A defiant young woman in near-future America is sentenced to hard time in the 1950s Midwest.
Oates (A Book of American Martyrs, 2017, etc.) needn’t mention Donald Trump to make the target of this dark allegory clear. The United States has become a repressive regime that’s run by oligarchs, ranks its citizenry by skin tone, and “vaporizes” dissenters. The narrator, Adriane, is set to graduate high school as valedictorian until it’s discovered that her speech is filled with impertinent questions. (Like, say, Why does America fight so many wars?) Found guilty of “Treason and Questioning of Authority,” Adriane is sentenced to a re-education camp: a women’s college in central Wisconsin in 1959, eight decades in the past. (The nature of time-travel technology is initially vague, which makes for a potent late plot twist.) Given a new identity, Adriane is expected to be an Eisenhower-era good girl and not make a fuss. “I would be the ideal student—the ideal ‘coed,’ ” she writes. “I would never betray or even feel the mildest curiosity.” As in any good prison-break story, though, her compliance doesn’t last long: She finds common cause with a psychology professor who she suspects has been similarly exiled. Oates takes some pleasure in imagining Adriane’s culture shock: women fussing over their hair, bafflement about books on paper. But the overall mood is somber, stressing the point that the era those MAGA hats suggest was so great was often oppressive and mean-spirited, particularly toward women. Oates dwells much, sometimes ponderously so, on B.F. Skinner’s then-popular concept of behaviorism, which slotted humans as dim machines lacking in free will. And Oates’ late style, thick with em dashes and exclamatory prose, flirts with melodrama. But forgivably so: Are we not living in emotionally demanding times?
More shambling than dystopian classics by Orwell, Atwood, and Ishiguro but energized by a similar spirit of outrage.