Book Thoughts: Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

41gsbp8s2vl._ac_ul436_I’m hesitant to call this a “review” because I don’t usually post reviews on my blog. But I recently read this book and found it fairly interesting. When I looked on goodreads and amazon I saw that it had earned a lot of negative reviews. So I suppose that what I’m doing is laying out the reasons that I disagreed with those reviewers and found this book to be worth reading.

For the first third of the book I felt like I was reading a YA dystopia in the vein of Divergent,  Delirium, Matched, etc. The heroine, Adriane, is graduating from high school sometime in the 2040s (or thereabouts). The United States is now the North American States and is controlled by one political party. While lip service is paid to democracy it’s an autocratic state that’s downright Big Brother-ish. Adriane is her high school’s valedictorian and her speech asks questions of the audience that the state claims are subversive and treasonous. Adriane is sentenced to Exile. For four years she will be sent to Zone 9, otherwise known as Wainscotta Falls, Wisconsin circa 1959. She will live on a state university campus as student Mary Ellen Enright. She’s not allowed to tell anyone her real identity, she’s not allowed to leave a 10 mile radius from campus.

But once the plot is set up Oates diverges from the YA formula significantly. Because this isn’t really a YA book and I think that’s where a lot of other readers run into problems. I think the reader of Hazards of Time Travel is not expected to read it from a teenage point of view. We’re supposed to recognize that Adriane/Mary Ellen is naive and immature. When she falls in pure insta-love with Dr. Ira Wolfman, a young Assistant Professor and fellow Exile, we’re supposed to roll our eyes and cringe a bit. In fact I think the reason that it mimics the YA genre so closely at times is that we’re supposed to question our desire to classify and categorize.

The future, in this book, is chilling and based on total lockstep social control. The past of the 1950’s is also repressive in its sexism, racism, and Cold War paranoia. Oates draws parallels between the Cold War era and post 9/11 paranoia. She also looks at the rise of fascism, and the role of the self, and nature vs. nurture. It actually becomes rather heavy in the middle as an isolated Adriane/Mary Ellen explores these issues in her psychology class, and uses her knowledge of the future to complicate the questions.

The book ends somewhere ambiguous. We’re never told if the time travel really took place, or if it was all a dream, or if Adriane/Mary Ellen will stay where she is or return to the future. It’s unsettling. We’re left wondering if it’s a happy ending or a chilling one.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone. I would actually suggest that the reader is at least somewhat familiar with one or two of Oates previous works before reading this one. I think an understanding of how she sometimes plays with genre is helpful in understanding what she was doing with this book. But also, I would hesitate to recommend it to people who like to know exactly what’s happening all the time. I think that expecting and appreciating ambiguity is important here.

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