Thursday, August 9, 2012

Julia And The End Of 60-Hour Days

If you want to have weird dreams, do what I did last night. Be the only guest in a large Roman Catholic retreat center, and stay up until 2 a.m. reading a novel about the apocalypse.

In Karen Thompson Walker's The Age Of Miracles, the rotation of the earth begins to slow, for reasons scientists never quite discern, though the consequences of the resulting 60-hour days and nights, especially dying species and resource shortages, quickly bring climate change to mind. It reminded me (and has reminded others) of Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers, about an also-inexplicable Rapture-like event that defies tidy theological explanations, since many sinners ascend while almost everyone who's read all the Left Behind novels remains.

Both books are really about how people living benign suburban lives contend with the unfathomable. In Thompson Walker's, most comply after the president announces that the U.S. will continue to use the 24-hour clock, and minute-hand McCarthyites harass those who insist on living the circadian way. All the eucalyptus trees (presumably including these here at Mission San Luis Rey) die. Famine envelops poorer continents.

Meanwhile Americans keep playing baseball, and Thompson Walker's heroine, a sixth grader named Julia, gets dumped by her best friend and falls in love with the boy she's been staring at in math class. While you're not sure if the human race will survive, you may be confident that adolescence is eternal. Among many others in this great first novel, there's this wise observation about the fears sometimes ruling young people that I hope we'll continue to struggle against until the end of days does come:
It was that time of life: Talents were rising to the surface, weaknesses were beginning to show through, we were finding out what kind of people we would be. Some would turn out beautiful, some funny, some shy. Some would be smart, others smarter. The chubby ones would likely always be chubby. The beloved, I sensed, would be beloved for life. And I worried that loneliness might work that way, too. Maybe loneliness was imprinted in my genes, lying dormant for years but now coming into full bloom.
Just beautiful. Except when I walked down the hall to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I expected to run into Jack Nicholson saying "Here's Johnny!" But dawn arrived right on time (a little too early, actually), and the cheerful friars' Cheerios were waiting.

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