“A Madmaid’s Tale” – Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

Picture the face of Elisabeth Moss. Do you see her as Betty from Mad Men? Or do you see her as June/Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale? It might be, given that time has passed, given that one show is current and one show has ended, that you see her beneath the strange wimple, caught in that curious im/possible future. Imagine, then, for an instant, that there was a way of reviving Mad Men and doing a cross-over show, A Madmaid’s Tale, if you will, in which June/Offred is spirited back in time to confront an alternate version of herself, Betty. That, kind of, is what Joyce Carol Oates is up to in her umpty-nineteenth novel, Hazards of Time Travel.

The novel opens at some point in the future. The United States has become the North American States (or NAS for short) and 17 year old Adrienne Strohl is valedictorian at her school – her plan being to ask a pointed series of questions, questions about what life was like pre-NAS, pre-9/11 but she gets no further than the rehearsal. She’s arrested “on seven counts of Treason-Speech and Questioning of Authority”, worries that she’ll be vaporised, as so many others have been, but finds herself instead apparently teletransported back to Wisconsin in 1959. To begin with, you read Hazards of Time Travel wondering why Joyce Carol Oates felt the need to write a dystopia in her 80th year (aside from, you know, the obvious reason of what else would a writer write about with that clown in Downing Street / the White House / the Kremlin etc).

Yet when Adrienne lands in 1959, discovers she is to be known as Mary-Ellen, understands she cannot speak of the world from whence she has come, must instead adapt to a seriously unwired world, the novel comes into its own. Hazards of Time Travel recalls, in subtle ways, the later, shorter novels of Philip Roth (Nemesis, in particular, with slight overtones of The War Against America) and manages, for the most part, to avoid the mis-steps of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. She wakes up in a place known as Zone 9, an Exile, forced to remain within a 10-mile radius, paranoid and always under threat of observation, her previous life occluded thanks to the presence of a computer chip that prevents her thinking dangerous thoughts or remembering her family or knowing too much about events that happen in the immediate future.

All of which makes her something of an oddball, talking in a modern idiom that her housemates find strange (constantly asking her if she is in fact an American at all), and lumbered with an array of badly fitting second hand clothes. “Mary-Ellen” (her name appears within quotation marks more often than not) is a construct, false to others and false to herself, who spends all of her time studying, or crying in the night, or pressing her forehead hard against the bedroom wall because only at such times does the veil seem to lift on the world she’s left behind. To all intents and purposes, she’s a young woman at a college in 1959, taking classes, going to keg parties, fighting off the attention of boys – but, of course, she isn’t that, she’s alien, Exile, stranger in a strange land.

Until she finds a fellow Exile, someone else who has been returned to the past, and she falls in love. At which point Hazards of Time Travel becomes both more and less conventional – more conventional because Adrienne can be a bit drippy (oh she’s in love, will he notice her, if only he’d notice her and take her in his arms and smother her in kisses) and less conventional because the novel starts to challenge a lot of the assumptions you’ve made up to this point (has Adrienne really travelled back in time, is she really being watched, does anyone care, is her reality closer to The Matrix?). There is an additional thread in which the novel explores behaviouralism, an approach to political science that gained momentum in the 60s and 70s but which Oates uses to underpin the idea that Mary-Ellen has been sent to a mediocre place populated by mediocre people who couldn’t muster an original thought even on their best days.

All of which might sound a little busy, and in truth it is a little busy, but it holds your attention almost all of the way through. There is a sense that the whole thing is a little preposterous and, like a rickety old train, bits start to fall off the closer we get to the end (as Oates seems to decide a lot of these questions can’t be satisfactorily answered and so much disappears in a cloud of forgetfulness). By the time we reach the climax where readers are invited to pay a visit if they get the chance, Hazards of Time Travel recalls nothing so much as the end of Robert Coover’s short story, ‘The Colonel’s Daughter’:

“The ludicrous plot in which we are all trapped. The ancient Greeks referred to plot as mythos, attributing the random drift of human affairs to some sort of unknowable but glimpsable divine motion, attempting to attach a certain grandeur to it, the delusion of meaning. But we are characters who do not exist, in a story composed by no one from nothing. Can anything be more pitiable? No wonder we all are grieving.”

Any Cop?: It’s immensely readable, the kind of intelligent novel that will sweep you along at such a pace that you resist questioning some of the dafter elements. A Madmaid’s Tale indeed.

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