It’s a common trope in Young Adult novels to feature a teenage protagonist in a dystopian future who is penalized for fighting against an oppressive system. That’s exactly the story Joyce Carol Oates writes in her new novel HAZARDS OF TIME TRAVEL. However, this is not a Young Adult novel. Oates is certainly familiar with the form and nature of YA fiction having written several books in this genre. It’d be natural to assume that she’s utilizing her expertise in this form and is also making a departure from her typically realistic fiction to branch into feminist dystopian fiction. There is a cycle of novels in this form particularly prevalent in literature today (as described by Alexandra Alter in a recent New York Times article ‘How Feminist Dystopian Fiction is Channeling Women’s Anger and Anxiety’ in which she cites Oates’s novel.) But the journey and outcome of Oates’s highly unusual new novel is much more startling and darkly subversive than any tale that could be categorized as Young Adult. Instead, HAZARDS OF TIME TRAVEL engages with ideas of behavioural psychology and Cold War politics to form an utterly unique commentary on society today. It also incorporates many autobiographical elements which surprisingly might make it one of Oates’s most personal and reflective novels yet.
The year is NAS-23 in the 16th Federal District, Eastern-Atlantic States. To put this in perspective, this novel actually takes place only a few years in the future. History proceeding the 9/11 attacks has been erased and dates in the North American States (NAS) begin from this point. In this newly reconstituted country which has absorbed the territories of Mexico and Canada, free speech and private thoughts are tightly controlled by the government. People are segmented into official racial categories determined by skin colour. Adriane Strohl is a curious and intelligent high school student who has been recognized as the class valedictorian and she’s invited to give a speech to the student body. She takes this opportunity to ask general questions which the government doesn’t like to be asked. As a consequence she’s punished by being designated an EI (Exiled Individual) and transported back through time to Zone 9. Here it is the year 1959 and she’s required to attend a university in Wisconsin “to train yourself in a socially useful profession.” She is equipped only with a new name (Mary Ellen Enright) and a list of instructions which prohibit her from leaving the area, developing intimate relationships or speaking about the future. Adriane knows that any deviation will result in her being “Deleted” – an example of what being deleted entails is vividly and terrifyingly portrayed in an opening section. From this point, she sets out to navigate this tricky and unfamiliar landscape of the past.
According to Greg Johnson’s biography of Oates, INVISIBLE WRITER, the author was also a valedictorian given the dubious honour of making a speech to the student body. Like Adriane, Oates was terrified about making this speech. It’s interesting how Oates’ own apparent fears and preoccupations manifest throughout the entire novel. In effect, Adriane is transported back in time to live through Joyce Carol Oates’ own university years in a region analogous to Syracuse University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison where the author earned her graduate and post-graduate degrees. Like Oates, Adriane/Mary Ellen finds it necessary to earn her keep while she’s a student by working gruelling hours in a part time job in a library for a pitiful amount of money. Some of Oates’s fiction, most notably MARYA: A LIFE and I’LL TAKE YOU THERE, revolve around periods of adolescent experience which are very similar to Oates’ own. HAZARDS OF TIME TRAVEL is a novel that seems to borrow more freely from her autobiographical experience. As such, I believe the author uses her own past as a metafictional device to creatively explore issues concerning memory, guilt, free will, psychology and history.
At university Adriane is plagued by feelings of loneliness and she becomes fixated with an assistant professor of psychology named Ira Wolfman. Not only does she feel a romantic desire towards him, but he is also revealed to be an Exiled Individual from the future serving out a punishment. At one point, Wolfman calls into question the validity of their surroundings: “’Exile’? ‘Teletransportation’? ‘Zone Nine’? None of this is real, Adriane. It’s a construct.” This introduces dilemmas poised somewhere between the metaphysical issues raised in the films Blade Runner and The Matrix. Are these characters only imagining that they’re from the future? If they’ve been exiled to the past are they really being monitored? Is their “rehabilitation” really a part of a larger design? Adding to these sinister questions are those raised by Adriane’s classes on B.F. Skinner and his morally dubious behaviouralist experiments. The novel begins with the epigram from Skinner “A self is simply a device for representing a functionally unified system of responses.” Are Adriane’s choices and decisions ultimately the result of her environment and the government she lives under? How much agency does she have to enact change in her surroundings and determine her own future? These questions pile on top of each other over the course of the story and build into a fever of paranoia and uncertainty so that the novel’s conclusion (which would be considered positive in any other circumstance) feels incredibly sinister and horrific.
The many issues this novel raises over the course of the story powerfully coalesce to reflect anxieties and fears about the current political climate in America today. It also allows Oates opportunities for more playful commentary about the direction our culture is taking. In NAS-23 there are no democrats or republicans; there is just the Patriot Party. Voting is performed by placing a smiling emoji next to the candidate of choice. But Oates also pokes fun of some antiquated aspects of culture from the 50s and 60s. Adriane observes how agonizing it is wearing hair curlers to bed. Paper feels horribly inadequate to her as a reading device. Adriane’s unique point of view also casts new light on the Red Scare and threat of nuclear war which coloured this time period. By considering a period of personal and political upheaval in US history through this form of speculative fiction, Oates prompts us to question what are the real threats to the country as well as deeper anxieties about how our society is evolving. At one point Adriane/Mary Ellen states “time turns back upon itself. You believe that you are making progress, but it is an illusion. Yet, this is progress of a kind.” Given our proximity in time to NAS-23, Oates appears to be postulating how we need to step back before leaping forward.
This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies