Haz­ards of Time Travel

The Idaho Statesman (Sunday) - - OBITUARIES - BY RON CHARLES The Wash­ing­ton Post

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 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.

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 fold­edup pa­pier-mâché dolls, it is pos­si­ble that Adri­ane Strohl stood out - in an un­for­tu­nate way.”

You might be tempted to won­der just how much Oates is chan­nel­ing her own ag­grieved ex­pe­ri­ence By Joyce Carol Oates Ecco. 336 pp. $26.99 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.

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.

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 timeloop. 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.

Con­fused by the sur­real el­e­ments of her mid-20th­cen­tury 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. At 80, af­ter more than 40 nov­els, Oates is still cast­ing some aw­fully dark magic.

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