Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles

Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles is another entrant in the seemingly endless string of YA dystopian and apocalyptic novels parading their way across bookshelves recently. It’s been a few months since I’ve read any, because there is such a bleak sameness to so many of these novels. Apart from The Hunger Games, which in the third novel delves into the politics of Panem, there’s rarely any exploration of the dystopian world or system beyond what it does to the lives of one character and her friends and family; the dystopias are always created by humans, with the strong suggestion being that there are, then, people who may fix the system; and they end on notes of hope, so different from the uncertainty of the final words of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Many of the most advertised dystopian novels are really “dystopia-lite.” There’s Megan McCafferty’s Bumped, in which a virus causes people to become infertile once they’re out of their teens, so that teenagers become responsible for the survival of the human race; but most serious questions raised by this premise are brushed away in favor of questions of style and insipid teenage conversation, with the Serious Religious Issues treated more as an accessory than a real issue. Slightly heavier is Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, in which love is treated as disease; but though Oliver here suggests a brutal regime, and shows a willingness to imprison or kill off her characters for the greater good, there is throughout the novel a sense that the dystopia is already crumbling, that there is more hope for her characters than a true dystopia could provide.

Enter, then, The Age of Miracles, which happily avoids so many of the problems with YA dystopian literature by placing its characters in an apocalyptic, rather than dystopian world – a world that, by its very definition, has severe limitations in the Hope department. Walker shows us the infancy of a newly apocalyptic world, tracking what these changes and uncertainties do to people, rather than presenting (as so many of the earlier mentioned YA dystopians do) a world that, seemingly so far past saving, is finding new possibilities and hopes.

The world of this novel is changing rapidly for reasons that no one can explain or understand. As The Age of Miracles opens, days are growing longer for no readily apparent reason. Julia, the narrator, is a girl who can sense no change in her world, who even after learning that the earth’s rotation has slowed can sense nothing wrong in her world, or begin to understand why one day, which feels like the day before it and the day before that, is so different from all others. As she writes,

I was eleven years old in the suburbs. My best friend was standing beside me. I could spot not a single object out of place or amiss.

Walker never offers a real explanation for what is happening to the world, which seems fitting given the age of the narrator and the nature of the catastrophe. That the world is slowing, every day, doesn’t make sense, but also doesn’t need to, given that it serves simply as a device to force humanity into a situation from which there is no escape. At first many people attempt to ignore the changes in the length of days (Julia’s mother is the only member of her family who seems to grasp the seriousness of the problem, though her declamations are treated more with rolled eyes than sympathy), and America manages to stay in sync with the new days. School and workdays are pushed back, and Julia begins each morning by the TV, waiting for the school’s starting time to be announced. Julia’s father reassures her that this problem, whatever its source, will be fixed soon enough:

“I want you to think how smart humans are,” he said. “Think of everything humans have ever invented. Rocket ships, computers, artificial hearts. We solve problems, you know? We always solve the big problems. We do.”

Of course, this is one problem that can’t be solved, and that’s where The Age of Miracles finds much of its strength. Walker asks not how her characters can fight back against an unjust society, but how they learn to live with the fact that their world is falling apart around them. Although Julia’s father tells his daughter that humans always solve the big problems, Walker creates a world in which the biggest problem can’t be solved – in which humans have to, instead, answer the smaller ones, like how to grow food as the days become so long that Clock Time is totally disjointed from night and day, and how to deal with the temperature changes that result from 72 hours of light followed by 72 hours of dark.

Julia’s concerns are those of any 11-year-old girl, though, so that while this is an apocalyptic novel it is, just as much, a coming-of-age story. When the family of her best friend Hanna, a Mormon, moves to Utah, Julia is left in a social environment she cannot navigate without her friend. The absence of a true 24-hour day doesn’t free Julia from the cruelties of her peers or from the weight of her first crush or from her uncertainty over what to say about the dying mother of that crush, or from her confusion over what to do when she sees her father in the house of a neighbor who used to be Julia’s piano teacher. For all the ways in which life has stopped, with birds falling from the sky and plants refusing to grow, Walker shows us that life also continues, in much the way it always has. And rather than offering her readers a world of unmitigated horror, in which all characters realize what they’re facing, Walker writes of the thrill that disaster can hold, especially for a pre-teen girl like Julia.

We were girls in sandals and sundresses, boys in board shorts and surf shirts. We were growing up in a retiree’s dream – 330 days of sunshine each year – and so we celebrated whenever it rained. Catastrophe, too, like bad weather, was provoking in all of us an uneasy excitement and verve.

Unlike the authors of so many other YA novels, Walker doesn’t offer false hope to her readers. Whatever Julia’s father says early in the novel, no member of Julia’s family seems to truly expect things to improve. They know things will change, but only expect those changes to be for the worse. What Walker does, really, is to take the nightmares of being eleven years old – the way that other people can make decisions (to move, to have another child, to divorce) that change your entire world, with nothing you can do to return things to the way they used to be – and write them on the scale of the world as a whole. In following Julia’s attempts to grow up in a world that offers no certainties, Walker has written a novel that is often bleak, but just as often finds moments that are much the same in Julia’s dying world as in the world of the reliable, 24-hour day. The Age of Miracles finds its best moments in these intersections of the apocalyptic and the mundane; and taking all these moments together, the novel is a happy proof that there are writers eager to test and play with the conventions of both the popular dystopian or apocalyptic novels and coming-of-age stories.

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Review: Megan McCafferty’s Bumped

Disclaimer: The publisher provided this book for review via NetGalley.

Megan McCafferty’s Bumped has been getting hype up the wazoo. I’ve heard almost nothing but good things about it – you know, good world building, topical issues, young adult dystopian (which instantly makes me think of The Hunger Games – I expect every YA dystopian novel to be as good as Suzanne Collins’s, I guess), inventive language – and I was practically drooling thinking of reading this book.

Only, then I got it, and I found that the things everyone was talking about and praising, like the way McCafferty doesn’t do an “info dump” at the start of her novel to explain her world and the lives and vocabulary of her characters, drove me nuts. Sure, giving a chapter of exposition isn’t the most gripping way to open a novel, but not everyone can pull off making this information an organic part of their story. Then there are some people who don’t even try, at all – and as a reader it felt to me that McCafferty gave up on building a strong world, resting her story instead of the questionable strengths of its storyline and wacky vocabulary.

Bumped takes place in a vaguely future version of our world, in which an AIDS-like virus causes most men and women to become infertile once out of their teens. Teenagers thereby become responsible for the propagation of the human race, “bumping” as amateurs or professionals to produce babies that are adopted or purchased by older couples. Pregnancy isn’t just a way of life but a fashion; girls can purchase not just t-shirts about “pregging” and being “fertilicious” but fake baby bumps to wear.

McCafferty’s narrative flips back and forth between Melody and Harmony, sixteen-year-old identical twins separated at birth who have grown up in cultures that treat teenage pregnancy differently. Melody has grown up in “Otherside”, as Harmony calls it, raised by parents who believe in the move to monetize pregnancy. She’s the first girl in her school to turn “professional”, though two years after signing her contract she hasn’t “bumped” and is nearing obsolescence.

Harmony grew up in “Goodside”, a strict community of “Godfreaky” (as Melody would put it) people who marry and preg young but raise their children themselves. Harmony contacts Melody and unexpectedly shows up in Otherside, where she hangs around with Melody and her friend Zen.

So, not a bad premise for a young adult novel, though aspects of it are contrived enough that I should have guessed I wouldn’t fall in love with the book the way everyone else has. McCafferty hasn’t formed her story around a cast of deluded teenagers as much as she’s thought of caricatures to place into her narrative. Melody, Harmony, Zen, Melody’s friends and their pregnancies, Melody’s parents, Harmony’s huge extended family – none of them feel real to me, but rather as if they’ve been put in this narrative to stand as examples of or for something.

McCafferty comes up with a lot of future words and slang for this novel, which I started writing down halfway through – “paps” for papparazzi, “foto” for photo, “Avatarcade” (future version of the arcade, with avatars!), “GlycoGoGo Bars” (energy bar), “US Buff-A” (restaurant), “Mi-Net” (crazy future internet, accessed with contact lenses and earbuds), “pro boner work” (instead of “pro bono work” – well, this one was kind of funny I guess), “procreationists” (Christians who believe in spreading the seed), “starcisstic” (instead of narcissistic), “breedy bits” (you know), “facespace” (speaking to a person in person), “MasSEX parties” (orgies). These words seem to stand in the place of world building (McCafferty doesn’t build a world as much as she suggests, via future words, that she has built a world), and McCafferty’s characters seem just as superficial as her world and its language.

Over at I Swim for Oceans there’s a pretty interesting interview with McCafferty in which she talks about some of these things, like why her characters speak the way they do and how that changes over the course of the novel. All my notes about this book are kind of disappointed scribbles (e-bookishly speaking) about how she goes for the most obvious ways to distinguish her characters. Harmony’s grown up in a Godfreaky community, so her internal monologue is filled with references to God and the Bible, while Melody’s is more along the lines of wondering whether she is “fertilicious” and what she will look like with a baby bump. McCafferty lays this on thick early in the book, and it fades away as time passes. Like she says in the interview, McCafferty used that sort of internal monologue to show character development – as the narrative progresses the girls are finding their own voices and freeing themselves from the voices their families and cultures have given them – but this reads, like so many other aspects of the novel, as superficial and contrived, because this use of the language is the only way McCafferty chooses to show character development, and also because Bumped takes place over such a short time period that this shift in internal monologue isn’t believable.

Bumped deals in issues that are pretty heavy – questions about who owns the rights to their own bodies, how teenagers’ bodies are taken advantage of when it becomes the only way of surviving as a race, monetizing sex and pregnancy – but the tone of the novel doesn’t fit these issues. At novel’s end the characters are rethinking their world and their places in it and how they treat their bodies, but the decisions they reach about these issues largely take place behind the scenes. As readers, we see little deeper than the slang they use to express themselves. The disconnect between the subject matter and the voice is huge and distracting, and lets down this story and the potential it had. McCafferty drowns what could have been an interesting and thought-provoking story beneath her top-heavy world – developed in terms of language and fashion but feeling barren in every other way.

Bumped is released on April 26th, and judging by the ending (or lack thereof) there’s a Bumped v. 2.0 on the way.

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