A little fact about me: I like the end of the world. Always have. It’s not exactly something I’m looking forward to, per se — no zombie attack cardio training here — but I appreciate the apocalypse in fiction. It’s an excellent backdrop for drama, which isn’t to say that end-of-the-world stories are always well-written. When they are though, they can be the stuff of truly awesome nightmares, a pretty high compliment from me.
Another little tidbit of Nayiri info: one of my favorite kind of stories to read is the coming-of-age tale. Regardless of whether it’s a classic like To Kill a Mockingbird, a “modern” classic à la Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, an instantly-influential novel like The Secret History, a super-trendy title like The Perks of Being a Wallflower… I love them all. The idea of capturing a very specific time in which a character experiences a major chance that influences the rest of his or her life is fascinating to me, and when those stories are successful, it’s heartbreaking and heart-bursting to read.
The thing is, Karen Thompson Walker‘s much-hyped debut novel The Age of Miracles is neither here nor there, in terms of success. There are some surprisingly lovely moments, a great amount of creativity, and a whole boatload of schmaltz.*
First, the synopsis: one morning, the world’s rotation inexplicably slows, and eleven-year-old Julia narrates what should be a tumultuous time. Both the days and nights grow longer, quickly reshaping civilization’s reliance on a twenty-four-hour day — “We would fall out of sync with the sun almost immediately. Light would be unhooked from day, darkness unchained from night.” In spite of this, the beginning of a new era, Julia admits a truth: “But no force on earth could slow the forward march of sixth grade.” So we learn of friendships’ end, training bras, crushes on boys. We remember that youth can be lonely, that parents can disappoint, that feeling included can be everything. We experience all this as birds fall from the sky, neighbors grow sick, scientists speculate the cause of “the slowing,” and food sources diminish. It’s not that Julia — sensitive, observant, intelligent Julia! — doesn’t care or isn’t aware of the changes in the world, it’s more that her focus is on navigating her way through a time of dance parties and growth spurts: “Some girls were turning beautiful… I still looked like a child.”
This is what I like, what I find interesting, how a protagonist deals with and interprets something as universal as growing up against a creative and unique backdrop. I don’t need to know about the so-called science behind scorchingly-hot days and frosty nights. Julia wonders why whales are beaching themselves by the thousands on her Southern Californian shores, why it’s suddenly so hard to kick a soccer ball into a satisfactory arc, why earthquakes have begun pummel Kansas, and I do too… until Julia’s gaze turns to skateboarding Seth Moreno, object of her affection.
(An aside: Seth Moreno just may be as perfect a name as Jordan Catalano, or Marcus Flutie.)
I’m all for young love and first love and, heck, love in general, but unfortunately this is where things can often get exceedingly sentimental. I’m sorry to say that Ms. Walker overindulges in mawkishness. To be fair, it takes her a while to get there, but once she gets going… watch out. There is a specific scene that I can’t discuss, primarily because Ms. Walker chooses to revisit it and use it as the finale of her closing sequence — man, oh man, if only I could talk about it. Let me say this: it reads as though it is designed specifically to cause a tightening in the audience’s chest and a tearing of their eyes. It reads as manipulative. It reads as cheap. It reads as formulaic.
What legitimately burns is that Ms. Walker is a talented writer. There are many passages that are elegant, and stunning, and magnetic. There are descriptions that cause the reader to pause and say, Oh, how fine. The trouble is there are just as many passages that cause that same reader to pause and roll her eyes and say, Oh, jeez. And because the last note Ms. Walker leaves us with is maudlin, that commercialized shade of sickly blue can’t help but color the rest of the novel.