Karen Thompson Walker’s “The Age of Miracles”

In Karen Thompson Walker’s much-talked-about debut, The Age of Miracles, civilization is rocked by the news of a slowing in the earth’s rotation—”the slowing,” as it’s referred to in the novel—that extends the length of day beyond twenty-four hours, wreaking havoc on the environment, commerce, and day-to-day human interaction. Suitably, it’s the latter that our narrator Julia, a twelve-year-old girl from Southern California, focuses on: the disintegration of her family, losing friends, and finding a boyfriend.

One need not squint to see why Random House handed Walker, a graduate of the Columbia University MFA program, a million dollars for her debut. The formula is HOT! HOT! HOT! right now: a dystopian tale framed around a twelve-year-old girl’s coming of age story. And going by the moments that focus exclusively on Julia’s development and middle-school issues, it’s clear that Walker’s a talented writer with a skill for crafting sharp, witty dialogue and insightful conflict. Take the titular scene, for instance.

This was middle school, the age of miracles, the time when kids shot up three inches over the summer, where breasts bloomed from nothing, when voices dipped and dove. Our first flaws were emerging, but they were being corrected. Blurry 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. Some girls were turning beautiful. A few boys were growing tall. I knew I still looked like a child.

The language is a little clunky there, but with a first-person narrative, that’s not the main concern. There’s a pathetic, endearing self-awareness in that sequence that’s carried throughout much of the novel. In the midst of “the slowing,” all Julia wants is to be normal—or to feel normal—among her peers. She doesn’t want the world—just a little something more for herself. It’s the novel’s strongest, simplest aspect.

But when The Age of Miracles tries to be anything more than a twelve-year-old trying to find her way—a slim topic already—it’s agonizing. The effects of “the slowing” come on gradually, first with “the sickness,” a gravity disorder that kills off birds (both caged and wild, which is confusing, but whatever), and then “the syndrome,” a malady that makes humans occasionally lose consciousness. It’s a little tired and emotionally distant, giving all of these different phenomena a vague, minimalistic-to-jar-you! name (also reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan, something most writers should try to avoid).

There are a hodgepodge of environmental consequences, too, from “the slowing.”

By early December, three weeks before Christmas, the days had swelled to forty-two hours. Changes had been detected in the currents of the oceans. Glaciers were melting even faster than before. Certain long-dormant volcanoes had begun to bubble and steam. There were reports that migratory whales were failing to migrate, remaining instead in chilly northern waters.

This is a dire cause-and-effect equation, expressed in the flattest language: terrible things “had been” or “were” or “had begun” to take effect. But in a story, what does it matter if “changes” are “detected in the currents of the oceans”? This is a statement stated without any consequence. And when your story exists in a world with a planet slowing for unknown reasons, it doesn’t hurt to substantiate what’s put out there.

Broader conflicts fall similarly flat. When the President of the United States announces the country will adhere to a 24-hour clock—regardless of the lengths of the natural day—a rift emerges between those who conform and those who use sunrise/sunset as their guide. The latter are known as “real-timers” and include environmentalists, libertarians, pretty much any person outside America’s mainstream. Inexplicably, the “real-timers” are viewed by their clock-adhering peers as a threat.

The real-timers made the rest of us uncomfortable. They too often slept while the rest of us worked. They went out when everyone else was asleep. They were a threat to the social order, some said, the first small crumbles of a coming disintegration.

OK? This is some serious, scrawl-three-question-marks-in-the-margin worthy rumination. Why is this such a threat? What is at all creepy about people sleeping during the day or going out late at night? Writers, try as they may, can’t just play God, say something and have it be so. The reader can’t be expected to go along with every sentence; conflicts have to be earned in the text or rooted in something.

The character development follows the same path. Sylvia, “a real-timer,” is Julia’s neighbor and piano teacher. (Note: I won’t go into obvious spoilers here, but Sylvia plays a central role in one of the novel’s main conflicts.) Here is an exhaustive list of character traits the reader knows about Sylvia after 269 pages:

  1. She teaches “yoga at the Y.”
  2. She plays piano barefoot.
  3. She wears turquoise jewelry.
  4. Her house smells like incense.
  5. She doesn’t “believe in chemicals or air conditioning.”

Sylvia is a hippie or a Portland girl or a hipster or whatever. She is a main character in The Age of Miracles, and her defining features seem straight off the back of an Alice Waters baseball card. There’s nothing to her character or her essence that could have taken more than fifteen minutes to think up. She is so consistently and unfailingly an archetype that Walker basically forbids the reader from thinking of anyone but Maggie Gyllenhaal in Stranger Than Fiction, or the cute boy/girl who serves you at your local quinoa cafe. And perhaps this is because Julia’s telling the story—she’s twelve, she’s shallow, whatever.

Even when Walker writes in a compelling character, she feels under-utilized. Take Hanna, who was Julia’s best friend before “the slowing” and her Mormon family’s subsequent waiting-for-the-end trip to Utah, where she met a new BFF, Tracey. When Hanna returns, there’s awkwardness between the three.

“Hi,” I said.
Tracey spit out her gum and sat down.  She slid one burrito across the table to Hanna.
“See?” said Hanna, pointing at the crowd of kids across the quad. “Now do you see what I mean?”
“Totally,” said Tracey. She leaned her head back in extreme agreement. “Totally.”
“What?” I said.
“Nothing,” said Hanna.

This is a wonderful sequence. But this is basically the last we see of Hanna—and, actually, most of what we see. The reader’s treated to just one earlier scene of Hanna and Julia as close friends—the morning of the announcement of “the slowing”—and that doesn’t really show much beyond your pedestrian middle-school bond. So when she decides to abandon Julia, the consequences aren’t so clear. Julia claims to be bereft of friendship or companionship, but the reader has no reason to believe she really had much of it before. (This is one of many times I felt compelled to angrily write SHOW NOT TELL in the margins.)

Other characters aren’t fully fleshed out either. A significant person in Julia’s life disappears and later dies, but between disappearance and death he seems forgotten, barely mentioned in the text until his passing is discovered. When his body is found, it’s not given much consideration.

Seth, Julia’s first love, is a tall dude who likes to skateboard. His mom dies of cancer early in the book—a plot trick that smells an awful lot like the replace-character-development-with-personal-tragedy move that got students torn to shit in my undergraduate fiction workshops. He later develops “the syndrome,” nearly dies, and moves to Mexico over the course of a handful of pages. The pacing and development of characters isn’t just off: it’s laughable.

There are times in The Age of Miracles when it seems Walker just needed a more dedicated editor. Given her large advance, it’s possible that Random House asked their copy editors—who are most likely freelance and no longer in-house—to do a light edit. Because of this, there are some glaring errors: Julia claims to miss Hanna like a “phantom limb.” The passive voice is constant and not at all affecting, giving the narration an emotional distance that doesn’t suit a coming-of-age story. At a critical time in the book, Julia defies physics, spying on her neighbor, to great effect, across the street through “a sliver” in the curtain. She constantly uses the verb “trundle.” Adverbs like “perpetually” show up multiple times in the same paragraph. These are minor errors in a better-crafted book. In The Age of Miracles, it’s just more on the pile.

There are things completely out of a writer’s control: the size of a book’s advance, its marketing, and (to an extent) its editing and subsequent critical reception. And The Age of Miracles should not be looked at through jaundiced eyes because its author got a million bucks from Random House, it’s been marketed widely, and critics have lauded it. So I’m aware of the critical pitfalls here—the desire to be different or to reject something popular. That’s not the case here. I really want to like everything I read, and I feel a certain guilt panning anything new, given this country’s attitude toward reading.

But I feel very certain about saying this: The Age of Miracles is, across the board, a failure. It is inessential and, for a science-fiction book about the earth slowing down, so low in its stakes and so conventional in its narrative and development of characters that the act of reading it would be infuriating if it were not so flat.

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