Only The End Of The World Again – The Age of Miracles

Once you get about sixty or seventy pages into The Age of Miracles, you’ll notice something.  It sneaks up on you, much like the plot where the earth’s rotation slows.  Suddenly, you’ll realize that you’re reading a coming-of-age tale… with a little apocalypse thrown in for good measure.

And the end result is rather brilliant.

The Age of Miracles
Karen Thompson Walker
273 Pages
Random House
June 26, 2012

A co-worker noted that, despite the title of the novel, nothing particularly miraculous happens in this novel.  And this is true, at least insofar as the positive connotations of the word “miracle.”

After all… if it were a negative experience, it wouldn’t be a miracle.

And yet… The Age of Miracles has many moments that brush on the miraculous, with a simple prose that will occasionally brush on the divine.

Our story is told by twelve-year-old Julia, living in the suburbs somewhere in southern California.  One day, when Julia’s mother turns on the news, scientists are announcing that the rotation of the earth has begun to slow.  They don’t know why and they don’t know if it will continue to slow.  But already, days are gaining extra seconds, extra minutes.

What follows is as much a tale of the changes that happen to Julia and Julia’s family as it is a science-fiction tale of the Earth going haywire.  And, despite my early skepticism when I began reading… I ended up really enjoying it.

Most of the chapters start by updating us on either the Earth’s rotation, or the effects the slowing has had on the planet, the people, the animals.  Trouble begins with birds.  They start dying off, crashing into things.  The sports are affected as the gravitational pull changes.  Things are heavier, even if just barely.

The changes happen in people too.  Some people, against the US government’s wishes, decide to live according to the planet.  While a majority of the country stays on a 24 hour time system, these time rebels are ridiculed and ostracized for choosing to live according to the more natural rhythms of the planet.

The satire really picks up when we hear about these characters.  Some, like Sylvia, Julia’s piano teacher, make out alright, at least at first.  Others, like the aging hippies that live on the same block, are picked up for growing pot plants inside their house (ah, anonymous tipsters!).

While all this is happening, Julia continues to grow and develop, all the while, her relationships are changing.  Her best friend, Hannah, is gone.  Julia chooses to socialize less and less while simultaneously pining over Seth, the skateboarder with the dying mother.

What is truly remarkable is that through all this… life goes on.  Julia and Seth dance around each other endearingly.  Julia makes and loses friends, sometimes heartbreakingly.  And Julia learns a lot about her parents… some things that she wishes she wouldn’t.

In fact, if you took out the science fictional aspects of the plot… the book would be a perfectly entertaining work of literature in its own right.  But the slowing of the earth allows Walker to really play with the reader’s emotions.

Would the things that happen to Julia still happen if the Earth weren’t slowing?  Probably.  Puberty is a volatile time in any child’s life and when you add in all sorts of family drama… it can be downright maddening.  And as Walker writes, puberty and middle school can be the most affecting time of a person’s life:

This was middle school, the age of miracles, the time when kids shot up three inches over the summer, when breasts bloomed from nothing, when voices dipped and dove.  Our first were emerging, but they were being corrected.  Blurred vision could be fixed invisibly with the magic of the contact lens.  Crooked teeth were pulled straight with braces.  Spotty skin could be chemically cleared. (page 43)

Despite these sorts of miraculous advancements (as well as large leaps forward in technology), scientists never discover exactly what caused the slowing, nor do they find any way to fix it.

There’s further social commentary, especially as we see the rich of the world making out well, even with the pending apocalypse.  There’s a few comments from various sources about how lucky America is, especially in consideration of Africa.  Julia’s grandfather is an excellent lampooning of conspiracy nuts, as he doesn’t believe in the slowing at first… only to start hoarding gold when he finally does believe it.

Beyond all that… the writing is excellent.  Walker has a crisp, clean pose with a lot of funny and\or thoughtful similes.  There’s a tenderness to much of Julia’s inner monologues that is generally free from bitterness, as she tells her story more than a decade later.

Overall, the book is quite good.  The reading was fast paced, the characters are interesting and three-dimensional, and the commentary comes through without coming off as overdone, or extreme (see The Sugar Frosted Nutsack).  I’d definitely recommend this to anyone looking for a quick, thought-provoking read for the summer.

On top of all that, Walker will be at Powell’s on July 19 and I’m pretty excited.  Signed copy, here I come!

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