Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates review – exiled from the future

In this audacious thought experiment about the shrinking of human potential, a rebellious teen is sent back to the 50s

Time travel stories are seldom really about time or travel, and Joyce Carol Oates’s 46th novel is no exception. Audacious, chilling and darkly playful, her thought experiment about belonging and otherness is quick to ignite, but admirably slow to reveal the full extent of its dystopian proposition.

The action begins in a queasily familiar near-future America where “democracy” is administered by an acronym-loving bureaucracy appointed by the Patriot Party, the only political show in town. Citizens are graded by ST (Skin Tone), and schoolchildren must memorise Science Facts such as “cancer is caused by negative thoughts” and “the average female IQ is 7.55 points lower than the average male IQ”.

But in a society that mistrusts its citizens, high IQs are a liability regardless of gender – as the precocious teenager Adriane Stohl discovers when her high school valedictorian address leads to charges of Treason Speech and Questioning an Authority. Sentenced to four years of “rehabilitation” in Exile, she is whisked back in time by means of a microchip implant and teleportation to awake like a reverse Rip van Winkle in 1959 Wisconsin. The brave new/old world of twinsets, cumbersome Remington typewriters and the cold war could not be more different from the one that has banished her. Or could it?

Anyone writing speculative fiction today runs the risk of their nightmare scenario becoming yesterday’s news before the book is published – which may account for Adriane’s skippy, breathless first-person narration; her dashes, exclamation marks and broken sentences give the novel a slapdash quality. But its imaginative ambition, intellectual panache and propulsive story offer plenty of compensation.

Awkwardly reincarnated as Mary Ellen Enright, a freshman at the fictional University of Wainscotia, Adriane gets painfully hair-rollered by well-meaning room mates, learns the word “girdle”, rediscovers handwriting and attends classes on BF Skinner, whose pronouncement that “a self is simply a device for representing a functionally unified system of responses” serves as the book’s sly epigram.

Joyce Carol Oates went to university in Wisconsin.
Joyce Carol Oates went to university in Wisconsin. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Unable to forge friendships and suffering from the chronic stress of her double status as outsider and impostor, Adriane/Mary Ellen falls gauchely and hard for the charismatic psychology professor Ira Wolfman. Is the expert on learned helplessness a secret fellow Exile from the future, as she suspects, or something else? Is she trapped in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Plath’s The Bell Jar, the Wachowskis’ The Matrix, or Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror? Or is she just a human rat in a “Skinner Box”, doomed to press the same buttons and levers repeatedly in an effort to “make sense of the stimuli, to perceive a pattern amid randomness”? Most crucially, can she ever return to her past life in the future – and should she? Oates takes bleak relish in keeping the reader guessing, while deftly interrogating the novel’s central preoccupation: the voluntary shrinking of the human mind.

The Nordic term Janteloven, coined by the Danish-Norwegian writer Aksel Sandemose in 1933 to satirise the mentality of small-town Denmark, enshrines a pervasive, crowd-generated totalitarianism that forbids anyone to seem, think they are, or actually be better than anybody else. Under Sandemose’s rules, extraordinariness, ambition and self-belief are deemed crimes against society, and as a result, pervasive self-censorship and militant mediocrity prevail. Since the brilliant Oates, like the brilliant Adriane, went to university in Wisconsin, one of several midwestern states where Scandinavians settled, it’s hard not to wonder how much retrospective personal rage fuels her exposé of America’s version of Janteloven.

Tall poppy syndrome is a child of collective envy, the novel suggests; and wherever tall poppies grow, there will be crowds wielding scythes. Whether the syndrome manifests as a survival mechanism in a future America where it’s “better to be a safe coward than a sorry hero”, or as the unrecognised cornerstone of intellectually stunted 1950s academia, Oates’s message is clear: any society that punishes exceptionalism in the name of egalitarianism is a dystopian one. In positing the real “hazard” of otherness as exposure to the crushing contempt of a conformist majority, she is highlighting not so much the banality of evil as the evil of banality. As time-travelling, universally applicable propositions go, mediocre it is not.

Liz Jensen’s The Uninvited is published by Bloomsbury. Hazards of Time Travel is published by 4th Estate. To order a copy for £12.99 (RRP £16.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Liz Jensen

The GuardianTramp

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