Novel * Joyce Carol Oates * Wisconsin Dystopia * 2018
Somehow, despite the fact that Joyce Carol Oates has written approximately 17,000 books, I’ve only ever read her short stories. Well, thanks to my new best friend the library, I was able to read her newest, Hazards of Time Travel. The premise of which is exactly my jam. That’s because the novel is about a near-future dystopian America. I like those. I suppose I shouldn’t, considering the way my country has been acting for the last couple of years, but I still think there’s value in considering how much worse things could be. Trump is a lot of things, but grossly incompetent is near the top of the list, which has inadvertently helped us out. His methods skew authoritarian, but he’s sloppy and bad at execution and lacks organization, which a true authoritarian regime needs to succeed. Lucky us. So instead of a methodical move toward destabilizing institutions and organizing physical repression, we get chaos. The future depicted in Hazards of Time Travel is not of our current world.
This novel reads like an alternate-history dystopia, which is intriguing because that’s not usually how this genre works. Most of the time, an author imagines a dystopia as a near-future consequence of current events unfolding in the worst possible way. The famous ones, like 1984 and Brave New World, are intended to be instructive. Something like It Can’t Happen Here is very plainly saying, “yes it can, idiot.” In Hazards of Time Travel, we’ve already avoided the future being depicted. The novel is clearly set in a time very close to our own. The protagonist, Adriane, is seventeen and her parents have distinct pre-9/11 memories. Despite this, the world is very different. In this world, the United States used the terrorist attacks to expand the role of Homeland Security to essentially envelop the government in partnership with a cabal of corporations and billionaires. The result is a society restricted in thought and speech. Anyone who questions how things work or how things used to be are quickly removed. Or, in the novel’s parlance, “Deleted.”
Adriane, like any good dystopian protagonist, asks dangerous questions. She doesn’t do this with any sort of malice or agenda, she’s just a naturally curious young woman and that’s the kind of attitude that can get you in trouble when the government actively murders dissenters. Adriane, all innocence, finds herself in the dangerous position of class valedictorian. Most people understand that calling attention to one’s intelligence is in itself dangerous, but Adriane is kind of a ding-dong that way and just blithely asks questions. Her school principal, ever a good citizen, calls Homeland Security, who promptly disappear Adriane. Luckily for her, Adriane’s youth and inexperience are taken into account, so instead of being immediately Deleted, she’s given another option. Instead of being erased from reality, she’s simply sent back in time to a bucolic Wisconsin college in 1958. If that seems like a weird move for a totalitarian state, well, it is.
There’s a lot of things about Hazards of Time Travel which don’t really fit together. As mentioned, there’s the disconnect of a dystopian state that we’ve already avoided, which is kind of neat but also serves to undermine the sense of relevance these kind of novels usually have. The beginning of the novel is also pretty clunky. I don’t mean the writing. Joyce Carol Oates is a master craftsman and the writing is crisp and clear. That said, conceptually, it takes a while for Hazards of Time Travel to get to the point. A lot of time is spent throwing out new Proper Nouns in lieu of world-building, and by the time we get to Wisconsin, it’s hard to care too much. Then, once Adriane arrives, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of thematic glue to hold the narrative together. I’m being a little vague, so as to not reveal story beats. As ever, spoilers after the break.
One thing dystopian overlords like to do is force compliance through oppression. The idea is that there is more to be gained by forcibly converting people to support the totalitarian state than simply murdering them. I mean, they do that too, obviously, but quite a lot of time, energy, and resources are spent in forcing their worldview onto individuals. It’s not efficient, and I’m not sure there’s a real-world analogue for violent, authoritarian states spending a good deal of time forcing troublesome individuals to believe that 2+2=5, you know? The easiest way to quiet dissent is to kill or imprison, which is generally what happens. Orwell, king of dystopian exposition, gives his explanation as to why Winston should be made into a believer. Oates, who is far more efficient in her storytelling, doesn’t bother. It’s a problem, though, because without any real attempt at explanation, the mere existence of 1958 Wisconsin doesn’t make a ton of sense.
Adriane finds herself in an alien culture and is slowly being suffocated by loneliness and terror for her life and family. Hazards of Time Travel is at its best when depicting poor Adriane’s struggle to acclimate herself to her new reality. She spends most of her time hiding from human contact, trying to find air clear of cigarette smoke, and studying. The atmosphere of dystopian dread is juxtaposed with the more innocent environment of a small-town cow-college in the 50s. Before too long, that juxtaposition becomes conflation, and the college campus itself becomes claustrophobic and the small-mindedness of Adriane’s fellow students becomes apparent. Before too long, however, Adriane finds a fellow-sufferer, someone she’s convinced is also in exile alongside her. This man, with the unfortunate name of Wolfman, has been exiled in Wisconsin for far longer, and is actually a faculty member. Adriane immediately falls in “love,” which is more a mix of youthful infatuation and sheer desperation. After that everything gets sad.
Well, sad and confusing. Adriane is a mess, which you’d expect. She’s also the best part of this novel, because the rest of the narrative doesn’t really hold together. Towards the end, Oates introduces narrative doubt into what is already an unstable situation. Eventually, Adriane and Wolfman (seriously, it’s hard to take the dude seriously when I keep reading his name as Wolf Man) become fraught with their situation. Wolfman is a condescending dickhead most of the time, a real exploitative piece of shit who is perfectly happy to take advantage of a young, distraught teenager (although I guess he gets a bonus point for doing the bare minimum and not sleeping with her). Once his own position is compromised, he then introduces all kinds of unreliability into the narrative. Wolfman breaks character, and tells Adriane that this whole Wisconsin experience is a virtual construct. He is extremely convincing. It’s a “what a twist!” moment that is actually way more plausible than the actual story being told. Then he reverts back to “no, actually time travel is real.” This, naturally, confuses Adriane and the reader.
Shortly after this confession, Wolfman maniacally decides to take Adriane and escape to the West Coast, in direct violation of The Instructions (so many proper nouns!). This move makes no sense if Wolfman knows this is a virtual construct. However, his plan fails spectacularly, as there is no way out of the ten-mile radius they’re seemingly trapped in. Which is a point in the favor of the virtual-construct idea. But then Wolfman disappears, presumed dead, and Adriane is zapped into a much more malleable form. She loses her memories, and then winds up on some hippie farm with some dude she “loves,” without ever understanding how she got there or where she came from. Then she reads a book and it’s made fairly clear to the reader that she’s dreaming. How much of Hazards of Time Travel is a dream? What was real? Any of it? The reason this kind of plot device is unsatisfying is because once you introduce this kind of unreliability to the proceedings, it’s really hard to care. Is Adriane even real? I don’t know and neither do you, so whatever. It’s a shame, because there are some cool elements. The novel just never really feels particularly vital.