We think we know time. We take for granted the fact that the sun rises every morning and sets every night. It’s been that way for a long time, and our minds and bodies mold themselves around it: the 24-hour day.
For Julia, the protagonist in Karen Thompson Walker’s novel, “The Age of Miracles,” her concept of “day” and “time” shatters when, one fateful Saturday, she learns of “the slowing.”
“To a certain extent, we can adapt,” a scientist on the television screen says. A tiny microphone had been pinned to his collar, and a newscaster plumbs him for the darker possibilities. “But if the earth’s rotation continues to slow — and this is just speculation — I’d say we can expect radical changes in the weather. We’re going to see earthquakes and tsunamis. We might see mass plant and animal die-outs. The oceans may begin to shift toward the poles.”
Julia, when the novel begins, is a somewhat shy and bookish, though otherwise an average 12-year-old in middle school. She hangs out with her best friend Hanna and pines after a skateboarder in her class named Seth Moreno. When the news breaks about the slowing of the earth’s rotation, she’s still just trying to figure out where to get her first bra and how to get invited to the cool parties.
Things get undeniably complicated as the days, and nights, become longer. Seconds and minutes and hours trickle into every new day. The earth’s rotation grows slower and slower, so that eventually stretches of daylight last for 24, 48 and then 72 hours.
And the dark stretches last just as long. Sun becomes unhinged from “day” and dark becomes unattached to “night.” Circadian rhythms are upended, and certain people develop the “syndrome” — dizziness, insomnia, fatigue, nausea and fainting. Animals die, people become depressed, and some leave for desert colonies where “Real Time” (as opposed to clock time) is observed. Simply put, society as we know it starts to come apart.
In Julia’s world, smaller dramas unfold. Her mother contracts the syndrome and spends most days in bed. Her father, a doctor, grows distant, and Julia suspects that he’s involved with their neighbor (and Julia’s piano teacher), Sylvia.
Walker’s young heroine suffers the usual indignities of puberty, all set amidst the backdrop of potential Armageddon. Her spare but clear first person narration conveys disappointment, heartbreak and humiliation with searing immediacy.
Despite all the distractions of altered gravitational forces and 32-hour days, kids continue to be kids, as Julia discovers one morning while waiting at the school bus stop. Daryl, a chronic bra-snapper, calls her bluff when she insists that she’s wearing one.
“Here’s what I remember next: the white of my T-shirt over my face, the whoosh of damp air on my bare breastbone and bare ribs, over the whole flat plane of my chest. The excited squeals of the other kids. … Daryl held me that way for a few long seconds while I twisted and turned, the two of us locked in a perverse dance.”
Kind of makes you cringe, doesn’t it? Similar, decidedly non-geologic catastrophes pepper the story and bring it back down from the celestial to the personal. Julia’s courtship of Seth becomes a central plotline as the novel develops. The already-fragile nature of their relationship is made more so by the giant natural disaster happening all around them.
I wondered frequently while reading what this slowing might represent. Does it stand in, perhaps, for our economic crisis or climate change? Is it a metaphor for adolescence or personal conflict? I think the answer is somewhat simpler. While I can’t know the author’s vision, I tend to think she wanted to create a story about intense and fundamental change. About human resilience in the face of such ground-shaking alterations in everyday life.
How would we all act if the sun was up for two weeks straight, and then the world was submerged in darkness for the next two? Could our technologies save us from such a basic shift in how we live?
“The Age of Miracles” is a page-turning, coming -of-age-story set in a dystopian future. And like any good one of its genre, it takes into vivid account the tumultuous times of its protagonist, who’s a least a little bit familiar to us.