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The Age of Miracles
By Karen Thompson Walker
Reviewed by Yair Ben-Zvi
You know, it's funny sometimes how a point you conceive of one day can find its echo sometime later. For a while now I've considered California to be 'the end of the world' but not in a necessarily bad way. I just had this image of the California beach coast being the furthest point west, the tipping point where the rays of the sun finally reach beyond their grasp and the world, from those shores, starts over again somewhere over the waters of the Pacific. Karen Thompson Walker taps into that sense, that idea of California's almost floating nature, detached from the rest of the world while being a part of it only after the fact. In this case being the last recipient of Armageddon.
Had I known about the apparent hype behind this book I, maybe, wouldn't have given it such a high rating. But the saying does go 'ignorance is...' so I went in blind and found myself continually intrigued and fascinated. Even had I been privy to the hype (I'm apparently out of several loops and not just the few I was aware of) I don't think it would have mattered too much. This book is polished, possessing only a few of the amateurish hallmarks endemic to most first novels.
Julia and her family in California are living a normal suburban life until one day the Earth's rotation begins to slow. It's a gradual process and Walker well illustrates the kaleidoscopic emotional upheavals that the people of the world would go through in the case of a global disaster like that. Suicide cults, refuge in decadence, denial, religious zealotry, wanton acts of passion. All or most of these tropes are touched upon or at the very least mentioned. In many ways this book is like a softer retelling of Lars von Trier's film Melancholia though with a greater belief in the resilience of the human spirit and even echoing an idea I heard regarding Saul Bellow's oeuvre, that "...it was worth it, being alive." Also, I couldn't help but think of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird as Julia felt like a somewhat less soulful version of Scout.
Now, the book does well in its depictions of the growing dread and unease of the world and its gradual deceleration. But where the book really shines for me is in its description of childhood and its inherent tragedy, especially in modern times. Yes, in a book about the end of the world, it's the indictment of growing up in the modern world that deserves the most mention. Julia is for all intents and purposes, a good kid. She loves her parents, has a crush on a boy, plays soccer, and just generally wants to have a normal childhood. But that doesn't seem in the cards for her, or anyone else anymore. The 'Slowing' of the book demands to be taken at more than just face value. It's, for me, a metaphor for how the young of the world are forced to, through various circumstances, just grow up too damn fast. There's no time for innocence, no time for joy, or for wonder, or naivete. You're born, you mature, you decline, and you die. And even a push from nature, the slowing, only exacerbates this, we as a civilization are speeding ourselves forward ever faster and no one seems to care about what's left behind, only about what can be gained ahead.
But again, unlike the work of a von Trier, and actually more in line with say Camus' The Plague or even Terrence Malick's film The Tree of Life, the resilience of the human spirit, even set against the less admirable qualities of itself, has hope of winning out in the end. And even should the world end, and everything go to hell, it was, as was said of Bellow before and, it would seem, of Walker now, worth it to be alive, and therein lies the miracle.
Out of 10: 8.9