Hard Time: On Joyce Carol Oates’s “Hazards of Time Travel”

The story’s ominous sense of puppet masters pulling strings is heightened by frequent references to the behaviorism that Adriane and Wolfman study. That seems especially likely given Adriane’s social isolation in the Midwestern college milieu, her general paranoia, and her single-minded pursuit of an assistant professor of psychology named Ira Wolfman. She learns that virtual reality in the NAS has become a high art. It allows Oates to extrapolate today’s right-wing trends and compare them with Cold War paranoia and groupthink. The frame narrative here occurs in the NAS, or North American States — a grim Trumpian future dictatorship that shuns individuality and creativity and promotes mediocrity, conformity, sexism, racism, and violence. In Adriane’s exile from the NAS, Oates conveys a universal sense of alienation. Mom? If your future is clear but inaccessible? If you share secret knowledge of what is to come, but then that sharing endangers you and those whom you love? Like Adriane, Oates was a valedictorian, though in college not high school. Following the Great Terrorist Attacks,
there was an Interlude of Indecisiveness during which time issues of “rights” — (the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Civil Rights law, etc.) […] were contested, with a victory, after the suspension of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights by executive order, for […] Patriot Vigilance. And so on. You know I love you. The department of Homeland Security Interrogation tortures, deletes, and vaporizes suspect citizens. ¤
Alexander C. Who are you if your past is hazy or blocked entirely? Radical politics influenced Oates’s maturation and does Adriane’s too. Adriane feels her family close — but completely inaccessible. Oates grew up in a farming community; Adriane spends time living on a farm with a lover. In short, is Adriane from the future or is she nuts? Adriane is an acute observer not just of the two eras she experiences but of her own detailed reactions to them. Like a clean, precise log-splitting ax swing, that simple premise exposes a world of ideas and questions. Her mom has grown plump, “fleshy, peevish,” her gaze “sulky, dissatisfied. When one misfit meets another, could it be that they are both exiled from a place of secret knowledge? We long to hear:
You know — you have a home with me. It’s — Adriane. Kafka is a journalist and photographer in Bethesda, Maryland. Adriane is not an autobiographical figure, but she is an interestingly Oates-esque double who, we might surmise, enables the 80-year-old author to venture on her own temporal escapades — wrinkled in time, back to the future. Her loneliness, her ardor toward the brooding Wolfman, her fraught attempts at socializing with her Wisconsin classmates and elders — all of these remind us that, in any century, early adulthood is a tense undertaking. A typewriter played a key role in Oates’s blossoming as a writer and plays one in Adriane’s time-travel epiphany. But they weren’t looking at me. Even the most socially well adjusted among us must now and then think ridiculous our contemporary mores or the dominant ways of seeing the world. One can easily imagine that this grim future Adriane is supposedly from — painted as it is in what seem like purposely broad strokes compared to, say, Margaret Atwood’s or Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopias — is a figment of the rattled heroine’s imagination. If all this meta-thinking puts you off, however, the novel works well simply as a bittersweet tale of adventure. The uncannily productive and ingenious Oates has written scores of novels, but this is billed as her first dystopian one. Or is she from the future and sane, but tricked into thinking she is in the past. Can’t you see me? An expression of barely suppressed rage […] I had never seen before.”
Adriane’s journey becomes a meditation on memory, identity, and free will. Please — look at me. Yet we’re human, so we want to belong. For a speech like Adriane’s, one can be arrested “on seven counts of Treason-Speech and Questioning of Authority.”
The time-travel device also adds a psychological suspense element to Adriane’s story. Adriane’s disdain for her Wisconsin peers’ giggling dating lives, their smoking, their cerebral sluggishness, their melodramatic movies, their primitive technology, and so on reflects most everyone’s at least occasional bewilderment at society’s values and capabilities. Dad? She got her master’s degree in Wisconsin at roughly the time Adriane is there as an undergraduate. Her dad has aged and looks like a homeless man. Interestingly, too, the time travel allows Oates to chalk up her one officially dystopian novel while spending more than three quarters of it in naturalistic settings with more than a few passing parallels to Oates’s life. That’s what happens to Adriane Strohl, the smart, sweet, terrified heroine of Joyce Carol Oates’s engrossing tale Hazards of Time Travel. In a Dorothy-in-Oz sort of moment, she summons to mind a picture of her parents. Should they reach out to one another accordingly? Inevitably, living things were perceived (from the outside) as resembling clockwork mechanism. Or is that too dangerous? That is both true and misleading. They were oblivious of me. But we spend only 45 pages there before Adriane is thrust back — in punishment for her mildly provocative high-school valedictorian speech — to the autumn of 1959 where she is compelled to assume the identity of “Mary Ellen Enright” at a state college in Wisconsin. In behaviorism, Adriane muses,
the more detailed and “objective” the description of the subject’s behavior, the less the experimenter was likely to know what was happening; for one could not infer an inner life, a subjective mode of being, from mere observation. I am unique and ungraspable. DECEMBER 17, 2018
IF YOU FEEL out of place in your era, consider the possibility that you are from the future and have been sent back in time as punishment. Who’s to say, then, that she isn’t trapped in a sinister multidimensional game space that is impossible to separate from going to college in 1959 Wisconsin? And, like Adriane in this strange, piercing novel — when we hear it, we want desperately to believe it. In the NAS, leaders are elected by emoji selection and limited to those few tycoons who can purchase the privilege to run. You wanted to protest — But I am me! Smart professionals and intellectuals are considered threats to the government, demoted, and surveilled.