By Katy Goodwin-Bates
Hystopia, the first novel by David Means, came to my attention when it was long-listed for the Man Booker prize. I have a proven record of tormenting myself by trying to read novels which have been nominated for high profile awards: a compulsion which has generally bought me nothing but misery and muscular injuries from carrying massive hardbacks around. In this respect, Hystopia has at least one thing going for it; although it is currently available only in hardback, its length is unlikely to cause lasting physical damage to its reader. Psychological damage, however, is a whole other matter.
A novel-within-a-novel, Hystopia is presented as the work of Eugene Allen, a fictional Vietnam vet, deeply troubled by the disappearance of his sister. Means creates an alternate history in which JFK survived multiple assassination attempts to continue as president for an unconstitutional third term, the Vietnam war rages on, and a shady government agency called Psych Corps is charged with addressing the mental health issues of those returning from the war. Through a drug-induced process called enfolding, veterans can erase memories of traumatic experiences, although those deemed too damaged to undergo the procedure roam the state of Michigan with violence on their minds. One of these is Rake, a psychotic former soldier killing and kidnapping at will. Rake, in turn, is a person of interest to agents from Psych Corps, and the narrative follows their search.
A man like Rake escapes off into a fury of social nonstructure. He comes to us, his file sealed, as per regulations, and then when we try to enfold him, to give him the best treatment possible – although I’ll be the first to admit that he was one of the early test cases, and his reenactment was down in New Mexico – he doubles his trauma, and as I’m sure you know, from reading your manuals and your early training, a failed enfold simply takes his Causal Events Package and amplifies it.
The use of fictional editor’s notes and testimonies from those who “knew” Eugene Allen create a fragmented start, and so once the story itself begins, it’s disorienting. The initial lack of clarity in identifying characters and situations doesn’t help. It’s easy to justify confusing the reader by claiming that this is the point, and such disorientation reflects the befuddlement experienced by the enfolds Allen writes about, but I’m not sure it works here. Either way, I found that fixing my attention on the specific elements that were clear helped to bring the narrative into focus; as the characters of Rake, government agent Singleton and forest-dwelling Hank develop and intertwine, a coherent sense of story emerges. What I’m really saying here is that if, like me, you struggle with the opening section of Hystopia, it is worth sticking with.
There’s definitely an experimental style to Means’ writing, reflecting events as the enfolds begin to deliberately “unfold,” consciously attempting to reclaim their vanquished memories. Narrative perspectives switch quickly, with a more stream-of-consciousness style emerging at times as the novel progresses. Drugs of all kinds feature, further complicating the narrative clarity. The bulk of one late chapter consists almost entirely of non-sequiturs, although by this point these pretty much make perfect sense, leaving the reader questioning their own mental stability.
The only way to die is to kill the death within, Hank said.
You hear a whimper you want to make a bang, Rake said.
A good ship has a captain who doesn’t know he’s a captain, Hank said.
The only bad war is a war that I haven’t started yet, Rake said.
I’ll confess that as a British person born in the 1980s, my knowledge of US politics in the previous decades isn’t particularly good (in my defense, we basically learn about the Nazis every year here until we’re deemed mature enough to handle anything else). So for those of you with a greater knowledge base when it comes to Vietnam, Hystopia may resonate a little more than it did for me. Rather than any specific historical context, what it really reminded me of was Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, an association which one assumes Means acknowledges with irony late on, when one character reflects, “there must be a catchphrase for someone in a situation that is simply not winnable, for a road that splits into two options that are just as bad” and the response he receives is “there isn’t a catchphrase for that”. One can also draw parallels with another JFK-related alternate history novel–Stephen King’s 11.22.63–although Hystopia was, for me, far more engaging and convincing, despite its confusing premise.
With Hystopia, David Means has created something thought-provoking. While it is, at times, head-spinningly bewildering, I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. It didn’t make the Man Booker shortlist, which, on reflection, I think is harsh; more conventional and less lively novels did make the cut, and I hope Hystopia is widely read despite its eventual snubbing.