The Big Slowdown: The Age of Miracles

08/01/2012 4:00 AM |

The Age of Miracles
By Karen Thompson Walker

(Random House)

The transition from tween to teen is tough, but when the entire planet slows down, it’s a whole lot tougher. That’s the takeaway of Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel The Age of Miracles, in which Julia, a self-proclaimed “quiet girl with an average face” living in Southern California, comes of age as Earth experiences the catastrophic first months of “the slowing” of its rotation.

Julia’s high-concept adolescence might be hard, with “light sickness” spreading as anxiety slowly erodes the human capacity to make rational decisions, but it’s catnip for publishers. The combination of a credible dystopian setting and a youth-oriented story (shades of Hunger Games, anyone?) made The Age of Miracles a sure thing at auction; last year, Walker, a former Simon & Schuster editor, sold it to Random House for $1 million.

But comparisons to The Hunger Games are inapt. Katniss Everdeen has the abilities of a seasoned archer. Julia isn’t even good at soccer. As The Age of Miracles’s “slowing” advances (in a manner notably similar to that depicted in the 2010 Canadian TV documentary Aftermath: When the Earth Stops Spinning), she just tries to keep living her life as a normal girl with normal-girl problems.

There’s something admirable here. Walker is devoted to showing us the futility of everyday life in the face of disaster. Yet, by creating a narrator who’s so middle-of-the-road—two parents, not pretty or ugly, decent in school but not great—she hinges her blockbuster plot on a heroine who never quite rises to moments of decision.

Then again, The Age of Miracles isn’t being sold as dystopian fiction. It’s being sold as adult literature. On that account, the sparsely ornamented, almost clinically edited sentences may impress. The clean prose does make Julia sound like an actual 11-year-old, but is too often vanilla and risk-averse. “The eucalyptus trees were fluttering like sea anemones in the wind,” Julia relates. Or: “Seth continued to keep to himself, like a lonesome survivor, blowing on his hands in an attractive, self-sufficient way, one foot on his skateboard, the other on the curb.”

“Seth” is Seth Moreno, Julia’s first crush, a loner from a broken home, and Julia moons over him with a conviction that reminds us how our brains can be dismantled by hormonal rushes. He is the guy you write about in your journal when you notice that he’s wearing a new shirt, and he doesn’t go away when the world stops spinning. Julia’s love for him is relatable—but the stock quality of his character makes it seem less
than consequential.

In the meantime, “the slowing” is detailed. Twenty-four hours a day stretch to 60. People hoard flashlights, batteries and bottled water. Birds plunge from the sky. The loss of Earth’s magnetic field leads to mass beachings of humpbacks, killer whales and dolphins. “Real-timers,” who adjust themselves to the light and dark cycles, clash with “clock-timers” who continue to live their lives by a 24-hour clock regardless of what appear to be day and night. But Julia finds all these things mere inconveniences compared to the promise of young love.