Pushcart XLII: Joyce Carol Oates, “Undocumented Alien (Very Rough Draft Report, Project JRD)” from Conjunctions #67

Test subject #293199/Joseph Saidu Maada (undocumented alien, home country Nigeria, b. 1990, d. 2016).
Most immediate and long-lasting effect of the neurotransmitter microchip (NTM) inserted in the cerebral cortex of the human brain appears to be a radical destabilization of temporal and spatial functions of cognition….
In the last several months of Maada’s life, partly as a consequence (it is believed) of deteriorating vision, hearing, and cognitive functions, subject’s paranoia was heightened so that he became convinced that a team of black spies had been sent to abduct him and return him to Nigeria to be imprisoned and tortured in collusion with the CIA….
Simultaneously, and with no awareness of the contradictory nature of his assumptions, test subject Maada was made to believe that he was a “privileged alien agent” sent to Earth on a “secret stealth mission” from one of the orbiting moons of Jupiter….

JCO has a knack for twisting fiction into different shapes. An allegory built on the rebellion of a teenage mall rat? Sure. A master class in second person by way of mother-daughter tensions? No problem. An examination of subjectivity via an encounter between an aged poet and an up-and-coming writer? Done. An exploration of Emily Dickinson through that old standby SF trope, the android? Got it. And now she ties together elements from current events ranging from immigration to covert experimentation to suicide bombers to fraudulent universities, and styles it as a bureaucratic report starring disgruntled postdocs, a Floribunda rose bush, and the Jovian moon Ganymede.

I found this a very difficult story to read. Not in the sense of upsetting or infuriating; many of the events were horrific or deeply evil, but somehow it was distanced enough from reality by the presentation to keep the torture – and that’s what it amounts to, really – from feeling like I was reading about torture. I suspect that was one planned effect, and one subtheme, of the chosen format: a draft of a lab report consisting of “a compilation of lab notes with some expository and transitional material put together by a small team of postdocs”. The language of science claims to be objective, which means we never hear Joseph’s voice, only the observations and opinions of those who experimented on him. The pure outlandishness of the events further distanced it, removing it from real life; yet we live in a time when absurdity has become reality, as well as deep brain stimulation and smart prosthetics, so there really isn’t much in the story that is so far beyond reality. But it’s more comfortable to think of it as a John LeCarré thriller.

It was, nonetheless, difficult to read, in the sense of being hard to follow and just hard to read the next page. I actually gave up at one point, decided to skip it, something I very rarely do, but on about page 4 I really didn’t want to go through the next 19 pages. I came back to it after reading a few very brief comments about it in various online book reviews of Beautiful Days, the recently-published collection in which it appears. As with the distancing effect, I suspect the somewhat confusing “compilation of lab notes” structure was a deliberate choice, to manifest in the reader a sense of the temporal and spatial disorientation Joseph experienced.

The story, taken apart and put back together in chronological order, begins with Joseph enrolling in a university whose only purpose is to lure people from Africa and Asia with the promise of an engineering degree; when these people turn out to lack the requisite educational background and the instruction turns out to be substandard, they are unceremoniously kicked out of the program, losing their student visas in the process. The tuition, in Joseph’s case paid by a nonprofit, is not refunded, of course.

Joseph then disappears into the Nigerian-immigrant community of Edison, New Jersey, where he manages for a while until he is arrested for walking while black. His immigration status is discovered, and he is offered a choice: deportation, or participation in an experimental program. The experiments eventually include replacing his blood with a transparent substitute, implanting microchips to make him compliant, hear voices, and believe he is an alien from Ganymede, carrying an explosive device that will be detonated at some point; he “need do nothing but submit, and he would be blameless”. See what I mean about being distanced from real life?

For his participation, he would receive 150% of the salary he would otherwise have earned, because “PROJECT JRD has committed to ‘zero tolerance’ of exploitation of any of its subjects domestic or foreign” (the bureaucratic report format also highlights irony).

What could go wrong?

I kept wondering what the purpose was behind the program in general. In the 50s and 60s, the CIA experimented on unsuspecting Americans with LSD dosages given surreptitiously. The belief was that Russia was using LSD on Americans to brainwash them, so research was necessary to determine how it worked and how to combat it. Was this program a similar counterespionage thing, or something else? Something else, as it turns out.

In a sequence of surgeries, parts of the subject’s brain were excised and replaced with artificial devices – chips, stents. Such experimentation is crucial, for one day, and that day not far in the future, neurophysiologoical enhancements will be necessary to provide longevity to humankind, at least to world leaders and members of the ruling classes.

Something else.

Some fascinating psycho-neuro-philosophical questions are raised throughout. What would it be like to no longer understand sequence, to not know before or after or yesterday or tomorrow, to have no concept of now versus then? Can will be “hosed clean” from the brain? “Could one communicate with a region of the subject’s brain without involving the subject (‘consciousness’) at all? …. Could ‘consciousness’ be chased into a region of the brain, like a rat into a cage corner?” “Here, there. How do we distinguish?” Is this another distancing tactic? Anything but feeling the confusion and terror Joseph must have felt. Because, after all, this is just a story.

One response to “Pushcart XLII: Joyce Carol Oates, “Undocumented Alien (Very Rough Draft Report, Project JRD)” from Conjunctions #67

  1. I think this is in the realms of possibility in the not so far future if the “powers that be” ie could be The Great Deception, the drive towards mind control, the idea of a global power etc. Companies are already microchipping employees for the “best reasons”.

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