VIS­IT­ING THE ORWELLIAN ERA

HAZ­ARDS OF TIME TRAVEL, BY JOYCE CAROL OATES, IS A HEADY CONCOCTION OF PO­LIT­I­CAL AND ACA­DEMIC SATIRE, SCI­ENCE FIC­TION AND RO­MAN­TIC MELO­DRAMA

The Gulf Today - Panorama - - BOOKS - By Ron Charles

Some­one needs to check Joyce Carol Oates’ garage for a Delorean. 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 Trump, the story feels charged by the hor­rors of our Orwellian era.

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.

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 tele-trans­ported 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 ful­fil 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.

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 BF Skin­ner’s the­o­ries of be­haviourism, which the kids won’t find all that re­ward­ing.

The story’s un­pre­dictable shocks may re­duce read­ers to a state of learned help­less­ness. Noth­ing 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 is still cast­ing some aw­fully dark magic.

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