Someone needs to check Joyce Carol Oates’ garage for a De-Lorean.
Her new novel, “Hazards of Time Travel,” seems to have slipped through the space-time continuum. Although Oates started writing it in 2011 and finished before the election of President Donald Trump, the story feels charged by the horrors of our Orwellian era. Even the author sounds a bit freaked out by the prescient quality of this novel. Months ago, she tweeted, “Feeling strange that it will seem to be — obviously! — about T***p Dark Age; in fact, it was/is not since completed years before.”
Perhaps that’s the special instrument of sensitive novelists: a flux capacitor that allows them to register what’s approaching on the horizon. In this case, Oates has recast our present moment as “an Interlude of Indecisiveness,” a period of strident debate about the need for PVIWAT (Patriot Vigilance in the War Against Terror). In the grim future she imagines, the Constitution has been suspended and the RNAS (Reconstituted North American States) is a violently xenophobic and officially racist country.
OHSTFAIIFOI (Oates Has Seen the Future and It Is Full of Initials).
Our heroine in this all-caps dictatorship is a 17-year-old high school student named Adriane Strohl. Try as she might, Adriane can’t restrain her inquisitiveness or hide her precocity, which is a problem in a True Democracy where “all individuals are equal,” but some are more equal than others. Early in the novel, she tells us, “I was not aggressive in class. I don’t think so. But compared with my mostly meek classmates, some of whom sat small in their desks like partially folded-up papier-mâché dolls, it is possible that Adriane Strohl stood out — in an unfortunate way.”
If you’re a CR (Curious Reader), you might be tempted to wonder just how much Oates is channeling her own aggrieved experience as a brilliant teenage girl in the repressive mid-20th century. Indeed, it’s not long before the novel takes us back to that period. Charged with Treason, Adriane is arrested at her graduation rehearsal for planning to deliver a speech full of PQs (Provocative Questions). She’s interrogated, tortured and branded an EI (Exiled Individual). Her punishment is to be teletransported to a mediocre university in the Midwest in the late 1950s, which tells us all we need to know about Oates’ concept of hell. Orwell imagined a helmet of hungry rats; Oates gives us Wisconsin.
Adriane awakens as a new freshman at Wainscotia State University. Forbidden from telling her roommates about her true identity or revealing anything about the future, she makes up vague stories on the fly, like the Coneheads from Remulak, France. To fulfill her sentence, all Adriane needs to do is be “the ideal coed” — pleasant, bland, compliant — but that’s not easy for a curious young woman. Not only does she excel in school, but she falls in love with Ira Wolfman, her dashing assistant professor in psychology. Before long she’s fantasizing like some teenage Emily Dickinson:
Does he know?
Does he — somehow — recognize me?
Is he in Exile too — like me?
Poor Adriane is never certain what’s happening to her, and anyone who reads “Hazards of Time Travel” is likely to feel the same way. At first, the story’s clunky political satire and feverish tone suggest the makings of a young-adult novel, but that’s another ruse. The plot quickly gets snarled up in B.F. Skinner’s theories of behaviorism, which the kids won’t find all that rewarding.
Adults, though, may be intrigued to see Oates’ sly efforts to create a time-loop. Her history-shifting story suggests that the alarming epoch we’re stuck in now resembles that golden era we’re still romanticizing. America’s old paranoia about nuclear war with the Soviet Union anticipated our unending War on Terror, an existential threat sufficient to justify any abuse of civil rights, any level of surveillance, any mechanism of exclusion.
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Confused by the surreal elements of her mid-20th-century prison and terrified that she may never return home, Adriane begins to see herself as a pigeon in a Skinner box being conditioned to react in acceptable ways. Meanwhile, the story’s unpredictable shocks may reduce readers to a state of learned helplessness. Nothing — including a happy ending — is as it seems in this accelerating swirl of political and academic satire, science fiction and romantic melodrama. At 80, after more than 40 novels, Oates still is casting some awfully dark magic.