Karen Thompson Walker’s ‘The Age of Miracles,’ reviewed by Ron Charles
By Ron Charles,
As if global warming, terrorism and taxmageddon weren’t enough to worry about this summer, now the Earth’s rotation is slowing down. Fast. At least that’s the premise of Karen Thompson Walker’s first novel, “The Age of Miracles.” It’s about a sixth-grade girl facing the end of the world in her California suburb. Too dull for the YA market, it’s been dressed up as an affecting literary novel for adults, one of the more depressing trends in modern publishing.
That Random House reportedly paid $1 million for this manuscript may be all the evidence we need that we’re living in the final days. (This isn’t just an American problem: A British publisher apparently paid almost that much, and there are reports of lucrative deals in Italy, Spain and Germany.) The Great Recession was supposed to have wrung this kind of irrational exuberance from the publishing world, but I guess the last trump hasn’t sounded yet.
And who knows, Random House may somehow earn back its advance. Thousands of people are duped into reading perfectly ordinary books just to see what all the fuss is about. A former editor with Simon & Schuster, Walker is well-connected: Her dust jacket sports a literary who’s who of blurbs; on Sunday, the New York Times ran the obligatory featurette. And Hollywood, the same industry that went gaga over last summer’s end times dud, “Robopocalyse,” has already optioned “The Age of Miracles” for a movie version.
Stop the world, I want to get off.
The story opens with a promising touch of menace — “a quite invisible catastrophe”: The sunlight lingers, the nights grow longer. “We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin,” young Julia tells us. “Through bloodshot eyes, a few did detect a certain persistence of darkness on the mornings leading up to the news, but each mistook it for the private misperception of a lonely, rattled mind.”
Scientists scramble to explain the Earth’s slowing rotation; politicians advise Americans to keep shopping; Julia’s mother grows more paranoid.
A patina of sci-fi develops around the edges of the story as the Earth keeps slowing and the days lengthen. We hear about efforts to develop night corn, doctors struggle to explain an epidemic of motion sickness, and the power grid buckles under the increasing demand for artificial light. But those technical challenges are not Walker’s primary concern, and her 11-year-old narrator can’t do anything but mention them in passing as her mom and dad go about their lives while the planet dies.
“The Age of Miracles” presents the apocalypse sotto voce. Forget the sturm und drang of Revelation and Hieronymus Bosch, or Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. T.S. Eliot was right: “This is the way the world ends: Not with a bang but a whimper.” But whimpering is hard to sustain for 300 pages. Particularly in the voice of a rather typical girl. Last year, Tom Perrotta’s novel “The Leftovers” shuffled toward the apocalypse in a similarly quiet, suburban story, but he moved through a series of characters, young and old, and maturely explored the philosophical and psychological dimensions of that existential crisis.
Walker’s middle-school narrator doesn’t give us that, and it’s a problem of execution, not with the limits of an adolescent heroine. Consider, for instance, the wit and tenderness of the young narrator in Karen Russell’salligator apocalypse, “Swamplandia!,” or the raw poetry from the girl who narrates Jesmyn Ward’s “Salvage the Bones” as Hurricane Katrina moves in to devastate her world.
“The Age of Miracles” leaves us, instead, only with the typical tropes of tween anxiety set awkwardly alongside the death of the planet. Poor Julia must somehow cope with a new training bra and the destruction of the human race. That’s enough to make sixth grade a real bummer. We have to endure irony-free lines like “The Gulf Stream was slowing, and Gabby shaved her head.” Of course, the end of childhood can feel like the end of the world when you’re going through it — that’s the macabre comedy of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” — but Walker wants to play this completely, deadly straight. Without more wit or wisdom to place that trauma in context, the metaphor feels overwrought.
Julia’s parents are potentially interesting, but we don’t see much beyond their exteriors: stoic dad, fearful mom. What works best is a shadow story about the “real-timers”: radicals (and some orthodox Jews) who insist on living by the sun no matter how out of sync their lives eventually get with the clock-time majority. They’re the hippies of a dying world, wearing hemp necklaces and ragged jeans stained with spray paint. “The real-timers made the rest of us uncomfortable,” Julia says. “They too often slept while the rest of us worked. They went out when everyone else was asleep. They were a threat to the social order.”
Eventually, these weirdos in Julia’s neighborhood move into the desert to form a commune called “Circadia,” where the residents are “hardworking but well rested.” In the cultural tension between these two groups, Walker comes closest to exploring interesting ideas about the natural and unnatural rhythms of our lives.
What “The Age of Miracles” would need to work, though, is more consistent quality. Its opening and closing chapters are fairly effective, but the bulk of the novel vacillates erratically between plain and melodramatic. Straining the ordinary pains of adolescence toward profundity, the story slowly winds down long before we get to the End.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
On July 12, Karen Thompson Walker will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
THE AGE OF MIRACLES By Karen Thompson Walker Random House. 272 pp. $26