Adriane Stohl wants the answer to a simple question: what came before the beginning of time? She is a senior in high school in Pennsboro, New Jersey, an ordinary place. She is class valedictorian, chosen to give a speech – not more than eight minutes long, mind – at graduation. And so, recklessly, she chooses as her topic her country’s history during the time before the Great Terrorist Attacks of 9/11. For it is on that momentous date that the new calendar of the Reconstituted North American States begins. “Patriot Democracy History,” as Adriane tells us, “was only concerned with post-Terrorist events, mostly the relations of the NAS with its numerous Terrorist enemies, and an account of the ‘triumphs’ of the NAS in numerous wars. So many wars!”
What happened before those wars – in what used to be called the 20th century, and the centuries before that – has vanished. Old history books have been hunted down and destroyed; indeed books themselves have disappeared altogether. Life in the North American States, as chillingly conjured by Joyce Carol Oates in her latest novel (how many has she actually written? I’m sorry, I can’t count that high) resembles a blend of how things were in Soviet Russia and how things still are in North Korea, mixed in with the 21st-century American political system on steroids.
If the election of Donald J Trump to the office of the president is the logical consequence of the United States’s obsession with money and celebrity, combined with the stretching of its constitutional system past anything its 18th-century designers imagined, Oates’s vision of the future just keeps the stretch going to well past breaking point. An amnesiac country run by billionaires: that’s the horribly believable setting of The Hazards of Time Travel.
The punishment Oates envisions for her 17-year-old narrator is to be sent back in time. Adriane is arrested, drugged, operated on to block or alter her memory, and dematerialised to reappear… as a co-ed in a local Wisconsin college in 1959. Or “Zone 9”, as she knows it’s also called; it is a place full of possible spies, where, as an “EI” – or Exiled Individual – she must never mention her past or how she got there. If she does, she risks Deletion, which is not by any means as painless as it sounds. She was lucky not to be Deleted in the first place, she knows.
She’s given a new identity, “Mary Ellen Enright”, and sentenced to spend four years at Wainscotia State University, a place with the hysterically cheery flatness of The Truman Show. She is completely and utterly isolated. She has no idea what has happened to her parents and memories of them soon begin to fade. “The punishment of Exile is loneliness,” Adriane says. “There is no state more terrifying than loneliness, though you would not think so, when you are not lonely; when you are secure in ‘your’ life.”
But into this loneliness steps a young assistant professor, the mysterious Dr Ira Wolfman. Adriane/“Mary Ellen” is captivated – and swiftly the reader is, too.
It’s worth pushing past the slightly clunky opening of The Hazards of Time Travel to immerse yourself in this spooky novel. In the first 50 or so pages there’s too much exposition, too many parentheses – as if Oates is still explaining this world she’s created to herself, rather than working it seamlessly into the tale. But once Adriane lands in Wisconsin, Oates creates a dreamy landscape of sweater sets and frat parties where intellectual imagination is drastically restricted. The whole place, Ira says, is “a hotbed of mediocrity”; and it’s certainly strange that he and he alone seems aware of Wainscotia State’s limitations.
Oates revels in her eerie period detail; from the girls’ clothing to a hefty typewriter, a device Adriane has never seen: “an enormous black machine with steel keys that could be made to fly through the air in arcs of about three inches, striking white paper and ‘printing’ black-ink letters”. Oates doesn’t burden the reader with details of Adriane’s future-world; instead, she lets the reader imagine it by vividly conveying how peculiar the world of 1959 and 1960 is to her heroine. The reader longs to return to that future along with Adriane, even though it is as vague to us as it is – increasingly, disturbingly – to Adriane herself.
The devices Oates calls on for her satisfying plot twists won’t be unfamiliar to consumers of speculative and science fiction, but the novel is no worse for that. By the last page of Adriane’s tale, the
hazards of time travel are vivid and frightening indeed.
The Hazards of Time Travel
Joyce Carol Oates
Fourth Estate, £16.99, 324pp
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special