If you had the opportunity to see Lars Von Trier’s exceptional last film, Melancholia, you will be familiar with the end-of-the-world anxiety evoked in Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles. However, unlike Von Trier’s Justine, Walker’s central character Julia employs far more grace and mercy as she bears witness to the Earth going through monumental changes—changes so fast and far out that global warming seems almost quaint in comparison. The fantastical premise is alarmingly easy to go along with: the Earth is “slowing.” Among other things, the initial fallout from the delayed rotation around the sun includes throngs of birds falling from the sky, power outages, the eradication of crops, and the sudden appearance of mysterious sicknesses.
In the midst of all this, Julia is a junior high school student, reluctantly consumed with the basics of becoming a young adult. As an only child, she has the precocious depth of someone who has spent much of her time watching the world and thinking about it on her own. This makes her an ideal observer in a novel where crazy things are happening so quickly that by the time one new fact is accepted, another change occurs to usurp the gravity of the first. In short, there is no time for collective understanding. As with the shaky allegiances of adolescence, the world Julia inhabits takes on an every man/woman for themselves vibe. She is not popular, and her only friend, Hannah, abandons her when her family seeks refuge in Salt Lake City, where it is presumed Jesus will show up to save the pious Mormons. When Hannah leaves at the start of the book, the effect is complete and unimpeded access to Julia’s mind. This disappearance also underscores her loneliness and quiet yearning for connection. She begins to fall in love with a boy named Seth Moreno, who is as proud, stubborn, and private as he is sensitive, giving, and vulnerable. We also see Julia carrying the weight of her parents’ relationship as it deteriorates under the push and pull of the daily changes in gravity and the temporal distortions that go along with it.
Only children tend to be a third and silent partner in their parents’ marriage, with nowhere to hide, and no one else in the household to distract them. Walker has said that her own path as an only child growing up in California certainly played a major role in shaping the tone and texture of Julia’s voice.
As the sun takes longer and longer to make its way around Earth, the days continue to lengthen, which becomes one of the great mounting tensions of the novel, a rubber band that shows no signs of snapping back to its original circumstance. The sun’s brutal radiation becomes a hazard that can cause not only illness, but also severe burns. It becomes necessary to remain indoors when the sun is shining. The inevitable and resulting claustrophobia is cleverly spread out throughout the book, so as to not completely panic and overwhelm the reader. This lack of hysteria is mirrored in Walker’s prose, which has the feel of a ticker tape on a mellow trading day. It just keeps going.
Walker’s major strength is keeping this steady beat—a leisurely and clearheaded pace, while describing what is possibly one of the most panic ridden moments in recent literary history.
Despite the extreme and unprecedented circumstances it presents, many of the characters in The Age of Miracles do not go through a major transformation or decide to live with abandon. Most look for the stability and normalcy they have always taken for granted. California residents have grown used to earthquakes, heat waves, wild fires, and droughts long before the “slowing.” Julia’s father, however, does have a brief affair with her piano teacher, Sylvia, who unfortunately lives across the street within a telescope-spying view from her bedroom. The energetic Sylvia is a foil for Helen, Julia’s mother who was among the first victims of the mysterious illness that followed the slowing, and becomes increasingly neurotic as the novel progresses. As Julia looks across the street, she sees a version of womanhood that is unspoiled and unburdened by marriage and children. Sylvia—along with many others, mostly on communes deep in the woods—tries to roll with the punches, and accept the changing planet. They live on “real” time— the old twenty-four-hour clock, even as Earth continues to turn slower and slower around her and the sun doesn’t set for days at a time. She prunes roses and goes jogging while most everyone else on her block takes sleeping pills and tries to dream the daylight away behind blackout curtains. After blaming her mother for much of what’s wrong with her family dynamic, describing her presence as “a peripheral shape of worry,” knowledge of the affair transforms Julia’s disdain into empathy. She finally gets angry, becoming a defiant teenager who ignores her family and holes away with Seth, the guy she has been pining for all along.
Walker excels at capturing a very specific type of girl-ness, one that is absent from many novels narrated by young adults, young women in particular. She’s a rational and introverted girl digesting the micro and macro disasters around her without losing herself in the fray. Julia is not a victim who is pushed around and bullied, nor is she a hero with a message. She will feel complete and real to anyone who has experienced the unrelenting ambivalence of adolescence: time spent worrying about having the right undergarments when you’d rather be playing soccer, reading in the library during lunch, but not becoming a shadow. Julia may not fit in, but she is not out for revenge, and she is not impulsive. Walker understands that the truth told by children who exist outside the intense bubble of popularity or the equally shrouded world of the desperately unpopular is a rare gem in literature. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and The Age of Miracles gives us a smart, lonely girl narrator, an outsider, who somehow, amid the horror of it all, manages not only to survive, but to thrive.