Monday, November 26, 2012

The Age of Miracles ~ Karen Thompson Walker

One fall day, sometime around today, the Earth's rotation starts to slow.  It's imperceptible at first, but "the Slowing" increases rapidly.  Humans split into clock-timers, who follow the old 24-hour clock, out of tune with the sun; and real-timers, whose body's learn to sleep through the ever-lengthing nights and keep going through the expanding days.  Birds drop out of the sky, the food supply is in peril, and all we once understood about the universe starts to unravel.  At the heart of this is Julia, an 11-year old living in California, who struggles to understand the unstable world around her while dealing with the cliques, broken friendships, and incomprehensible longing of pre-adolescence.

Such is the plot of The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, a young-adult novel that isn't quite post-apocoalyptic, as I assumed it was going in to it, nor is it dystopia, as it's often described.  Society hasn't dissolved due to the crisis, nor has the government taken complete control.  It's more of a psychological unraveling as humans attempt to cling to the world they understand, even as it collapses around them.

It was...disappointing.  I've been anticipating reading this book since it was released and while it was interesting and gave some food for thought (yeah, I think I'd be a real-timer, or at least try to be until the days got too long for my circadian rhythm to keep up), especially since it was written as though the reader has gone through all this as well, in the end it felt contrived.  I get this awareness when reading certain books - and I'm sure I'm not alone in this - of being aware of what the author is doing (or attempting to do).  This isn't the result of conscious literary analysis and occurs despite my best efforts to just immerse myself in the book.  Suddenly I'll realize, oh, this is supposed to make me sad or oh, this is foreshadowing...I guess we'll come back to it later.  I suspect that this happens when the writing doesn't flow naturally, when the author is intentionally trying to make something happen - it's forced.

I didn't realize it at first - when the astronauts returning to Earth due to food deprivation dissolve somewhere over the Pacific, I was hit with a powerful, unidentifiable sense of remorse, despite not being old enough to remember any major space exploration disasters.  But later, when we heard about the four cots and four sleeping bags in the fall-out shelter, and the game pieces scattered across the floor, and I initially had the same punch-to-the-gut reaction, I realized that Walker was intentionally drawing these responses from me (and that the shelter had been clumsily foreshadowed).  And then the last line of the book, which was also clumsily foreshadowed, was not only predictable but attempted to far too tidily sum up the book.  It's too tight, too intentional - life is messier than that, and good literature is too.

I guess this is my main complaint, though the caricatured characters were also difficult to deal with, as well as the fact that the last hour (of the audiobook, about the last 1/8 of the novel) was unrelentingly and intentionally depressing (the cutesy last line doesn't make up for it).  The balance is off and all hope is lost.  Oh, and the character's constant refrain of "I still remember..." was just grating.  Yes, we know you're writing this after the fact, so we assume that the details you choose to include are things you remember.  No need to keep reminding us.

It wasn't all negative.  The pain of early adolescence was described well, and I could identify well with Julia, who is probably the only well-developed character in the book (probably has something to do with her being the narrator and all).  And the premise was really great and had a lot of possibility - I just wish that it had unfolded more naturally, without relying on tearjerker moments to get its point across.

A note on the audiobook: the narrator was good - she didn't go overboard on the voices and had the right inflections and whatnot.  Her voice is a little breathy, but doesn't have that annoying, ultra-feminine childishness that some readers do, which definitely made the experience more enjoyable.

7 comments:

  1. I didn't love this one either. I liked the premise--it's a nice change of pace to see how the end of the world is coming vs. going straight to post-apocalyptic. But I had many of the same issues with it as you did.

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    1. Yeah, it had definite potential for some originality - too bad it didn't work out.

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  2. I was disappointed in this one... and that thing at the end, where the narrator basically says that Julia has grown up into her 20s...WTF? The earth was on the verge of starving when she was 12. How did it survive 10 more years with no explanation?

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    1. GOOD QUESTION! I also wondered how nothing worthy of mentioning had happened in that 10-year period.

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  3. I actually enjoyed this quiet story, but can completely see why it may not resonate with others. Did you know it was optioned for a film? Not sure when it will come out (everything seems to be optioned nowadays...!)

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    1. It does seem like that! We're waiting on so many literary movies. I don't think I'd see this one though...I feel like it would just be middle school drama with a background conversation about a disaster. The Slowing isn't exactly a visual occurrence... though maybe they'll come up with some creative way to portray it.

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    2. Yeah I don't think it would be a good movie at all. I think it'd be better as a play!

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