Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1978 left us feeling a wee bit pessimistic about the proliferation of humanity. 1981′s Mad Max gave us a post-apocalyptic view of the world that was barren, dirty, violent, but oh so sexy with a young (not outwardly crazy) Mel Gibson. The Road in 2010 with “the King” Viggo Mortensen was well done but about as bleak as it gets.
In Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, Pasadena’s choice for this year’s One City, One Story event, the end of the world as we know it starts just like any other day. The creep-factor is that the world turns to a standstill figuratively because the Earth suddenly begins slowing—literally.
No one understands the reason for this phenomenon and while it’s alarming, for 11-year-old Julia, the narrator, it’s also a bit exciting. Until the days get longer—12,17, 20 hours long and growing—followed by the equivalent length of time for the nights. The big divide comes about when officials decide to keep things as normal as possible and, rather than follow the sunrise and sunset to determine our “days”, people will follow the clock. As a result, Julia finds herself going to school in what would have been considered the middle of the night with sunrise arriving around lunchtime. Others, the “real-timers,” choose to follow nature’s example. Predictable antagonisms, exclusion, and intolerance emerge, and the real-timers quickly becoming outcasts.
People have to adjust to “The Slowing” as it’s called. Some don’t—they go crazy, they become ill. For kids, this world quickly becomes the new normal—Julia still has to strategize how to avoid the local bully at the bus stop and has to meander through her conflicting feelings about Seth, her first crush. But issues of food supply, fuel, health, rising waters loom in the background, periodically raising their hand to get attention (this is a catastrophe, right?). Yet still no conversations about the end of the world? No fear, rage, depression from Julia or any of her peers about the possibility that their whole lives may not be ahead of them? Yes, kids have an amazing ability to adapt, but they are also very reactionary and emotional beings. With the days getting longer and hotter, it almost feels as though people are sleepwalking through this disaster.
Walker does an effective job creating Julia’s world, suburban Southern California, though her use of a mother who used to be an actress and uses superlatives to the point that when she freaks out over the initial news of The Slowing no one pays her any attention and a father who’s a doctor and keeps everything to himself is too neat. And, of course, Julia is an only child; this means that in the early days as families flee or insulate themselves, Julia is even more alone than normal (de rigueur for a child narrator).
The story never really stumbles, but it does feel somehow lacking in depth, as though Walker has a great idea but doesn’t have the capability to pull it off. The family never sat down to have a discussion, or a series of discussions, about what was happening and how they would handle it? Even as events change? Nope. Just another “night” of eating in front of the TV; a fork pausing mid-air as an update is reported; then right back to the previously scheduled programming. Really? Physically, emotionally, and/or mentally absentee parents are good for a coming-of-age story, almost a necessity, for child narrators must feel abandoned, without role models or a sense of security—parental involvement would spoil the story so write them off as Silent, Go-With-the-Flow Dad and Wacko Mom.
The trick, too, is that if a narrator is going to be a child (though Julia’s story is being told from her adult perspective) then said child must be different somehow—more intuitive, insightful, sensitive…something…in order for adult readers to care about reading further. This was an enjoyable, quick read, even a bit disturbing and unsettling in light of the current state of the Earth’s “health,” but it wasn’t a substantial read. It almost felt like an unfinished read; as though someone snatched and published Walker’s manuscript while she was out researching possible scientific consequences and was still working on her characters’ individual back-stories so as to pull them from the two dimensional into the big, wide world of 3-D believability.
In this supposed age of miracles, Julia states, “I guess it never is what you worry over that comes to pass in the end. The real catastrophes are always different, unimagined, unprepared for, unknown.”