Karen Thompson Walker completed an MFA at Columbia and worked for several years as an editor for Simon and Schuster. Her husband, Casey, completed a Ph.D. in English from Princeton and has just completed his first semester of the Iowa Writers Workshop. Ms. Walker, in other words, is part of literary fiction's inner circle, the last person one might expect to write a novel that could be defined as "speculative," or—considered just as pejorative by the literati—"genre." And yet, Ms. Walker's first novel, The Age of Miracles, falls into an emerging and curious category, like a rainforest fern that only grows on tree branches that burst through the canopy. Like Colson Whitehead in 2011—and of course much of Connie Willis's brilliant work—Walker has written a hybrid novel, the kind that will get you interviewed by both The New York Times and Suvudu. It is a distinction Walker, much to her credit and the book's success, pointedly ignores.
The Age of Miracles is the story of a young girl, Julia, at the memorably awkward age of eleven-going-on-twelve. We follow her day-to-day life as it revolves around her girlfriends at school, a boy she is attracted to but too shy to approach, a mother whose faded dreams linger unimpressively, a father who hides the quiet desperation of his unfulfilling life, and a grandfather whose hoarding and conspiracy theories may or may not be prescient. It is a quiet story, beautifully wrought. It is poignant. As the book's inner jacket describes, it is both "haunting" and "luminous." In other words, it is a novel firmly in the realm of literary fiction.
And yet, the catalyzing factor of the entire novel—the force that drives Julia and her friends apart, pushes her toward her dreamy beau, Seth, breaks down her fragile mother, chips away at the walls her father has put up, and sends her grandfather on his own bizarre path—is the slowing, a phrase used to describe the decreasing velocity of the earth's rotation. The ramifications of such an event are manifold: as centrifugal force decreases, the feeling of the earth's gravity increases; days grow longer and warmer, and nights grow longer and colder; the magnetosphere is affected, downing birds, beaching whales, extending the northern lights toward the equator, and, of course, letting massive amounts of solar radiation reach the planet's surface. At this point, it seems we are in the realm of disaster films: Armageddon, 2012, and, perhaps most reminiscent, The Core.
But where are Ben Affleck, John Cusack, and Aaron Eckhart to save the day? Where are Liv Tyler, Amanda Peet, and Hilary Swank to spur their men on or—if they're lucky—assist in the salvation of humanity? Seth's father is a bioengineer working on a strain of corn that can exist without sunlight—but he fails. Julia's science teacher seems early on like he could fill those shoes, but he is soon shunned and driven out for being a real-timer: one of those who reject "clock time" and follow the pattern of the sun. The same goes for Julia's piano teacher, Sylvia, who early on seems the most level-headed character in the novel, but slowly unravels as the novel draws on. Julia's father, a delivery-room doctor experienced at bringing life into the world, is incapable of providing emotional support for his daughter because he himself hides a guilty secret which Julia discovers. There is one scene in particular in which Julia's father takes her to a mansion swallowed by extreme tides, now only accessible at low tide; we expect a bonding moment, some fatherly advice, perhaps, but instead he reminisces about his life before he met Julia's mother. And when Julia wants to leave for fears of the rapidly incoming surf, he tells her dismissively, "You used to be much braver, you know. You really did. You're getting to be as bad as your mother" (p. 119). And the heartbreaking part is that Julia agrees with him.
The "age" referred to in the title is not a unit of global or cultural time, but a more personal and recognizable age: that uncertain, tumultuous time of adolescence. Intensely aware of what our peers and parents expect, and just as aware of how far we fall short of those demands, it is a time when many of us are the most consciously, agonizingly alive. Unlike Julia, we did not come of age during the end of the world, but that time remains a period of life that is instantly recognizable and instantly imbued with magical power. To the adolescent, miracles still seem possible—it is only adults who cease to believe.
Due to lengthening days and nights, the government declares a 24-hour "clock time," regardless of the location of the sun, on the one hand exemplifying humanity's hubris in the face of nature, but on the other demonstrating our preference for stability in times of change. Many people seek comfort in sameness, and most of us already lead lives dictated by the clock, so it is no surprise when much of the population follows clock time. Thus some nights are "white nights," which occur when the sun is still high, and some days take place entirely under darkness. As Julia explains, "Light would be unhooked from day, darkness unchained from night." And, she adds with her characteristic flair for hinting at future problems, "not everyone would go along with the plan" (p. 84).
That flair for the dramatic is one of the few facets of this novel that might irritate some readers. Again and again Julia provides loaded statements: "Maybe if I had known that this was one of the last times I would ever sit on that bench," she thinks at one point (p. 72), and again just a few pages later, "not knowing then that I would cross that threshold only a few more times in my life" (p. 79). The author can get away with this by claiming an authentic narrative voice—a character reflecting back on the most important moments in human history might be expected to load their story with ominous observations—and it certainly helps to instill a sense of urgency in the storyline. But curiously, as the novel progresses, Julia's tendency toward the melodramatic has a soothing effect: After all, to have a reflective narrator capable of retrospective commentary, she must survive, even as the odds of humanity's survival grow slimmer and slimmer.
The potential for global destruction looms over everyone and everything, with not always predictable results. It is not just the birds and whales and plants that are disturbed by the changes: the characters, too, find their psyches put through a terrible strain, as if the entire human race experiences a mid-life crisis all at once. Or as Julia herself says, "We took more risks. Desires were less checked. Temptation was harder to resist" (p. 130). Throughout the narrative we receive sporadic reports of increasing rates of violent crime and drug use, and children are repeatedly warned not to go out during dark nights. But where a more plot-driven narrative might have Julia and her family experience firsthand the increasing violence, Walker resists that temptation and stays close with the story of this family. The vague details and half-heard comments add depth and reality to the world, as well as providing a foundation for the risk-taking and surrendering to temptations that Julia describes. Her father, for example, has an affair with a neighbor, a "real-timer" who is shunned and distrusted for following the sun.
There are two other families on the block who are real-timers, and the tales of how they are driven out put a human face on larger cultural ramifications: the country has truly become a nation divided, not in the familiar red-state, blue-state lines, but now along a clock time, real time dichotomy. The lengthening days make odd bedfellows of the religious, the spiritual, the libertarian, and the conspiratorial as they all reject government clock time. Utopian communities spring up in the desert, but as the days grow even longer—thirty, forty, fifty hours of daylight—the real-timers have a harder and harder time matching their natural rhythms to the sun. While at the beginning of the story they are shown as well rested, happy, and youthful, and it is rumored that real-timers age more slowly, toward the end they are more prone to exhaustion, listlessness, and madness.
The strangeness of the long days and long nights is just one aspect of the uncanny that pervades this text. It is this long spool of the uncanny, slowly unwound like a cat savoring its play, which adds to the haunting quality of both Walker's prose and the plot itself. The first people to notice the slowing were the outcasts, the people on the fringe of normalcy, those who appear normal but would feel strange in the "regular" world, and in whose world most of us would feel strange as well: "the night workers, the graveyard shifters . . . the sleepless and the troubled and the sick" (p. 3).
Julia's friend Hanna describes in the first chapter a dream she had the night before the slowing was announced: "I was at my house, but it wasn't my house . . . I was with my mom, but she wasn't my mom. My sisters weren't my sisters" (p. 6). It is no accident that we get the two most notable indicators of the uncanny—the unheimliche in the home that isn't a home, and doppelgängers in the family that isn't a family—within a dream sequence. Here, at the very beginning of the book, Walker wants us to feel unsettled and uncomfortable, to hint at a danger that is as yet unseen. Nor is it mere chance that has Julia reply to Hanna, "I hardly ever remember my dreams" (ibid). The cognitive dissonance that the uncanny creates often leads to rejection, and for now at least, at this early stage of the slowing, denial is still possible. As the slowing continues, however, even the most ardent skeptics, like Julia's grandfather, will have to face reality.
The novel treads a precarious line between the promise of danger and its revelation. There are several deaths in the novel, one of them a character we think we know well, but all of them happen off the page. Along with Julia, we learn about them after the fact. The tension this creates epitomizes the distinction between horror and terror that Ann Radcliffe outlined two hundred years ago. For Radcliffe, horror is the sense of revulsion one feels after observing something frightening, while terror is the anticipatory dread that occurs when a frightening event is suspected but not yet experienced. Terror, Radcliffe says, "expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life." It is precisely this expansion and awakening that Walker pursues in her novel, and a point that is poignantly made in the closing image of the book, a memory of a time that Julia and Seth were happy and full of life: "We dipped our fingers in the wet cement, and we wrote the truest, simplest things we knew—our names, the date, and these words: We were here" (p. 269).
The book opens with an excerpt from "Another End of the World," a poem by James Richardson. The lines Walker quotes for her epigraph focus on the mundane, physical details of life, the unremarkable acts we overlook a thousand times everyday without a second thought. This is the lens through which Walker wants us to view her novel, and it is a theme that is rendered beautifully. But the unseen conclusion to that poem provides a slightly different image, one which the novel also carries as a theme. Richardson ends his work describing a man who "has realized / this day was made for him, seeing nothing / he had to do needs to be done, / and whistles, hands in pockets. This is how the world begins." The world may be ending, but, like the man at the end of Richardson's poem, for Julia a new world is just beginning.
By the end of this novel, most readers will no longer wonder whether this book is literary or speculative, or where the line is drawn, because they will no longer care. This may be the true measure of Walker's writing: in its flippant disregard for categorization and intimate focus on character and theme, the novel evades placement into one category or another. It simply is.
Perhaps the most powerful of many lessons one can derive from this book is that ephemerality is one of life's most beautiful characteristics. A book about a world in collapse somehow becomes a celebration of existence itself, despite the inescapable conclusion that the lives we celebrate will end. In cinematic terms, we never truly were in the realm of disaster films; much closer would be the poignant and sweet story of Dodge and Matilda in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. The closing scene of that film is reminiscent of the closing lines of this novel: life isn't a fairy tale; not everything will be all right in the end; but in the meantime, while we are alive, that is something worth celebrating.
There is an indelible undercurrent that begins somewhere in Richardson's poem and runs straight through the heart of The Age of Miracles: most of us will never be as attractive or talented or successful or well-liked as we might wish, but we can celebrate life. We can inhabit life's mundane moments and see them for the everyday miracles they are. We can see that this day was made for us. After all, this is how the world begins.
A. S. Moser is a writer currently in between homes and countries, and prefers it that way. His novella, Libations, appeared in the Summer 2011 edition of Kaleidotrope. You can follow his travels at his blog, Wanderlust for Beginners.