In her lengthy literary career, now-octogenarian Joyce Carol Oates has wandered into genre, most notably horror. Her most recent novel, started in 2011 but not published until late last year, begins as something akin to a YA dystopia before quickly time-traveling into other genres.
Title: Hazards of Time Travel
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
First published November 27, 2018
Available from Amazon, Amazon.ca, and as a kindle.
The high-school valedictorian in a near-future dystopia, a sort of 1984 meets “Harrison Bergeron” by way of a broad range of current socio-political trends, runs afoul of her government. They send her for re-education, back in time to an aggressively mediocre Midwestern college in the 1950s.
Then things turn strange.
The book creates a strong sense of foreboding and paranoia even during long passages where our twice-named protagonist does little beyond her daily affairs.
The revelations about Wainscotia’s utter banality will entertain some readers. It’s not just any mediocre mid-century college. It’s obsessed with behavioral psychology, racist readings of genetics and anthropology, and slavish regurgitation of the curriculum. None of these things are implausible, and all serve the novel’s imagined future dystopia, but Oates’s satire would be difficult to miss, as her novel describes:
One of those idyllic American campuses in the Heartland where no research or creative work comes to anything. No matter how much effort is poured into it, how much ‘talent’ and ‘perseverance.’ Perfectly intelligent scientists… take disastrous turns, wind up in dead ends—and won’t realize it until they’re embalmed and can’t leave. No one is ‘original’ here—no one is ‘significant.’ A promising young astrophysicist from Cal Tech gave up his Ph.D. project in ‘string theory’ to pursue ‘extra-terrestrial life’—and that’s it for him, until he retires. Scientists, mathematicians, scholars, artists, writers and poets—-even chemists—-nothing they discover in Wainscotia will outlive them. Nothing they accomplish will have the slightest value to anyone. Their heirs will hide away their self-published autobiographies and melt down their gilt ‘lifetime achievement awards.’ Their ideas are derivative, or redundant, or just plain mistaken, silly. In the meantime, they live exalted lives at Wainscotia, as inside a bell jar, like pampered bacteria.
For various reasons, this notion surprises Mary Ellen, but it shouldn’t. She’s seen that the spirit of Wainscotia thrives in the future.
I admire restraint as much as the next person, but too little happens in this novel before it becomes some other kind of novel, and then some other kind of novel again. Consequently, its critique of society feels blunted next to, say, Stross’s Glasshouse (SF), Plath’s The Bell Jar (mainstream literature), or the best of Atwood (both).
Originality: 2/6 The novel takes some twists, and we’re left, as in Rashomon, to determine what did or did not happen. The combination of elements feels somewhat original, but the elements themselves have been used elsewhere, many times.
Imagery: 5/6 Oates describes some things quite vividly—the protagonist’s reaction to an unfamiliar society, for example– but this isn’t her strongest work. The future dystopia barely gets depicted at all.
Emotional Response: 5/6 Does Adriane/Mary Ellen have a computer chip in her head, or does she alter her own memories? The scene where she recalls her lost family, only to have that recollection turn ugly, will linger along with that question.
Editing: 5/6 Here’s one for Oates’s editor:
Mary Ellen attends the film society’s showing of The Searchers. Except, in one paragraph, it’s a showing of a different John Wayne film, Red River. In a book that asks you to question reality, that could, I suppose, be a clue. It reads like an error. A book of this nature should not contain errors.
Overall score: 4/6 Joyce Carol Oates remains a writer’s writer, but she’s written better books.
In total, Hazards of Time Travel receives 30/42
As someone who works at a small college in the heartland, I’ll pass on reading a work of ridicule like this.
Of course– and it’s not her best work by a long shot.
But the nature of this particular small college is deliberate. To say anything more is to spoil too much of the book.