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Review: ‘Hazards of Time Travel,’ by Joyce Carol Oates

December 7, 2018

Every now and then, a good book is also deeply flawed. There is nothing wrong with what the book contains. The writing is good, often elegant, and the situations are interesting. Yet it never leaps up and grabs the head and heart. Instead, it is flawed by familiarity. We’ve been here before. We’ve walked in the front door, explored the cupboards, seen behind the bushes, too. In fact, we’ve been here so often that what we first found shocking now seems normal.

In many ways, “Hazards of Time Travel” is a too familiar book from page one. Its dystopian setup is straight out of George Orwell’s “1984,” with a nod to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.” In the near future, citizens of what is now called the NAS (North American States) are “exiled” or “deleted” for crimes against the state, which include “treason-speech” and “questioning of authority.” Citizens hide their talents; students work for lesser grades so they don’t stand out.

Yet there is always the naive resistance. A bright and energetic student, Adriane Strohl, is rehearsing her high school valedictory speech when she is taken by government agents. Her speech, in the form of 12 questions, is treason. As punishment, she is sent back in time to 1959, to attend Wainscotia College, a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin, where nearly every big idea (from a 2018 point of view) is doomed. Her name is changed to Mary Ellen Enright.

Predictably, Mary Ellen falls in love with a young psychology professor, Ira Wolfman, who is an exile from the future, as well. The novel follows their orbits coming closer, the tentative revelations, the forbidden love, the inevitable attempt at escape. There is the omnipresent surveillance and threat of “deletion.”

The writing is wonderful, but the novel begins to fall apart — not because of the writing, but because of lingering questions that are not addressed. I found myself looking up from the pages and out the window. If time travel was possible, would anyone really spend the time and energy to send prisoners to take Psych 101 and join a film club? Why can’t the time-relocated travel more than 10 miles from the college? Is it possible an Oates novel is underimagined? I found myself wanting to finish the book more out of obligation than sustained interest.

Then everything changed. We discover the time travel bit isn’t true. It’s a virtual reality! Wolfman is a prisoner and one of the VR authors.

As Wolfman explains: “You believe this crap? ‘Exile’? ‘Teletransportation’? ‘Zone Nine’? None of this is real, Adriane. It’s a construct. … I’m your friend Ira, but I’m also a researcher at CSD — Computational Strategies.”

I wondered if I hadn’t been hoodwinked by genius. I wondered if Oates wasn’t pulling off a trick. Every problem I had with the novel’s setup was answered, and I wondered if my own discomfort wasn’t part of Oates’ plan. Perhaps. But also a bit too easy, finally: “1984” meets “The Matrix.”

There are many promising ideas that never really come to anything. There is an Uncle Toby, taken by the state and “deleted” when Adriane was 2, who shows up again toward the end, but really only as a curiosity. There is state-sanctioned racism in that people are classified by their skin tone (ST-1 is Caucasian, etc.), but racism never becomes any part of the book’s concerns. Wolfman seems to imagine what will become the Milgram experiment at Yale.

Yet, as Mary Ellen says, “There were no new ideas here in Wainscotia. No originality, no — surprise. Everything they undertook had been done already, and done more beautifully by others.”

Even the happiness at the end rings of Orwell.

Perhaps “The Hazards of Time Travel” is a screenplay masquerading as a novel. I’m sure it will make a fine movie. Or perhaps it’s simply a fine book wandering through territory that’s been explored by others who discovered more.

W. Scott Olsen teaches at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. His most recent book is “A Moment With Strangers: Essays and Photographs at Home and Abroad.”

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