Oates views past via future
• “Hazards of Time Travel” (Ecco), by Joyce Carol Oates
In Joyce Carol Oates’ future America, history and free thought are off-limits. Thus, high school senior Adriane Strohl is arrested for treasonous speech when it’s revealed that her valedictory address is comprised of questions that her classmates haven’t the nerve to ask. While the curious student isn’t “deleted,” as some have been, she’s sent into exile 80 years into the past to the idyllic town of Wainscotia, Wis. Here, Adriane will face the “Hazards of Time Travel.”
Armed with firm rules (no questions, no intimate relationships, no provision of future knowledge, among others), a fake birth certificate, a vague backstory and one box of secondhand clothing, Adriane enters her freshman year at Wainscotia State University. Oates doesn’t squander much print on obvious wonderments in this setting. Save for puzzlement over a typewriter and the oddity of witnessing her housemates smoke cigarettes free from worry, Adriane’s biggest surprises comes in the classroom. Here, while struggling to intellectually find her place, she falls in love with a fellow exile, complicating her existence in a myriad ways.
Desperate for intimacy, yet unable to attain it without fear of execution, loneliness suffocates this protagonist. All the while, her classes, art and limited relationships stimulate her thinking in ways she’s never before experienced, creating a love story wrapped in psychological turmoil.
Imagery takes a back seat to intellectual discourse. While readers receive a clear picture of the university campus where Adriane, now dubbed “Mary Ellen,” resides, showy descriptions are limited. In their place are professors’ lectures along with Adriane’s bewilderment and ever-growing skepticism over her new home.
What starts as a familiar dystopian storyline morphs into a tale so perplexing one shouldn’t read this book alone. Cerebral book clubs, clear your calendars.