people realise the moon will soon collide with the Earth and there is lots of build up before the big event. The narrator is one of those purposefully insufferable stuffed shirt, small village type for comedy (he is disproportionately worried about the effect of the moon crash on his interest in showing bantams) so sometimes I had to indulge in some readerly gnashing of teeth (come on ge to the moon crash). But it also brings you to a place where you crae about stuffed shirt guy.

    • Ooo. Sounds awesome! And also doesn’t exactly sound like the sort of thing Persephone would publish — I love it that they have the range to put something like this back into print.

  2. Now you’ve said it I have to agree, the title is a bit peculiar. The story sounds very good however, and I love what you’ve said about the process. Often you do wish you had read more about how things happened rather than the aftermath (or the aftermath of the aftermath in many cases). I love that your friend has books in his cubicle, sounds like a mini library!

    • A very mini-library. I’m envious that he has a bookshelf at his desk. If I had a bookshelf at my desk, I’d just have my mother send me all the books I left at home, and fill up the entire shelf. :p

    • It’s interesting that you thought the author focused too much on the physical world. I thought she struck a fairly good balance of portraying the physical and emotional/psychological impacts, although there were definitely places in the book where she leaned too far to one side or the other. Plus, don’t you like soul-suckingly bleak books? :p

      • Actually I am yes, a big fan of Soul-Sucking Bleak Books. And I have a review coming up next week I think of Ashes, which is THE Soul-Suckingist Bleakest Book EVER! (I was loving it!) LOL

  3. Oh my gosh, I love the phrase “process dystopia.” Those are EXACTLY the kinds of dystopias that I enjoy reading, but have always called them “quiet dystopias.” But that never quite made sense because what happens in a book like this one isn’t really quiet at all. So, yay, new phrase for books! I am highly in favor of it, and I’m really glad you enjoyed this book. I liked it a lot too.

  4. It is a good term. My daughter loved Life As We Knew It and will probably like this one, now that you’ve brought it to my attention. I think the YA label is about marketing. Have you noticed that most of Jane Austen can be found in the YA sections of some bookstores and libraries? I have.

    • I have noticed that, which I guess — I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t get why these decisions get made. I don’t get why Age of Miracles was marketed as this year’s Room instead of this year’s The Hunger Games, you know?

  5. I mostly enjoyed The Age of Miracles, although part of me can’t deal with a general lack of reason behind why these things happen. I want to know why The Age of Miracles began, why The Walking Dead, or why The Road. But you’re right, it’s not about the why, it’s about how we deal with the what. I guess the “process dystopia” genre does a better job of telling that story than most.

    • I like knowing the reason things happen, but it’s not the most important thing to me. Did you ever read Meg Rosoff’s book How I Live Now? I thought it was quite cool in that book how Rosoff’s protagonists only have a fairly rough idea of what the war’s about and what’s happening in it. Not that I wouldn’t have been interested in reading a book about why the war was happening, in detail, but it was also interesting to have the perspective of, this is the immediate impact of war on our lives right now.

  6. I always get annoyed when I read dystopias and they never explain how the disaster really came about, or what people did to survive while it was happening. I like the idea of this one, showing people adapting to a change during the change…

    • Agreed. Although I do like it in dystopian fiction when the disaster happened years and years ago, and you like, gradually find out about all the shady/immoral/dangerous things the characters did to survive it.

  7. 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.

    I think you nailed it there. Really good comparison, and I liked Pfeffer’s much better. In Age of Miracles, wasn’t she remembering the process (good term!) of how the Earth slowed down? So it felt to me like it was much later in life, and things just continued slowing down.
    Excellent analysis as usual, Jenny!

    • Yes, she’s remembering the process from a distance of about ten years. But there’s definitely a sense, in the last chapter of the book, which sort of brings you up to speed on what she’s up to these days, that they’re reaching the end of humanity. (Which I liked.)

  8. From what I understand, authors rarely make up their own titles and I agree, this title isn’t so great or particularly accurate. I didn’t love this book though – I found it kind of disappointing, thought that may have been because I was SO EXCITED for it. I’ve never heard the term process dystopia before but I like it. I would argue, though, that this is a “process apocalyptic,” or something, because my understanding of dystopia is as more of and excessively controlling government, whereas in this case a natural disaster leads to loss of control. Not quite anarchy, but it could get there.

    • Indeed, do they not? Well whoever made up this title, I want to have words with them. :p

      Your alteration of my term is really sensible. “Dystopia” wasn’t quite the thing. It’s the “process” modifying noun that I was paying best attention to, even though, of course! There isn’t much of a dystopia in this book at all, even in the last chapter where she talks about what the world’s up to ten years on.

  9. Should I read this book or the Pfeffer series first? I’ve had the Pfeffer series on my radar forever and I agree- the two sound very similar in premise though perhaps quite different in execution. I am leaning towards reading this one first solely because it is a stand-alone novel.

    • Oh hm. Well. I don’t know that it matters which one you read first! Just maybe don’t read both of them close together, because then you’ll maybe compare them too much. I confess I didn’t read the subsequent Pfeffer novels myself. The first one was much too realistic for me to deal with, and I heard the second one was even bleaker so I just opted out.

  10. Process Dystopia – yes, I approve of that term! These are some of my favourite dystopian stories, too, and the ones that scare me the most. Which reminds me, I should probably read the second book in the Pfeffer series – it’s been collecting dust on my shelf for long enough.

    Also – I had NO idea that’s what this book was about. I totally thought it was some kind of heartwarming-but-maybe-literary-and-sad something or rather.

    • Yay! Thanks for approving my term, and YES, they are by far the scariest when they are the closest to our own real lives. So so scary. Let me know what you think of the second Pfeffer book — I’ve never read it still, because I can’t work up the courage.

  11. I love the term “process dystopia” and I agree about liking that aspect of this book. I liked this one a lot, actually, and I also wondered why it wasn’t a YA book. It definitely could have been marketed as such.

  12. Is anyone confused by the pull of gravity getting stronger when the earth’s rotation is slowing down? Shouldn’t they be floating around?

  13. This kind of review is why I will never stop reading you! Even a book I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole gets an insightful treatment. I love the term “process dystopoia” and will keep an eye out for it – although I think it could be argued that lots of books (and even real life) involve people having to figure out how to cope with ever-changing circumstances and create something like normalcy.

  14. Very intriguing. I’ve read other reviews of this novel and they’ve mostly been mixed-ish tending to good. I really like the premise and I also like the idea of watching humanity fall down the slippery slope (well, I don’t LIKE it exactly, more that it has literary potential). But I’m still afraid I’ll have screaming nightmares and start obsessing about the length of the day. I am more than capable of that.

  15. Ok, ‘process dystopia’. I like it. Wondering if we are in such right now. How come I keep following litlove in comments? I have always thought the title and cover art of this did not match it’s plot description (haven’t read it yet.) um…
    oh! you have a ‘ friend the Enthusiast’? LOVE this term, too. cool.

  16. Pingback: Book Review: The Age of Miracles | Jodies' Journey

  17. Pingback: Review: World War Z, Max Brooks; plus, ARGH GENDER STUFF | Jenny's Books

  18. Didn’t like the book, but just thought of another good process dystopia book–A Gift Upon the Shore, by M.K. Wren. Told in the present (aftermath) and past (process), and really wonderful.

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