The uncannily productive and ingenious Oates has written scores of novels, but this is billed as her first dystopian one. That is both true and misleading.
The frame narrative here occurs in the NAS, or North American States — a grim Trumpian future dictatorship that shuns individuality and creativity and promotes mediocrity, conformity, sexism, racism, and violence. But we spend only 45 pages there before Adriane is thrust back — in punishment for her mildly provocative high-school valedictorian speech — to the autumn of 1959 where she is compelled to assume the identity of “Mary Ellen Enright” at a state college in Wisconsin.
Like a clean, precise log-splitting ax swing, that simple premise exposes a world of ideas and questions.
It allows Oates to extrapolate today’s right-wing trends and compare them with Cold War paranoia and groupthink. Following the Great Terrorist Attacks,
there was an Interlude of Indecisiveness during which time issues of “rights” — (the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Civil Rights law, etc.) […] were contested, with a victory, after the suspension of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights by executive order, for […] Patriot Vigilance.
In the NAS, leaders are elected by emoji selection and limited to those few tycoons who can purchase the privilege to run. Smart professionals and intellectuals are considered threats to the government, demoted, and surveilled. The department of Homeland Security Interrogation tortures, deletes, and vaporizes suspect citizens. For a speech like Adriane’s, one can be arrested “on seven counts of Treason-Speech and Questioning of Authority.”
The time-travel device also adds a psychological suspense element to Adriane’s story. One can easily imagine that this grim future Adriane is supposedly from — painted as it is in what seem like purposely broad strokes compared to, say, Margaret Atwood’s or Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopias — is a figment of the rattled heroine’s imagination. That seems especially likely given Adriane’s social isolation in the Midwestern college milieu, her general paranoia, and her single-minded pursuit of an assistant professor of psychology named Ira Wolfman. In short, is Adriane from the future or is she nuts?
Or is she from the future and sane, but tricked into thinking she is in the past. She learns that virtual reality in the NAS has become a high art. Who’s to say, then, that she isn’t trapped in a sinister multidimensional game space that is impossible to separate from going to college in 1959 Wisconsin?
Adriane feels her family close — but completely inaccessible. In a Dorothy-in-Oz sort of moment, she summons to mind a picture of her parents.
Mom? Dad? Can’t you see me? It’s — Adriane. Please — look at me.
But they weren’t looking at me. They were oblivious of me.
Her dad has aged and looks like a homeless man. Her mom has grown plump, “fleshy, peevish,” her gaze “sulky, dissatisfied. An expression of barely suppressed rage […] I had never seen before.”
Adriane’s journey becomes a meditation on memory, identity, and free will. Who are you if your past is hazy or blocked entirely? If your future is clear but inaccessible? If you share secret knowledge of what is to come, but then that sharing endangers you and those whom you love?
When one misfit meets another, could it be that they are both exiled from a place of secret knowledge? Should they reach out to one another accordingly? Or is that too dangerous?
The story’s ominous sense of puppet masters pulling strings is heightened by frequent references to the behaviorism that Adriane and Wolfman study.
In behaviorism, Adriane muses,
the more detailed and “objective” the description of the subject’s behavior, the less the experimenter was likely to know what was happening; for one could not infer an inner life, a subjective mode of being, from mere observation. Inevitably, living things were perceived (from the outside) as resembling clockwork mechanism. You wanted to protest — But I am me! I am unique and ungraspable.
Interestingly, too, the time travel allows Oates to chalk up her one officially dystopian novel while spending more than three quarters of it in naturalistic settings with more than a few passing parallels to Oates’s life.
Like Adriane, Oates was a valedictorian, though in college not high school. She got her master’s degree in Wisconsin at roughly the time Adriane is there as an undergraduate. Oates grew up in a farming community; Adriane spends time living on a farm with a lover. A typewriter played a key role in Oates’s blossoming as a writer and plays one in Adriane’s time-travel epiphany. Radical politics influenced Oates’s maturation and does Adriane’s too. And so on.
Adriane is not an autobiographical figure, but she is an interestingly Oates-esque double who, we might surmise, enables the 80-year-old author to venture on her own temporal escapades — wrinkled in time, back to the future.
If all this meta-thinking puts you off, however, the novel works well simply as a bittersweet tale of adventure. Adriane is an acute observer not just of the two eras she experiences but of her own detailed reactions to them. Her loneliness, her ardor toward the brooding Wolfman, her fraught attempts at socializing with her Wisconsin classmates and elders — all of these remind us that, in any century, early adulthood is a tense undertaking.
In Adriane’s exile from the NAS, Oates conveys a universal sense of alienation. Even the most socially well adjusted among us must now and then think ridiculous our contemporary mores or the dominant ways of seeing the world. Adriane’s disdain for her Wisconsin peers’ giggling dating lives, their smoking, their cerebral sluggishness, their melodramatic movies, their primitive technology, and so on reflects most everyone’s at least occasional bewilderment at society’s values and capabilities.
Yet we’re human, so we want to belong. We long to hear:
You know — you have a home with me.
You know I love you.
And, like Adriane in this strange, piercing novel — when we hear it, we want desperately to believe it.
Alexander C. Kafka is a journalist and photographer in Bethesda, Maryland.