Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Are you a worrier?

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

Imagine that the spinning of the earth has slowed down, gravity has changed, the magnetic field has dissipated, the twenty-four hours of a day elongate out to sixty or so hours.  Now imagine all the things that can go wrong.
The Age of Miracles is not a book to wipe your worries away, far from it.  However, it does reveal some subtle lessons about worrying.

When any huge destructive and uncontrollable event occurs, individuals, families, societies and nations are set adrift.  Walker’s revelation of how people react to the mysterious big event is carefully developed with a wide variety of highly plausible emotions and behaviors. 

Early in the novel, the young narrator, Julia expects that “they” will fix the problem.  Although it’s made clear by news reports that no scientist understands what’s happening, much less how to fix it, the media convinces Julia that man is to blame, just as mankind is responsible for pollution, depleting ozone layers, and climate change.  But this event is so strange, mysterious and hugely catastrophic that she eventually comes to realizing that hoping for a fix of this problem is as futile as men using ropes to pull the sun across the sky.
This is the kind of problem that must be adapted to, with no room for calculations, grumbling or wishful thinking.  Julia realises that all along “we had worried over the wrong things…The real catastrophes are always different, unimagined, unprepared for, unknown.” 

Not only does Walker realistically describe the variety of reactions to terror, her descriptions are vivid and precise.  This is a book that lavishly describes our world, making us see birds, trees, grapes in exquisite detail, as we consider their extinction.  Even the dust molecules wafting off a pair of surgical gloves are suddenly nostalgic, as normality slowly grinds to a halt, and we see those gloves won’t be made any longer, or worn for much longer. 
Throughout the novel there are many symbols of time running out, of collapse and decay.  Julia’s grandfather lives on a barren and dusty farm that is now surrounded by suburbs.  Julia and the other children wait for the school bus in front of an empty lot where a house once stood, but has since collapsed and fallen into the canyon below it.

This is a post-911 novel, where people are shocked out of the normality of their days, and must tell themselves they are adjusting to the ‘new normal’.  Although this conceit is focussed on the spinning of the earth, the story itself is about how people react to mysterious, terrifying, life threatening changes. 

As far as literature therapy goes, this book reminds us that we can’t predict our troubles.  Our world is too mysterious and at the same time too beautiful to waste our time doing anything but appreciating it.

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