Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

Fourth Estate

Arguably, if there’s anything we need less of in the dawn of 2019 it’s more doomy and gloomy speculative glimpses into the future, where what’s happening in the world now is the catalyst for a truly terrible dystopian future. Is there anything to be said for the powers that be learning from the 20th century warnings of George Orwell and Margaret Atwood, taking heed of the current creative minds of literature, stage and screen predicting dire consequences if we fail to address our looming environmental and world-stage political problems?

Present issues with dangerous, brutish leaders of the world, both free and otherwise, intent on remaining in complete denial over climate change and recurring and growing racism and sexism are rife, and this novel by Joyce Carol Oates opens three decades on from the September 11th attacks, where the social and political issues that rose and prevailed following the attacks have been used and abused by the United States government to create a dystopic society fuelled by paranoia and fear. Re-branding and expanding as the totalitarian North American States, this new regime has complete control over its citizens, with those who dare to question the authority in any way, be it the re-writing of history or the extreme punishment policies, will at best be placed on one of an array of lists, restricting their potential for job opportunities despite ability, or at worst be ‘deleted’, when a drone comes out of nowhere and vaporises the unfortunate individual.

Adriane Strohl is a 17-year-old student coming to the end of her high school career. It’s tough to be a bright student when curiosity is actively discouraged, and most will repress and hide their intelligence by keeping their grades to safe mediocrity. However when Adriane in her precocious naivety deigns to innocently raise a few questions in her valedictorian speech – a dubious and dangerous honour in any case, the recipient of which will already be in the focus of those in charge – she is charged with treason and whisked away to a government facility before she can say “Under his eye”.

Instead of being Deleted, unlike another unfortunate student in the same position who is vaporised as an example to Adriane and two other teenagers who display signs of insubordination, she has been given the punishment of being sent to a small college town in Wisconsin, September 1959. She’s to be re-assigned her identity, now to be known as Mary Ellen Enright, an orphaned co-ed who is there to complete an undergraduate degree while being rehabilitated for an eventual return to the future in this unquestioning, conservative, less technologically advanced society. 1950s Wisconsin is no less a prison for Adrianne than a jail cell would be, with no idea of how to behave, no historical context thanks to her limited education and no way to contact family or friends.

The Hazards of Time Travel is Joyce Carol Oates’ 46th novel, and the 80-year-old uses her experience and wisdom to effectively convey the horror of the alternative-almost-present-day of the NAS and the restrictions of 1950s USA. Adrianne’s teenage voice is believable, both as an intelligent young woman on the brink of adulthood, experiencing ordinary things like her first love and negotiating the every-day college experience, but that of a prisoner in an unknown land, afraid for her life at every moment of the day. There are of course comparisons to be made with The Handmaid’s Tale, particularly at the start of the novel, but Adrianne/Mary Ellen is a whole new heroine; flawed, desperate and courageous. More than being an observation on, or cautionary tale about, blind leading the blind politics, politicians and those in power dealing with issues in the most catastrophic way – which it is, as well as being a warning against letting other people’s fears and prejudices manipulate societal change – it’s a powerful and poignant insight into the mind of a young woman, who may be suffering from mental illness and is certainly at the end of her tether, forced into questioning her very reality, what’s real, what’s not and whether there is there any chance of ever knowing for sure.

  • First published in The Tuam Herald on 16th January 2018


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