At some point in the not-so-distant future, the Earth’s rotation begins to slow. The days and nights grow longer; clocks become irrelevant. Scientists can’t explain it; they only know that “the slowing” is happening quickly — once 24 hours, a single day expands to 26, then 29, then 35. The government steps in and everyone is instructed to live on clock time; school starts at 9 a.m. again, whether it’s blue sky and sunshine or black sky and stars. Daily life, for so long in sync with the rhythms of the planet, becomes unmoored from them. And as the days and nights grow longer, people can’t help but wonder: How long will it take before the slowing — or the myriad weather and atmospheric phenomena it enables — becomes the stopping?
Amid all of this, there’s Julia. A shy and awkward middle school student, the only child of loving parents, Julia learns of the slowing before she’s even old enough to wear a bra. As our narrator, she writes from the future, and The Age of Miracles is her memoir of sorts, a single person’s account of the greatest scientific occurrence known to mankind.
I’ve read a great many books and watched a great many movies about The End of the World. Sometimes it’s a violent thing, man turning on his fellow man, and/or possibly zombies. And sometimes it’s a more majestic affair, like Tea Leoni facing a tsunami like a boss in Deep Impact. But all such stories are alike in one thing: their depiction of chaos, of the anarchy that it’s fair to assume would result from a planet-threatening plague or force of nature. And while the fatalistic outlook on humanity has never struck me as particularly inaccurate, it’s the very lack of chaos that makes The Age of Miracles so special.
Right away, the slowing is a genius narrative foil: It presents society with a world-ending scenario, but one that allows an indefinite amount of time, perhaps even a great deal of time, before the end actually arrives. Karen Thompson Walker has created here a leisurely cataclysm, the terminal illness of armageddons.
But because they can, people adapt. They sleep when the sun is out and work when it’s dark. They build greenhouses for produce, and replace their yards with fake grass. Julia continues to go to school; she continues to spar with friends and pine for Seth, an introspective skateboarder who plays piano and smells of soap. Julia’s parents bicker over canned goods; her peers plan birthday parties. Of course there are dissenters—those who go off clock time or join cults or drop everything to await the second coming—but for the most part, people go on.
The beauty, of course, is that the slowing is simultaneously everything and nothing. What it amounts to is a guarantee that at some point in the future everyone will die, a guarantee with which the human race should already be familiar. And while there are certainly tangible side effects, some of them extreme, these too beg the question of what exactly makes life worth living. Is it the taste of a sun-warmed peach? The satisfaction of a well-pitched baseball? Is it daylight? If sheer living is the only thing you can hold onto, what and how much would need to be taken away to make that living feel pointless?
The Age of Miracles is a heavy book (figuratively speaking; it’s actually on the short side) and the existential questions it raises are almost inversely proportionate to the ease and simplicity with which they’re expressed through Julia. The novel is not an indictment of political inaction, or a champion of any particular ideology. It’s just a girl’s story of the beginning of the end of the world, and how it coincided with her life.
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