I feel slightly apologetic about how much I loved reading The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, because it would be easy to sit down and enumerate all the things that are going to bother other people. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and do that right now. But I still adored this, despite its occasional weakness, because I closed this book and wafted around the cabin for at least half a day, completely filled with this bittersweet nostalgia and a strangely pleasant sense of doom. I keep telling people about it like an albatross. Which doesn’t really work as a metaphor, but whatever.
The Age of Miracles reminds me very strongly of the films Melancholia and Another Earth, which are both nominally science fictional, but have trained their interest on the emotional upheavals of the protagonists much more than on whatever scientific bunkum was used to hand-wave the scenario. Here, the scenario that the earth’s rotation has begun slowing, somewhat rapidly at first – each day adding on hours, then even the slowing slowing. The story is told retrospectively from the point of view of Julia, who was eleven at the start of the slowing.
According to the interview in the back of the book, the idea for this came from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami*, which was such a large geological event that it sped up the spin of earth by several microseconds and affected the tilt of the earth by a few centimeters. But, as the article I link to humanely observes, “The shortening of Earth’s day is no cause for consternation, particularly in light of the huge humanitarian crisis sparked by Sunday’s events. The death toll from the tsunami that lashed coasts across the Indian Ocean has now passed 100,000.” (The death toll would eventually rise to well over 230,000 people, with millions displaced.) The real story is not in wonky science facts, but in the lives affected the facts, which is why I don’t care about strict plausibility in why the slowing happened. If you’re the kind of reader who is bothered by the lack of scientific explanation in, say, The Road, then this isn’t the book for you. (Also, jeez, tin man.)
The slowing isn’t devastating at first, more this tension of not knowing and disruption. There’s no looting and rioting – least not in Julia’s quiet suburb – more post-9/11-ish worry and can-hoarding and not going to work for a week until you decide that there’s nothing to be done, so you go back and live your life, even though everything is wrong and probably won’t be right again. Julia’s best friend – from a large, Mormon family, decamps to a settlement in Utah for some time, leaving Julia alone in the way only 11-year-old girls who have lost their best friends can be lonely. And when the bff comes back, she’s switched best friends and lets Julia know in the cruel way of the young that Julia was out.
This never happened to me, but it did happen to my bff Christina, whom I picked up on the rebound from Annie. Annie had a new best friend every year, and while the friend-drop usually happened during summer break, in the fifth grade it happened inexplicably mid-year, and suddenly Annie was everywhere with Libby, freezing out Christina. I still remember Christina, in this weird bit of a shrug, identifying the fourth grade friend of Annie, the one she had replaced. She knew. God, that age is such a shitshow, and Walker captures it like fireflies in a jar, which you watch blinking in the darkness like wonder, and when you wake up, it’s just dead black bugs you shake out apologetically into the grass. Grass that’s dying, and then dead, and eventually you can’t remember the smell of grass because it’s extinct.
And while I said there isn’t a real tight explanation for why the slowing is happening, the details of how people would react to the lengthening days and long nights felt true. People in the arctic go nuts during the white nights. My uncle worked for the National Health Service in Alaska – up in the crazy hard to get to parts – and his stories of the bleary, easy to upset children playing basketball in the bright midnight, their parents given up on porches with longnecks, would not be out of place. The authorities decide to put everyone on “clock time” – living according to a 24 hour clock, despite the sun or lack – because “real time” while Romantic, just keeps stretching and stretching into madness. But it’s all madness: the clocks, the sun, the dark, the slow, beautiful, horrible end of it all that doesn’t really end but just drips slowly.
I bought a bunch of canned goods and water after I got screwed recently with a four day power outage after a storm downed trees and snapped lines all over the metro – which sucked, thank you – and I can see the water already evaporating, the expiration dates on the can ticking toward botulism. “That was the last day I tasted pineapple,” says Julia, the last day of whales, confused by the changing magnetosphere, beached and dying, the last day of birds. My husband and I have the “bigger problems” caveat when we talk about end of the world scenarios – who gives about the Internet or kissing boys or your parents slow, ugly implosion or whatnot when cannibal corpses are hungering for your flesh – but really, this is all smaller problems in the way that makes me think that smaller problems are only and ever the kind of problems to focus on. The water is going to evaporate. The bigger problems are so big as to be untouchable.
I don’t know. Or, I guess I do know that The Age of Miracles will be dismissed as young adult literature for girls by some. As a woman who was once a girl who occasionally reads young adult literature, I can say this isn’t really aimed at teens: it’s too slow, too sorrowful, too retrospective. The Julia in the unknown future who is recounting this time period is a ghost, a mirage, and her reticence to explicate the details of her future existence shines the story into a welter of its own mirage, an oasis of all of the last things which are also first things. The first last things until the bigger problems came home, the time when everything slowed like lost summers.
This isn’t going to work for a lot of people, I know, and that makes me a little sad. Sad not because I wish everyone could be like me, or have my childhood or my occasional despair which would make this work for them, but because my heart is somewhere in this mess, beating slowly in its real time, which is Romantic and untimely unworkable, but it’s the only heart I’ve got. Look here: my heart. Its days grow longer. But the days grow short here at the end of summer, the sky gone purple before it’s time to put the kids to bed. My daughter is asleep on the couch, and I will carry her to her childhood dreams. Amen.
*Also, Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds was based on some of particulars of Indian Ocean Tsunami – I hate to say “inspired by” because that’s a gross way to put it – just as a random fact.