‘Hazards of Time Travel’ by Joyce Carol Oats

It would be quite easy to say that Joyce Carol Oates’ Hazards of Time Travel is nothing more than a derivative warning of the course that western society and politics is headed. Dig a little deeper, however, and we find an interesting,if flawed, critique of what drives human behaviour.

I found getting through the books first act to be somewhat of a struggle. With a young female protagonist living in an Orwellian-styled dystopia, I felt that Oates was flirting much too close to young adult territory than I care to find myself. Indeed,most of this first act involved little more than the protagonist demonstrating a worrying amount of naivety for someone living under such an oppressive regime.The overtly-transparent critique of contemporary US politics felt somewhat trite and it was tough to fully engage with any of the characters up to this point.

“It has been observed, in laboratories, that animals in cages are sometimes fearful of leaving their cages, even when their doors are left open. Even when their door shave been removed.”

The second and final acts, with the story shifted to the late 1950s and early 1960s, were both more interesting and enjoyable to read. As the protagonist studied contrasting theories of behavioural psychology in her university classes, we got to see these theories manifest themselves and struggle against one another regarding the choices that she had to make. I found this to be a novel and exciting method of character development that was also the driving force behind the ever-increasing paranoia running through the protagonist’s head. Truth be told, I even felt myself getting paranoid about the actions of each character that she encountered.

“In the front yard are a 1949 Ford pickup truck with a smashed windshield and no tires,the remains of an ancient International Harvester tractor, an eviscerated 1947 Buick convertible, a child’s sled with badly rusted runners: these are not remnants of discarded, formerly functional objects but an elaborately constructed scrap-metal sculpture titled, by Jamie Stiles, Hazards of Time Travel.”

Sometimes,when reading a novel, you come to a point where everything clicks and you feel that the writer’s intentions suddenly come into focus. Prior to reading the book, my thoughts on what the hazards of time travel might be centred on notions of chaos theory and how actions in the past would affect the future. However,Oates’ use of the books title within the story immediately got me to consider the title with a different question in mind; what would about the hazards of the natural forward progression of time? As with the earlier critique of contemporary US politics, Oates was far from subtle here. Objects, or perhaps even political ideas and systems, are not immune from the destructive power of time; they need care and attention (as well as the occasional replacement) if they are to survive…

– The Librarian

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