For whatever reason, humanity thrills at the thought of its own demise. We’ve done so, through literature at least, for centuries. Karen Thompson Walker’s much-lauded debut, “The Age of Miracles,” falls within the ranks of those apocalyptic fictions — like Wells’s “The Time Machine” and Lovecraft’s “Til A’ the Seas” — in which humanity’s end comes in concert with the death throes of the earth we live on. It’s a genre with particular relevance, perhaps, to our own warming days.
Walker’s particular calamity is more insidious than most: The earth’s rotation, it’s discovered, has slowed. The reasons for this are unknown; the pivotal event seems both random and, like global warming, too slow to recognize. “We did not sense at first the extra time,” Walker writes, “bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin.”
The world really is slowing, to a degree that’s barely measurable: According to NASA, the length of each day grows by about a millisecond and a half roughly every century. In Walker’s telling, though, “the slowing,” as she calls it, rapidly accelerates. Periods of light and darkness lengthen; weather patterns change; birds fall in flocks from the sky; and the earth’s magnetic field grows weak. Enfolded in these environmental consequences are human ones: Crime and impulsiveness increase; baseballs fall a little faster; and divides form between those who cling to an outmoded notion of time and those trying to live in tune with the circadian rhythms of day and night.
The novel is narrated by Julia, a California suburbanite who is 11 during the book’s main action. As the world collapses around her, Julia remains caught in the travails of her tween life. She likes a boy, for instance, and would like to own a bra. She suspects, with good reason, that her father is having an affair. This idea that, despite cataclysmic environmental shifts, life’s small dramas remain important is a rather beautiful one. And moments of cruel beauty do creep out of this “age of miracles”: a girl, who hasn’t heard, arrives on an empty soccer field; the beaching of a school of whales is an opportunity for a date.
THE AGE OF MIRACLES
But Julia recalls her story from some point in the future, and her tone is strangely detached, squandering the narrative’s drama in qualifying phrases like “I would later learn”; “I know now”; and “we soon came to understand.” Oddly, hindsight endows Julia with some perspective on “the slowing” itself — encyclopedic reflections on the eucalyptus tree and Bermuda grass, for instance — but with little on herself, her parents’ marriage, or the cruelty of her supposed friends. Because of this, she never comes fully into being as a character, her muted anguish neither quite of the preteen “OMG” nor the adult existential variety. “Maybe everything that happened to me and to my family had nothing at all to do with the slowing,” she muses. “It’s possible, I guess. But I doubt it. I doubt it very much.”
Walker’s focus on Julia is narrow, but not, maybe, narrow enough; the global catastrophe is just present enough to trivialize Julia’s own worries, while her solemn theorizing gives them a weightiness they don’t bear well. Unlike most authors of adult apocalyptic fiction, Walker doesn’t admonish: Hope may be extinguished, but despair in the face of random catastrophe teaches little. Nor, as in the young adult version of such novels, do cracks open in the grim façade. No alternative is suggested — the “real-timers” are idealists, their rebellion a farce. A well-placed reference to Gary Paulsen’s “Hatchet” points to Julia’s position. Like Paulson’s hero Brian, she grows quiet, she watches, and survives. Yet unlike Brian, she rarely reacts and never actively takes a side.
Still, despite its repetitious diction and self-consciously ominous tone, Walker’s novel reads briskly, rather like a young adult novel, in fact. Walker favors short sentences and unadorned prose, punctuated by the occasionally lovely detail. The secondary characters are, if not exactly types, not quite fully realized either. It seems like Walker’s heart is more in her concept than in its execution. She imaginatively riffs on the effects of slowing and has even gone so far as to consult physicists for accuracy. It’s the unfolding of these physical effects in which her interest lies, and Walker will, at times, begin to reach beyond science and into human life:
“Take, for example, the slightly increased drag of a hand on a knife or a finger on a trigger. From then on, we all had a little more time to decide what not to do. And who knows how fast a second-guess can travel? Who has ever measured the exact speed of regret?”
If these promising metaphysical reflections were allowed to proceed, Walker might have created something that could strike a chord beyond its novelty. Instead, she raises questions — the effects of physical forces on impulse and fate, the psychology of time — only to fall back on apocalyptic rubbernecking. Like Julia, in the end we merely watch the planet die, having learned little of the species that lived there.