In her lengthy literary career, now-octogenarian author Joyce Carol Oates has wandered into pop genres, most notably horror. Her most recent novel, started in 2011 but not published until late 2018, begins as something akin to a YA dystopia before quickly time-traveling into something else.
The high-school valedictorian in a near-future dystopia, a sort of 1984 meets “Harrison Bergeron” by way of a broad range of current socio-political trends, runs afoul of her government. They send her for re-education, back in time to an aggressively mediocre Midwestern college in the 1950s.
Then things turn strange.
Back to the Future this is not.
The book creates a strong sense of foreboding and paranoia even during long passages where our twice-named protagonist does little beyond engaging in her daily affairs. At her best, Oates remains a surprising and often subtly dark creator.
The revelations about Wainscotia's utter banality will entertain some readers. It's not just any mediocre mid-century college. It's obsessed with behaviorism, racist readings of genetics and anthropology, and slavish regurgitation of the curriculum. Oates's satire would be difficult to miss, as one of her characters describes:
One of those idyllic American campuses in the Heartland where no research or creative work comes to anything. No matter how much effort is poured into it, how much ‘talent’ and ‘perseverance.’ Perfectly intelligent scientists... take disastrous turns, wind up in dead ends—and won’t realize it until they’re embalmed and can’t leave. No one is ‘original’ here—no one is ‘significant.’ A promising young astrophysicist from Cal Tech gave up his Ph.D. project in ‘string theory’ to pursue ‘extra-terrestrial life’—and that’s it for him, until he retires. Scientists, mathematicians, scholars, artists, writers and poets—-even chemists—-nothing they discover in Wainscotia will outlive them. Nothing they accomplish will have the slightest value to anyone. Their heirs will hide away their self-published autobiographies and melt down their gilt ‘lifetime achievement awards.’ Their ideas are derivative, or redundant, or just plain mistaken, silly. In the meantime, they live exalted lives at Wainscotia, as inside a bell jar, like pampered bacteria.
For various reasons, this notion surprises Adriane/Mary Ellen, but it shouldn't. She's seen that the spirit of Wainscotia thrives in a future where media-processed mediocrity and malleable ideology trump actual achievements and facts.
The novel takes some twists, and we're left, as in Rashomon, to determine what did or did not happen. Does Adriane/Mary Ellen have a computer chip in her head, or does she alter her own memories? The scene where she recalls her lost family, only to have that recollection turn ugly, will linger along with that question. If the college is a kind of Skinner Box, who is the operant conditioner? Has our protagonist traveled from the future to the past, or has something else occurred?
The combination of elements feels somewhat original, but the elements themselves have been used elsewhere, many times, and often better. I admire restraint as much as the next person, but too little happens in this novel before it becomes some other kind of novel, and then some other kind of novel again. The initial dystopia barely gets described at all. Consequently, Hazards's critique of society feels blunted next to, say, Charles Stross's Glasshouse (SF), Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (mainstream literature), or the best of Margaret Atwood (both).
Joyce Carol Oates remains a writer's writer, but she's written better books.
A note for Oates's editors:
Mary Ellen attends the film society's showing of The Searchers. Except, in one paragraph, it becomes a showing of a different John Wayne film, Red River. In a book that asks you to question reality, that could, I suppose, be a clue. It reads like an error. A book of this nature should not contain errors.