Karen Thompson Walker and the Limits of Speculative Fiction
by Jeremy Griffin
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Okay, so here’s the situation: for reasons that no one can understand, the earth’s rotation has begun to slow. Scientists intimate that there is no immediate danger, though they worry about what might happen should the slowing continue, which all data suggest it will. Meanwhile, human beings must adapt to the longer days and nights, which affect not only their physical health (severe sunburns, dehydration, etc.) but also their psychological health. Among the billions of people trying to find a way to go on with their lives is sixth-grader Julia, who lives in Southern California with her worrisome mother and father who, as one might expect, are at odds over how to react to such an unprecedented situation.
That’s the premise of the book, and it’s kind of cool really, a newish spin on the apocalyptic trend in literature: we don’t know if “the slowing,” as it is called, signals the end of the world or not, which in some ways is even creepier than all-out extinction. Amazing, then, that The Age of Miracles could turn out to be such a letdown.
Ostensibly, the slowing is a plot device meant to parallel the chaos of Julia’s adolescence: the skater boy after whom she pines; the girlfriends making dangerous forays into sexuality; the mean new kid at school who torments her at the bus stop; the subtle turmoil creeping into her parents’ marriage; and the eccentric grandfather who regales Julia with stories of his past. If any of these sound familiar, that’s probably because you’ve read them in at least a hundred other coming-of-age books. It’s unclear how the slowing scenario and the general turmoil of Julia’s maturation are supposed to play off each other, considering that the latter isn’t giving us anything we don’t already know on an intuitive level.
Nor are any of these minor conflicts ever even resolved. Throughout the story, Walker tosses in characters seemingly at random, offering up little hints of trouble down the line, but the trouble never comes. For instance, there’s the bully who, at the beginning of the book, humiliates Julia at the bus stop one morning…and then that’s it, he’s gone, from the story and seemingly from her life. Same with Julia’s mother and the slowing-induced sickness she struggles with, or the piano teacher who is more or less ostracized for her refusal to assimilate to “clock time”–these are stock characters, underwhelming. Like a busy party host, Walker introduces them to us and then immediately flits off to other things. Her interest in them is minimal, and so their development is, too.
But then, maybe I’ve missed the point entirely. Maybe the fact that so much goes unresolved in The Age of Miracles is precisely the point. Maybe I’ve just got a lot to learn about speculative fiction. I mean, critics were crazy for this book. Rolling Stone, the New York Times, the New Yorker–they all raved about it. Which is great for Walker; this is, after all, her debut novel. But as a reader, I’m left wondering what I’m supposed to take from the book. I want to know what Julia wants, and I want to see her strive for it, but as it is I’m not even sure she knows, maybe because she’s too young or maybe because the character hasn’t been fleshed out enough. I’m inclined to think it’s a combination of both. Either way, The Age of Miracles still seems like a first draft, a somewhat unrealized story that needs to be unpacked. I like that Walker didn’t go for the oh-shit-the-world-is-ending-let’s-all-brace-for-impact route; perhaps the most compelling aspect of the book was seeing how people struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy in their lives. Unfortunately, this is also one of its biggest problems, because most of us don’t want to read to about people trying to be normal. The world didn’t end with a bang or a whimper. It didn’t end at all. It just keeps turning, only slower, and where’s the fun in that?