The extent to which you appreciate this novel will depend partly on how dystopia-friendly you are. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go might keep this book company were it not that they are more substantial nightmares. By comparison, this appears skeletal, super-intelligent, yet somehow depleted. It seems to have been written in an abbreviated rush, as though the fictional imperative of not saying too much had affected the telling of the story...Joyce Carol Oates is mistress of instability – quicksand her element here. She writes convincingly about the pervasive misery of living in fear, the loneliness of it
For all its flaws, Oates’s 46th novel is a page-turner, with cliffhanger chapter endings that may well have been written with Netflix in mind. Once Adriane and Ira Wolfman – the dashing psychology assistant professor with a fittingly Freudian name – have failed to flee, following a trail that loops back on itself (as in TV drama The Returned), the novelist loses her (Ariadne’s) thread and the plot begins to unravel.
When the heroine laments her inability to suspend disbelief at the cinema – “The actors were so obviously acting. The film was so obviously a film” – or dismisses the unconvincing “realistic” paintings hanging in the Fine Arts Building, she almost seems to sense that her exile in Wainscotia is but a metaphor for being trapped in this novel.
Tall poppy syndrome is a child of collective envy, the novel suggests; and wherever tall poppies grow, there will be crowds wielding scythes. Whether the syndrome manifests as a survival mechanism in a future America where it’s “better to be a safe coward than a sorry hero”, or as the unrecognised cornerstone of intellectually stunted 1950s academia, Oates’s message is clear: any society that punishes exceptionalism in the name of egalitarianism is a dystopian one. In positing the real “hazard” of otherness as exposure to the crushing contempt of a conformist majority, she is highlighting not so much the banality of evil as the evil of banality. As time-travelling, universally applicable propositions go, mediocre it is not.
It’s worth pushing past the slightly clunky opening of The Hazards of Time Travel to immerse yourself in this spooky novel... Oates doesn’t burden the reader with details of Adriane’s future-world; instead, she lets the reader imagine it by vividly conveying how peculiar the world of 1959 and 1960 is to her heroine... The devices Oates calls on for her satisfying plot twists won’t be unfamiliar to consumers of speculative and science fiction, but the novel is no worse for that... the hazards of time travel are vivid and frightening indeed.
The plot quickly gets snarled up in BF Skinner’s theories of behaviourism, which the kids won’t find all that rewarding... Adults, though, may be intrigued to see Oates’ sly efforts to create a time loop... the story’s unpredictable shocks may reduce readers to a state of learned helplessness. Nothing – including a happy ending – is as it seems in this accelerating swirl of political and academic satire, science fiction and romantic melodrama. At 80, after more than 40 novels, Oates is still casting some awfully dark magic.