- - Thursday, February 7, 2019


By Joyce Carol Oates

Ecco/Harper Collins, $26.99, 324 pages

To print out the bibliography of Joyce Carol Oates takes eight pages.

The list, which began in 1964, includes: 48 novels under her own name; 11 written under pseudonyms; more than 40 short fiction collections; 23 volumes of essays and memoirs; and 11 novellas. For the record, that doesn’t include her young adult books, children’s fiction, plays or poetry.

The word “prolific” doesn’t begin to apply to such an output.

Having given us myriad examples of how bad and violent life can be in the present, Ms. Oates now turns dystopian. But unlike George Orwell, who in “1984” went forward in time Ms. Oates does the opposite, sort of.

The United States is no longer known as the United States, but, since 09.11.2001 as the NAS or New American States, wherein the great sin is to call attention to oneself, to think or speak independently. Surveillance, to make sure no one thinks out of line, is constant and invisible, and citizens are encouraged to denounce anyone who appears to be different.

Zone One, the power center of America, is on the East Coast and the rest of the nation is less important the farther west one gets. Citizens are ranked according to the lightness of their Skin Tone, or ST, with ST1 being exclusively caucasians and the rest, down to ST10 being of darker hues. You get the picture.

Seventeen-year-old high school senior Adriane Stohl has a bright future, including a four-year scholarship to a top university (on the East Coast, of course) as long as she follows the government’s directives and eschews independent thinking. But when she becomes her school’s valedictorian, she falters by giving a speech that smacks of free will and is denounced — by her own older brother who is jealous of her achievements which are greater than his.

She is arrested, declared an EI or Exiled Individual. Her punishment is to be sent back in time — for four years — and not just to another era (1959) but to another place, in this case the state of Wisconsin where, now brainwashed, she becomes a freshman at Wainscotia University. She is also given a new identity and a new name, Mary Ellen Enright.

(It was at this point that this reviewer began to feel a bit queasy, having been born, raised and gone to university in Wisconsin, and having dated a girl with almost the exact same name. Do you think ?)

As the narrator, the former Adriane soon learns the real punishment for an Exiled Individual is loneliness. She doesn’t fit in, and even though she believes that she’s had a memory-destroying chip place in her brain, she still longs to see her parents.

Adriane/Mary Ellen takes Psychology 101 and falls in love with Ira Wolfman, her handsome and charismatic young instructor, whom she believes, accurately as it turns out, to be a fellow Exiled Individual.

Wainscotia’s Psychology Department is in thrall to the ideas of the renowned behaviorist psychologist, B.F. Skinner (who championed the theory of operant conditioning — that behavior is determined by its consequences, which can be either reinforcements or punishments, which make it more, or less, likely the behavior will re-occur). But the two Exiles, Adriane/Mary Ellen and Ira, have their doubts.

It takes a while, but they do get together, fall in love and make plans to escape to California and begin a new life. Will they, or will the power of the Totalitarian State reach out and crush both them and their dream?

Whether or not you will like this book, and how much, depends on how willing you are to buy into the basic concept of state-controlled operant conditioning and the whole idea of Big Brotherism and citizens spying on and “denouncing” one another. It was hard to get beyond the feeling that I was reading “1984”-lite. This is not to say, however, that the book doesn’t provide many pleasures along the way. Ms. Oates is a fine writer, and her descriptions of people, places and ideas are as impressive as ever. And the whole concept of the book is most ingenious, even if the reader doesn’t buy into it wholeheartedly.

Joyce Carol Oates has been criticized in the past for the use of excessive violence (though this book is clearly less violent than others). But she doesn’t accept this: “When people say there is too much violence in my books, what they are saying is there is too much reality in life.” And, in an essay titled “Why is Your Writing So Violent?” she writes, “it is always an insulting question .” Here, in “Hazards of Time Travel,” she presents a very different, and far more scary, reality.

John Greenya, a Washington writer and critic, is the author of “Gorsuch: The Judge Who Speaks For Himself” (Simon and Schuster, 2018).

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