The conceit of The Age of Miracles is that it is a novel about the end of the world, like all the other novels about the end of the world that we are writing because as a culture we can’t imagine any hope big enough to keep the world going against the forces of inertia, entropy or some other invisible entity that inexorably exerts itself against us.
In the case of this novel, that force is time itself. Without giving too much away, this is a book about what happens when the globe itself becomes sluggish. But it isn’t. It is told on the micro-scale of a family of a doctor and a drama teacher and their 11 year old girl, who is our narrator.
Remember when you were 11? The world was still experienced as a confusing mess of many different things that presented themselves to you without any cohesive sense of how they should fit together. And when you were 11 you didn’t know what was about to happen at 12 or at 13. The whole of your short life is the entirety of world history to you and all of a sudden puberty is about to hit. Nothing will be the same. The things that allowed you to navigate through the social spaces you inhabit were about to shift under the strange unspoken power of desire. The certainties that marked out the one coherent territory of life, home, were about to be shaken by the granting of sight to see how complex adult relationships were. And the qualities of life that gave you comfort – your competencies and interests and your sense of time and place – were all about to be accelerated and slowed in random ways by the physical metamorphosis around the corner.
11 was still a pretty deadly time though.
And so this novel charts the slow disintegration of human life as a way to see inside the soul of a girl on that cusp.
Fiendishly clever, eh? But this is not a book that is up itself. It is easy to read and reminded me of those summer days (at about the age of 11) when I first discovered Z For Zachariah. It is tonally very different from that apocalyptic tale about a teenaged girl but it is in the same territory of readability. This child is going through dreadful things, but it isn’t burdensome to join her.
The refrain that lingers in Julia’s narration is: “It is amazing how little we knew”. The effect of lies and the incomplete assumed knowledge passed on to her by her authorities are the obstacles that get in her way, trouble her and I suppose connect her to the larger disaster unfolding all around. But for the most part, this novel resonates in how it articulates this stage of life so vividly through implicit analogy with the “slowing” and its effects.
The eucalyptus first arrived in California in the 1850s. Imported from Australia, the seeds crossed five thousand miles of open ocean before reaching the soil of our state. The trunks were supposed to be a miracle wood, perfect for a hundred different purposes, railroad ties especially. But the wood turned out to be useless. It curled as it dried and split when nailed. The state’s eucalyptus industry went bust before it ever boomed.
But the trees remained – and they spread. They were everywhere in my youth, and in my grandfather’s youth, too. Their slender silhouettes once swayed along the coastal canyons, the beach bluffs,the soccer fields. Their long leaves floated in the swimming pools and the gutters. They drifted along the banks of saltwater lagoons. For over one hundred and fifty years, the eucalyptus thrived in California, surviving every calamity: earthquake, drought, the invention of the automobile. But now the trees were suffering en masse. The leaves were losing their color. Orange sap oozed from openings in the trunks. Little by little, they were dying.
– Karen Thompson Walker, The Age of Miracles, p. 267-268.
Your Correspondent, Hears from the future that the past still exists