Turn, Turn ...

John Hay

Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel, set in the near future, begins with an “invisible catastrophe” known as the slowing, a gradual deceleration of the earth’s rotation that extends days and nights, disrupts crop cycles, and even alters the effects of gravity. The novel’s title, however, refers to a far more distressing phenomenon: middle school, “the time when kids shot up three inches over the summer, when breasts bloomed from nothing, when voices dipped and dove.” Gradual apocalyptic disaster is merely the backdrop for eleven-year-old Julia’s struggle through disintegrating friendships, her first crush, and her parents’ faltering marriage. Not so much science fiction as what Ramón Saldívar has termed “speculative realism” (or what Bruce Robbins, in this forum, has called “realism with benefits”), The Age of Miracles offers an insightful snapshot of burgeoning adolescence, making for pleasant reading despite its cataclysmic setting.

Planetary catastrophe can remain in the background partly because its cause remains forever undetermined. While the novel may seem at first to be describing the consequences of global warming, Julia assures her readers that the slowing convinced everyone that “we had worried over the wrong things: the hole in the ozone layer, the melting of the ice caps, West Nile and swine flu and killer bees.” Most apocalyptic literature traffics in caution and retribution (warning readers of the dangers of nuclear arms, portraying a world receiving just punishment for its excesses), but Walker’s unforeseeable disaster carries no visible link to human behavior. “Real catastrophes,” Julia notes, “are always different—unimagined, unprepared for, unknown.” This claim folds the mysterious slowing into a realist framework and opens a space for the vagaries of a coming-of-age plot rather than a more generic quest for survival.

The novel’s generally mundane events—bus rides to school, piano lessons, family dinners—actually heighten the sense of disaster through Julia’s acute perception of irreversible changes.

Focalizing the end-of-the-world tale through the eyes of a sixth-grader is an unusual (though not unprecedented) move that allows Walker to personalize the calamity by linking it to puberty. The novel’s generally mundane events—bus rides to school, piano lessons, family dinners—actually heighten the sense of disaster through Julia’s acute perception of irreversible changes. More dramatic responses to the slowing are present in the novel: a few renegade citizens of Julia’s white-collar California community style themselves “real-timers” and form a desert enclave called Circadia, advocating organic adjustment to the lengthening days. But Circadia has only a shadowy presence in the narrative, and most characters follow state policy in trying to stick to the traditional 24-hour clock. (The “real-time” lifestyle eventually becomes untenable when the diurnal course stretches beyond 48 hours.) While The Age of Miracles thus lacks cinematic qualities like hysterical violence and extravagant heroics, it offers rich domestic scenes seldom present in global disaster stories.

Julia narrates the novel at a twelve-year remove, as a young adult recalling the “harsh journey,” as she puts it, “from childhood to the next life.” This temporal distance allows for occasional moments of proleptic melancholy (“They were the last pineapples we’d ever eat in our lives”), while more importantly implying that life still goes on a dozen years later (even if choices in fruit have dwindled). Yet the narrative voice is primarily sustained through the fresh immediacy of the eleven-year-old’s impressions, which, if not the mature reflections of an adult, are nevertheless incisive and sometimes even poetic, as when Julia describes her grandfather’s blue eyes, “fading as he aged, like fabric left too long in the sun.”

A sharp critic of her own maturation, Julia notes her growing anxiety over “catastrophes large and small … the disappointments I now sensed were hidden all around us right in plain sight.” Rather than a monumental singularity such as an asteroid impact, the slowing is a gradual buildup of minor events that alters the course of the future, and The Age of Miracles carefully captures this silent evolution. Merging an apocalyptic account with a coming-of-age plot can at times play out as melodramatic, but overall Walker puts those two genres into uniquely productive tension. That middle school isn’t the end of the world is a lesson learned by many adolescent protagonists, but a scenario in which global catastrophe doesn’t have to be devastating is a far less common tale, one that Walker tells with a sensitive appreciation for the complex relations between developing characters in a changing environment.