NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
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With a voice as distinctive and original as that of The Lovely Bones, and for the fans of the speculative fiction of Margaret Atwood, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles is a luminous and unforgettable debut novel about coming of age set against the backdrop of an utterly altered world.
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
“Maybe everything that happened to me and to my family had nothing at all to do with the slowing. It's possible, I guess. But I doubt it. I doubt it very much.”
Spellbinding, haunting, The Age of Miracles is a beautiful novel of catastrophe and survival, growth and change, the story of Julia and her family as they struggle to live in an extraordinary time. On an ordinary Saturday, Julia awakes to discover that something has happened to the rotation of the earth. The days and nights are growing longer and longer, gravity is affected, the birds, the tides, human behavior and cosmic rhythms are thrown into disarray. In a world of danger and loss, Julia faces surprising developments in herself, and her personal world—divisions widening between her parents, strange behavior by Hannah and other friends, the vulnerability of first love, a sense of isolation, and a rebellious new strength. With crystalline prose and the indelible magic of a born storyteller, Karen Thompson Walker gives us a breathtaking story of people finding ways to go on, in an ever-evolving world.
Praise for The Age of Miracles
“A stunner.”—Justin Cronin
“A genuinely moving tale that mixes the real and surreal, the ordinary and the extraordinary, with impressive fluency and flair.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Gripping drama . . . flawlessly written; it could be the most assured debut by an American writer since Jennifer Egan’s Emerald City.”—The Denver Post
“If you begin this book, you’ll be loath to set it down until you’ve reached its end.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Provides solace with its wisdom, compassion, and elegance.”—Curtis Sittenfeld
Don’t miss the exclusive conversation between Karen Thompson Walker and Karen Russell at the back of the book.
About the Author
Karen Thompson Walker is the author of The Age of Miracles, which was a New York Times bestseller. She was born and raised in San Diego and is a graduate of UCLA and the Columbia MFA program. A former editor at Simon & Schuster, she wrote The Age of Miracles in the mornings before worksometimes while riding the subway. She currently lives in Iowa with her husband.
Read an Excerpt
We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it.
We did not sense, at first, the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin.
We were distracted, back then, by weather and war. We had no interest in the turning of the earth. Bombs continued to explode on the streets of distant countries. Hurricanes came and went. Summer ended. A new school year began. The clocks ticked as usual. Seconds beaded into minutes. Minutes grew into hours. And there was nothing to suggest that those hours too weren’t still pooling into days, each the same, fixed length known to every human being.
But there were those who would later claim to have recognized the disaster before the rest of us did. These were the night workers, the graveyard shifters, the stockers of shelves, and the loaders of ships, the drivers of big-rig trucks, or else they were the bearers of different burdens: the sleepless and the troubled and the sick. These people were accustomed to waiting out the night. Through bloodshot eyes, a few did detect a certain persistence of darkness on the mornings leading up to the news, but each mistook it for the private misperception of a lonely, rattled mind.
On the sixth of October, the experts went public. This, of course, is the day we all remember. There’d been a change, they said, a slowing, and that’s what we called it from then on: the slowing.
“We have no way of knowing if this trend will continue,” said a shy bearded scientist at a hastily arranged press conference, now infamous. He cleared his throat and swallowed. Cameras flashed in his eyes. Then came the moment, replayed so often afterward that the particular cadences of that scientist’s speech—the dips and the pauses and that slight Midwestern slant—would be forever married to the news itself. He went on: “But we suspect that it will continue.”
Our days had grown by fifty-six minutes in the night.
At the beginning, people stood on street corners and shouted about the end of the world. Counselors came to talk to us at school. I remember watching Mr. Valencia next door fill up his garage with stacks of canned food and bottled water, as if preparing, it now seems to me, for a disaster much more minor.
The grocery stores were soon empty, the shelves sucked clean like chicken bones.
The freeways clogged immediately. People heard the news and they wanted to move. Families piled into minivans and crossed state lines. They scurried in every direction like small animals caught suddenly under a light.
But, of course, there was nowhere on earth to go.
The news broke on a Saturday.
In our house, at least, the change had gone unnoticed. We were still asleep when the sun came up that morning, and so we sensed nothing unusual in the timing of its rise. Those last few hours before we learned of the slowing remain preserved in my memory—even all these years later—as if trapped behind glass.
My friend Hanna had slept over the night before, and we’d camped out in sleeping bags on the living room floor, where we’d slept side by side on a hundred other nights. We woke to the purring of lawn mower motors and the barking of dogs, to the soft squeak of a trampoline as the twins jumped next door. In an hour we’d both be dressed in blue soccer uniforms—hair pulled back, sunscreen applied, cleats clicking on tile.
“I had the weirdest dream last night,” said Hanna. She lay on her stomach, her head propped up on one elbow, her long blonde hair hanging tangled behind her ears. She had a certain skinny beauty that I wished I had too.
“You always have weird dreams,” I said.
She unzipped her sleeping bag and sat up, pressed her knees to her chest. From her slim wrist there jingled a charm bracelet crowded with charms. Among them: one half of a small brass heart, the other half of which belonged to me.
“In the dream, I was at my house, but it wasn’t my house,” she went on. “I was with my mom, but she wasn’t my mom. My sisters weren’t my sisters.”
“I hardly ever remember my dreams,” I said, and then I got up to let the cats out of the garage.
My parents were spending that morning the way I remember them spending every morning, reading the newspaper at the dining room table. I can still see them sitting there: my mother in her green bathrobe, her hair wet, skimming quickly through the pages, while my father sat in silence, fully dressed, reading every story in the order it appeared, each one reflected in the thick lenses of his glasses.
My father would save that day’s paper for a long time afterward—packed away like an heirloom, folded neatly beside the newspaper from the day I was born. The pages of that Saturday’s paper, printed before the news was out, report a rise in the city’s real estate prices, the further erosion of several area beaches, and plans for a new freeway overpass. That week, a local surfer had been attacked by a great white shark; border patrol agents discovered a three-mile long drug-running tunnel six feet beneath the U.S./Mexico border; and the body of a young girl, long missing, was found buried under a pile of white rocks in the wide, empty desert out east. The times of that day’s sunrise and sunset appear in a chart on the back page, predictions that did not, of course, come to pass.
Half an hour before we heard the news, my mother went out for bagels.
I think the cats sensed the change before we did. They were both Siamese, but different breeds. Chloe was sleepy and feathery and sweet. Tony was her opposite: an old and anxious creature, possibly mentally ill, a cat who tore out his own fur in snatches and left it in piles around the house, tiny tumbleweeds set adrift on the carpet.
In those last few minutes, as I ladled dry food into their bowls, the ears of both cats began to swivel wildly toward the front yard. Maybe they felt it, somehow, a shift in the air. They both knew the sound of my mother’s Volvo pulling into the driveway, but I wondered later if they recognized also the unusually quick spin of the wheels as she rushed to park the car, or the panic in the sharp crack of the parking brake as she yanked it into place.
Soon, even I could detect the pitch of my mother’s mood from the stomps of her feet on the porch, the disorganized rattle of her keys against the door—she had heard those earliest news reports, now notorious, on the car radio between the bagel shop and home.
“Turn on the TV right now,” she said. She was breathless and sweaty. She left her keys in the teeth of the lock, where they would dangle all day. “Something God awful is happening.”
We were used to my mother’s rhetoric. She talked big. She blustered. She overstated and oversold. God awful might have meant anything. It was a wide net of a phrase that scooped up a thousand possibilities, most of them benign: hot days and traffic jams, leaking pipes and long lines. Even cigarette smoke, if it wafted too close, could be really and truly God awful.
We were slow to react. My father, in his thinning yellow Padres t-shirt, stayed right where he was at the table, one palm on his coffee cup, the other resting on the back of his neck, as he finished an article in the business section. I went ahead and opened the bag of bagels, letting the paper crinkle beneath my fingers. Even Hanna knew my mother well enough to go right on with what she was doing—hunting for the cream cheese on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator.
“Are you watching this?” my mother said. We were not.
My mother had been an actress once. Her old commercials—mostly hair care and kitchen products—lay entombed together in a short stack of dusty black videotapes that stood beside the television. People were always telling me how beautiful she was when she was young, and I could still find it in the fair skin of her face and the high structure of her cheekbones, but she’d gained weight in middle age. Now she taught one period of drama at the high school and four periods of history. We lived 95 miles from Hollywood.
She was standing on our sleeping bags, two feet from the television screen. When I think of it now, I imagine her cupping one hand over her mouth the way she always did when she worried, but at the time, I just felt embarrassed by the way the black waffle soles of her running shoes were twisting Hanna’s sleeping bag, hers the dainty cotton kind, pink and polka-dotted and designed not for the hazards of campsites but exclusively for the plush carpets of heated homes.
“Did you hear me?” said my mother, swinging round to look at us. My mouth was full of bagel and cream cheese. A sesame seed had lodged itself between my two front teeth. “Joel!” she shouted at my father. “I’m serious. This is hellacious.”
My father looked up from the paper then, but still he kept his index finger pressed firmly to the page to mark his place. How could we have known that the workings of the universe had finally made appropriate the fire of my mother’s words?
Reading Group Guide
A Conversation Between Karen Russell and Karen Thompson Walker
Karen Russell, a native of Miami, has been featured in The New Yorker’s debut fiction issue and on The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list, and was chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. In 2009, she received the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation. Three of her short stories have been selected for the Best American Short Stories volumes; “Proving Up,” previously titled “The Hox River Window,” won the National Mag- azine Award for Fiction in 2012. Her story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize. Her first novel, Swamplandia!, was a New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year selection, and winner of the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. She is a graduate of the Columbia MFA program and a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow.
Karen Russell: Congratulations on The Age of Miracles and its incredible success, Karen! Like so many readers, I was blown away by Julia’s story. I feel privileged to have seen pieces of the book in utero, way back in our graduate workshop. Could you talk just a little bit about the book’s evolution? What tipped you off that this was a novel and not a short story?
Karen Thompson Walker: The book started as a short story, and it was a bit of an experiment. I’d never written anything that broke the rules of reality in any way. I got the idea for the premise— the sudden slowing of the rotation of the earth—after reading that the rotation of the earth had been affected by the 2004 earthquake in Indonesia. I found that news really haunting, and I immediately began to imagine what might happen if we ever faced a much larger change. In the original short story, the days got shorter in- stead of longer, and it was just a onetime change—the twenty- four-hour day shrank to twenty-three hours and then stabilized. But the voice and Julia’s character were both pretty similar to the way they are in the novel. I set the story aside for a few years and started working in book publishing. Eventually, when I looked back at the story, I sensed that there might be a larger narrative to tell. The real breakthrough moment in terms of turning it into a novel came when I decided to change the slowing from a onetime catastrophe to an ongoing and worsening one, becoming more extreme with each passing day. That gave me a road to follow as well as the level of momentum I needed to tell a novel-length story.
KR: The first-person narration of The Age of Miracles is retrospective—the adult Julia is reinhabiting her eleven-year-old self, looking back at the slowing through the tunnel of memory. It’s the beginning of her young life; it also appears to be the beginning of the end for all life on the planet. What made you decide to foreground the story of Julia’s coming of age—to narrate the slowing from a child’s point of view? To focus in on the microcosm of her family, her Californian neighborhood?
KTW: I love stories about childhood, especially when the voice is retrospective. An adult looking back on childhood is always a story about a lost era; we can never be children again. That simple fact gives the voice an inherent melancholy and nostalgia that seemed exactly right for a novel about what might be the end of the world. As she narrates, Julia is charting the loss of two precious worlds: her childhood, but also life on earth as everyone once knew it.
Focusing on adolescence—a time when everything feels so immediate and new—was also a way of making sure that this large- scale story about global catastrophe would feel as personal and intimate as possible.
KR: According to Wittgenstein, “The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and ordinariness, everydayness. One is unable to notice something— because it is always before one’s eyes.” In The Age of Miracles, you use a planetwide catastrophe to reveal the miraculous qualities of the everyday. The slowing forces both its cast of characters and its readers to consider the scope of what we take for granted, both when it comes to “the workings of the universe” and the equilibrium within our own families. What are some of the things that the characters in your novel are now able to “see,” thanks to the slow- ing? What is revealed as precious, miraculous, to Julia? What did you come to view as most miraculous/fantastic about our everyday lives after writing the novel?
KTW: Leave it to Wittgenstein (and you) to articulate so crisply and aptly something I’ve only gradually come to realize. For me, the most memorable fiction is the kind that feels simultaneously familiar and new. I think that’s the trick of writing fiction and the pleasure of reading it: that mix of recognition and surprise. Ordinary life can be hard to write about in a way that feels interesting, but when I hit upon the idea of the slowing—the sudden and disastrous change in the rotation of the earth—I realized that it would allow me to write about the meaning of our daily lives in a way that might feel fresh. The looming catastrophe had a way of removing the everydayness from everyday life, of making the ordi- nary seem suddenly extraordinary. As I wrote the book, I felt more and more thankful for uneventful days, for the reliable rising and setting of the sun, and for the thousands of coincidences that allow human life to survive on earth at all.
KR: I thought the pacing of your novel was superb, and I really admired the way you generate suspense within the slowing by taking advantage of the retrospective narration to hint at some imminent development—for example, right before a major plot turn, Julia recalls, “It was just a moment later that I lost her. It was later estimated that we were traveling at forty-five miles per hour.” Was pacing something that came naturally to you, or part of the revision process? How much of the story did you know in advance? Were there any out-of-the-blue developments that shocked you, things you never guessed would happen when you started writing your novel?
KTW: I think pacing is one of the hardest aspects of story- telling. It can be difficult for a writer to evaluate the pacing of his or her own novel, but readers are great at it. Readers always notice when a story is moving too fast or too slow. For me, the key to learning to write fiction was learning to read my own work as if I were reading someone else’s. That process, which I try to do at the same time as I write, is a major act of the imagination, one that’s just as important to my writing as the imagination it takes to create the characters and the story. When I was writing The Age of Miracles, I had a general idea of the arc of the novel, but I didn’t always know what would happen in the next chapter. I like to feel a little suspense as I write, and I hope that carries over to the reader.
KR: Throughout the book, I was dazzled by the quality of your details, how fully you imagine the consequences of the slowing, both large and small—earthworms sizzle on patios and birds fall from the sky, the “flesh of avocados turns black from the frosts,” en- vironmentalists make ominous pronouncements about the world’s dependence on crops “guzzling up light.” Flannery O’Connor writes, “Fiction is an art that calls for the strictest attention to the real—whether the writer is writing a naturalistic story or a fantasy. . . . I would even go so far as to say that the person writing a fantasy has to be even more strictly attentive to the concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein—because the greater the story’s strain on credulity, the more convincing the proper- ties in it have to be.” Can you talk a little bit about the work you did to make your premise feel so frighteningly real? What kind of research did you do? What was the most surprising thing you learned during your research? Which of the many changes that you imagined here did you find most personally haunting or upset- ting? (I am still thinking about Seth’s sunburn, and the children petting the dessicated whales, for example.)
KTW: What a great quote from Flannery O’Connor. I completely agree with her. My goal was to treat this story as if I were writing realism. I wanted the premise to feel as convincing as the characters, so that the reader would feel true concern for the people in the book. In order to make the slowing feel as real as possible, I took a lot of details from daily newspaper stories: strange weather, extinctions of species, studies on human circadian rhythms and even the unfolding of the global financial crisis. I also showed the book to an astrophysicist, which was a nerve-racking but crucial experience. Fortunately, I was relieved by how many of my details he found plausible, especially once you take the imaginative leap that something completely unexpected has happened. He also helped me fix a few things. For me, the most haunting consequence in the book is probably the simplest, the one that inspired me to write this story in the first place: just the idea of not knowing when or if the sun will ever rise again.
KR: One of the fascinating developments in the slowing occurs when world governments ask their people to “carry on exactly as we always had.” Most people live on “Clock Time”—persisting on the twenty-four-hour clock, even as the earth’s rotation continues to slow and the spacing between daylight and darkness grows more erratic. Is their commitment to “normalcy” courageous or foolhardy? More generally, in an irreversible movement like the slowing, is nostalgia a life-preserver or a trap? Sometimes Julia’s parents’ insistence on maintaining an ordinary home life in the face of the slowing seems like an act of supreme courage; at other times, their nostalgia for their lives pre-slowing reads as stubborn, delusional. It puts Julia at risk. I love the scene where Julia’s father lingers in the house of his former girlfriend on the beach—a literal and figurative relic, which is filling with seawater.
KTW: The slowing introduces a sudden chaos into the lives of everyone on earth. In a world in which the twenty-four-hour clock no longer corresponds to darkness and daylight, and no one can predict when the sun will rise and set, it seemed natural to me that many people would respond with a strong desire for the familiar and the orderly. Thus, most of society clings to the stability of the twenty-four-hour clock, even though it means that children sometimes go to school in the dark and people must try to sleep during daylight. Whether that impulse is courageous or foolhardy is hard to say—perhaps it’s both things at once. There’s no good solution to the situation these people are facing. All they can do is try to carry on in the face of the unknown. In that sense, their lives are not so different from ours; it’s just that unlike most of us, they can no longer ignore the basic uncertainty inherent in every human life.
KR: You know, like Julia, I too had a crush on that Seth Moreno! The slowing is one heck of a dramatic backdrop for first love—how do you think the hothouse bloom of their romance is affected by this crisis? How did you see the slowing altering the ordinary course of their development more generally? To me, Julia and Seth often felt simultaneously regressive, childlike, and preternaturally adult. They sneak out at night, trespass, have old-fashioned summer fun, but of course they will never have an old-fashioned summer again, now that the slowing has changed everything.
KTW: I think the relationship between Julia and Seth is the emotional core of the book. I didn’t always know that their young love story would play such a large role in the novel, but I loved writ- ing about it. When we’re going through adolescence, our romantic interests feel incredibly pressing and meaningful, but once we grow up, I think we tend to be kind of dismissive of those early bonds and crushes. Letting this love story unfold against the backdrop of an apocalyptic scenario was a way of injecting new meaning into the small-scale highs and lows of adolescent relationships. Seth and Julia do the things that many of us did as children or teenagers— they tell one another secrets, hold hands, and share a first kiss—but in their world, theirs may be the last generation to experience all those familiar rites of passage. I hope that fact makes their story feel as urgent as our own love stories felt when we were their age.
KR: There are many mysteries in The Age of Miracles, from the cause of the slowing itself, to people’s inexplicable personality changes and erratic behavior, to the disappearance of Julia’s grand- father. Some of these mysteries are solved by the novel’s end, but many remain. I thought that the scientists’ bafflement made the crisis feel that much more credible. What guided you as you decided which mysteries to resolve and which questions to leave un- answered?
KTW: The book is very much about uncertainty, so I knew I didn’t want an ending that would suddenly answer every question and resolve every conflict. The slowing baffles scientists—they cannot explain it and they cannot change it. Similarly, Julia will never completely understand the people around her. As a species, I think we tend to think we know more than we do, but there’s still so much—about the universe as well as one another—that we can- not yet comprehend. I think there’s a certain beauty in that mystery, but it’s also unnerving, and I hoped that The Age of Miracles, particularly the ending, would capture both of those qualities.
1. As readers, why do you think we’re drawn to stories about the end of the world? What special pleasures do these kinds of narratives offer? And how do you think this element works in The Age of Miracles?
2. Julia is an only child. How does this fact affect who she is and how she sees the world? How would her experience of the slowing be different if she had a sibling? How would her experience of middle school be different?
3. How much do you think the slowing alters Julia’s experience of adolescence? If the slowing had never happened, in what ways would her childhood have been different? In what ways would it have been the same?
4. Julia’s parents’ marriage becomes increasingly strained over the course of the book. Why do you think they stay together? Do you think it’s the right choice? How much do you think Julia’s mother does or does not know about Sylvia?
5. Julia’s father tells several crucial lies. Discuss these lies and consider which ones, if any, are justified and which ones are not. Is lying ever the right thing to do? If so, when?
6. How would the book change if it were narrated by Julia’s mother? What if it were narrated by Julia’s father? Or her grandfather?
7. Why do you think Julia is so drawn to Seth? Why do you think he is drawn to her?
8. Did you identify more with the clock-timers or with the real-timers? Which would you be and why?
9. The slowing affects the whole planet, but the book is set in southern California. How does the setting affect the book? How important is it that the story takes place in California?
10. How do you feel about the way the book ends? What do you think lies ahead for Julia, for her parents, and for the world?
11. The slowing throws the natural world into disarray. Plants and animals die and there are changes in the weather. Did this book make you think about the threats that face our own natural world? Do you think the book has something to say about climate change?
12. If you woke up tomorrow to the news that the rotation of the earth had significantly slowed, how do you think you would respond? What is the first thing you would do?