Books

The End of the World as We Know It

Everyone loves an apocalypse. Whether in the context of religion, science, cult theories, books, movies, TV, psychosis, or just old-fashioned paranoia, we always seem to be telling ourselves that we’re approaching complete and certain annihilation. We see apocalyptic narratives everywhere, from the Bible to the Cold War, from the Mayans to Heaven’s Gate, global warming to Y2K to Armageddon, Dr. Strangelove, Melancholia, Contagion and legions more: we exist perpetually on the brink of the end of the world. And so at first blush, you could say that Karen Thompson Walker’s remarkable debut novel, the apocalyptic The Age of Miracles, sets us in rather unremarkable, familiar territory: the world is ending, and everyone’s ready.

Why is the premise—and the promise—of the apocalypse so intoxicating, so culturally pervasive? The apocalypse offers us a certainty we can count on: death, writ large. And in indiscriminate devastation we also happen to find something we profess to strive for in our culture—equality—and these two feelings, certainty and equality, are a pretty damn comforting combination. I think that’s what, as a child, eased my fears about the absurdity of war: sure, someone could nuke Washington, DC, and I’d be dead before I knew it, but so what, because one day the sun’s gonna swallow the whole planet and everyone will be dead by then, the winners and the losers both. Death unites us, and in limiting our lives, it gives us urgency, value, and meaning, especially when cast against the eternal indifference of the universe at large. (As Wallace Stevens lamented, in a stiff and Victorian sort of way, in his poem Sunday Morning, “Is there no change of death in paradise? Does ripe fruit never fall?”) Death is the mother of measurement. And so, in order for us to believe that our world has meaning, we have to first believe the world can and will end.

Harold Bloom has said that visionary literature is necessarily apocalyptic. After reading The Age of Miracles, I can see why. Because while I’d stop short of calling Walker a visionary on the level of a McCarthy or Melville or Bolano, with this impressive debut she has certainly given us a vision, a shimmering and enduring one that, with her sensitivity, clarity of purpose, and vast and wonderful imagination, redeems our day-to-day, not-at-all-cloaked-in-flames, purportedly peaceful modern world. But in the end, The Age of Miracles (AOM) isn’t so much definitive of apocalyptic fiction as it is defiant of it: Walker goes a step further and undermines the power that the apocalypse has over her story, and leaves us to wonder whether, compared to say, your first kiss, or shopping for a training bra, the end of the world is really such a big deal.

Until recently, I was unaware of the historical definition of “apocalypse.” Like many people, I guess, I was only aware of its modern usage—a cataclysmic event, the end of the world. And the end of the world I’d always envisioned was fiery or icy or bomb-y, our world eclipsed by the violence of nature or the violence of man. But at its root, from the Greek, apocalypse actually means revelation (literally “from under a covering”), and through this lens we can see the end of the world as simultaneously an unveiling. In other words, in order to know or see our world as it really is, the world we think we know must somehow end. This is also where we see apocalyptic fiction shift into visionary mode: the highest stakes yield the deepest truths. McCarthy spares no one in the beautiful brutality of Blood Meridian; Melville sent not just Ahab but the whole microcosmos of the Pequod to the bottom of the sea. But here, in AOM, the apocalypse is just the first step.

Here’s the premise: The world is literally slowing down. The Earth’s rotation is decelerating, and no one can figure out why or what can be done to stop it. At first the longer days and nights are imperceptible, and no one notices the extra time “bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin.” It’s a quiet catastrophe—no bang, not even a whimper. It’s not too long, however, before readers understand that this creeping phenomenon—called, innocuously enough, “the slowing”—seems certain to eventually wipe out everything. This is a pretty poetic death. But we read on because we expect, or hope, that in the place of the world we thought we knew, this novel will in the end give of some new, ultimate understanding. We read because we’ve been conditioned to believe that only through apocalypse, should it be great enough and complete enough, will we come to understand, and perhaps ourselves in some way become, ultimates. And so one of my first thoughts was, “Now I suppose we’ll be told the true value of everything—right and wrong, truth and lies, Snickers or Kit Kat.” Many characters in AOM react this way, too; Hanna, for instance, the narrator’s best friend, whose Mormon family immediately makes a break for some pre-established spot in Utah where members of their faith had been stocking a grain silo for years in preparation for the return of Jesus. Scattered families reunite. And on a global scale, previously unassailable systems such as gravity, capitalism, and the twelve-hour clock become subjects of intense, violent debate.

Our narrator, however, is a twelve-year-old girl named Julia, living in a middle-class suburb in sunny Southern California. On the surface, Julia is a typical tween with a bookish bent: an only child, the daughter of a doctor and a teacher, nominally Christian, she studies piano begrudgingly, plays travel soccer, she’s got a crush but is reluctant to act, still fairly shy, a little slow to develop physically. She’s an informative tour guide to the apocalypse, and also a compelling and insightful narrator: I cared more about her personal world than I did about the broader world collapsing around her. And it’s because of this unprecedented global catastrophe that Julia’s story—her personal catastrophes, her family drama, her triumphs and losses and all those seemingly middling middle-school calamities—can take center stage. At one point, about mid-book, when birds are falling from the skies, when wheat crops are failing, when worldwide many millions have already fled their homes and cities for makeshift encampments in the mountains and deserts (even though “there was nowhere on earth to go”), when indeed the future of all life on the planet is uncertain, Julia says, “But no force on earth could slow the forward march of sixth grade. And so, in spite of everything, that year was also the year of the dance party.”

I vividly remember my introduction to war: it was the Ken Burns PBS series, The Civil War. I was eight, and watched it with my family, sprawled beside my little brother on the carpet in our living room, a plush, marbled brown carpet that had always smelled vaguely sour to me on account of the lingering guilt I harbored from spilling some milk on it this one time and blaming my brother because he couldn’t talk yet. And I so clearly remember lying prone on that carpet, my chin propped on my hands, thinking about the milk smell as The Civil War began, when I was suddenly confronted with that iconic image of a cannon in repose on a quiet battlefield, cast in sharp silhouette by a fiery setting sun, some foreboding baritone in the background intoning about the horrific destructive power of war, and I realized that at any given moment we could all just start killing each other, just fire up that old cannon and start launching the bombs, because this narrator said war happened before, and war would happen again. And now, that sour-milk smell of guilt was long gone—war scared the shit out of me. Luckily, I was also really into dinosaurs, so instead of the cannon I concentrated on that fiery sunlight in the background and considered the scientific certainty of a natural and total apocalypse—an asteroid slamming into us again, or, at the least, the sun eventually swelling to swallow us all—and I found that these thoughts comforted me a great deal, the surety of the end of the world canceling out my fear of the uncontrollable, and the sour-milk smell returned, and I settled in and learned about rifles and slavery and brothers killing each other and all the rest. The apocalypse threw this absurd world into manageable relief.

But if the apocalypse is supposedly revelatory, what does Walker use her fabulous conceit to reveal? In short, nothing new. For instance, at the novel’s opening, when the news of the slowing first breaks, Julia briefly recounts the type of pandemonium we assume would accompany a cataclysm of this magnitude: runs on dry goods, riots, panic in the stock market, mass emigrations. Religious radicals and conspiracy theorists abound. People are certain this is the end. Scientists go on television, heralding “earthquakes and tsunamis… mass plant and animal die-outs.” It’s “the summer of food shortages and suicide cults.” But when Julia and Hanna run outside that first morning and look up at the sky for evidence, they’re confused, and a little disappointed, to find that nothing had changed, that “the sky was just the sky.” The end of the world, certain as it may indeed be, turns out to be just as confounding and obscure as anything else, and provides really no relief at all. And all of a sudden we see that Walker’s hitting us with something much more profound than mere apocalyptic inevitability, because we never know what’s really going to happen to “the world” in the book—we can guess, but we never do know. Further, we have nothing and nobody to blame: this is—thankfully, in our nuclearized, carbonized, spilled-milk world—an utterly blameless catastrophe. Just like adolescence. And so a funny thing happens when the end of the world is uncertain again: things begin to resemble normal, day-to-day life—the sour-milk smell returns. People continue to work, shop, argue, laugh, have affairs, murder, give, steal, love. They betray one another, they comfort one another—“certain disasters evolved into attractions.” And despite the ever-expanding hours of daylight and night, much of the world returns to the twelve-hour clock (some interesting social play here, however, when many naturalists and radicals refuse to conform and instead stay “off the clock”). Kids stay in school, which actually might be the most improbable part of the whole book. And of course, Julia still has to grow up. As she says, “it requires a certain kind of bravery, I suppose, to choose the status quo. There’s a certain boldness to inaction.”

Walker, in concocting these most extreme of circumstances, remains ultimately focused on the forces of daily change in Julia’s life, and it’s this contrast, the stark juxtaposition of calamities both global and personal, that makes the novel successful. After all, it’s not the era of the slowing, but rather middle school that Walker dubs “the age of miracles”: “the time when kids shot up three inches over the summer, when breasts bloomed from nothing, when voices dipped and dove.” But this pairing can admittedly come off as gimmicky, even annoying, testing our confidence in coincidence. It seems as if Walker can’t let a personal milestone go by without an outsized shadow looming over it: a rough first kiss during the first international blackout; a first date and a massive whale beaching. But although inexorable forces of change might differ in size, at heart they’re the same in kind, and whether it’s the planet that’s falling apart or our parents, to Walker, these forces are fundamentally the same, no matter the scale.

In assailing such colossal questions and forces, it’s clear that with The Age of Miracles, Walker is aiming high. Ultimately, the big risks pay off: she stops the planet, and that move alone suspends us for the whole book. And as a writer, Walker values clarity over pyrotechnics and stylistic flair. She writes shimmering prose with a narrative voice reminiscent of recent Pulitzer-winner Jennifer Egan, but is demonstrably less concerned with being “tone of the moment”; and her polish makes Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, a Pulitzer nominee last year, seem positively congested. Further, she reminds us that the best, most brave fiction risks the big gimmick and succeeds, and somehow you’re transported without ever losing sight of yourself. Dante took us to Hell; Shakespeare had us believing in ghosts; Melville had that huge fish; Hemingway had, well, a huge fish (that’s when he won the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes, by the way—for an enormous metaphor). Walker takes similar risks, and with a cast of compelling, fully-realized characters, she, I’d argue, writes fiction at its purest—this isn’t a hardboiled, hyperdetailed and self-reflexive re-creation, verisimilitude on a grand scale; nor does the book bear any of those half-hearted hallmarks of contemporary irony, the quirks and the edgy cleverness that are only patches over gaping holes, the fear that we can’t just set ourselves aside and tell a goddamn story anymore. Because here’s one more colossal question in the ether today: have we arrived at the end of the world for literary fiction? B.R. Myers, in a scathing (and overwrought) invective in The Atlantic, claims American literary fiction is too pretentious and scornful of its readers, too contemptuous of the virtues of good storytelling to survive in the mass market. And in June 25th’s New Yorker article on the publishing biz, Ken Auletta finds cause to believe that, for serious new fiction writers, Amazon’s phenomenal ascent might be a sign of the apocalypse.

For all its posturing, Age of Miracles really isn’t a book about the end of the world. This is just a book about growing up, about navigating forces of change in a strange world. The apocalypse, as I guess I realized back when I was eight, is just a crutch, an easy answer to hard questions, when in the end there is no ultimate, no understanding, no good and no evil, even—only uncertainty, for better, for worse. Karen Thompson Walker understands that our fear of the uncertain trumps our fear of the inevitable, and makes for a much better story besides.

Roger is a composition teacher at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. He's working on his first novel, and would like to tell you all about it.