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
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.