Hystopia: A Novel, by David Means
A mind-bending story of fear, paranoia, and altered consciousness set in an unheimlich almost-America, all underscored by a mass of critical apparatus which highlights the tale’s own fictive nature, its unreality—sound familiar? David Means’ Hystopia: A Novel is a novel about trauma, about carrying around the burden of one’s past, so it’s perhaps fitting that it carries with it a heavy tang of its forebears, works like Slaughterhouse-Five, works like Infinite Jest.
It’s some time in the 1970s, and Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet didn’t kill Kennedy. Nor, in fact did several other would-be assassins’ bullets. It’s the President’s third term, and the war in Vietnam grinds on and on, producing a generation of traumatised veterans, whose psychic wounds are treated by a process known as “enfolding”. A patient’s horrific memories can be sealed off in a hidden vault, somewhere inside their mind, absolving them—as it were—of their guilt.
The bulk of the novel is taken up by a slow-motion chase scene, as two enfolded Psych Corps—the people responsible for administering the enfolding—track a failed enfold named Rake as he rampages through the state of Michigan. Rake has kidnapped a young girl, also enfolded, called Meg, and here the plot thickens. Meg is the sister of one Eugene Allen, a Vietnam veteran who is responsible for writing the novel-within-a-novel, ‘Hystopia’. In the ‘real’ world in which Allen writes, Meg has committed suicide, and his novel is in some way an act of recovery, of mourning but also of analysis. Whilst the two Psych Corps seek to undo the enfolding treatment, seek to recover the cause of their trauma, Allen seeks to recover his sister from the cold grasp of death.
‘Hystopia’ sputters and stalls for much of its duration, relying on clunky exposition to get across its mass of druggy psychotherapy, although when Means gets going, he writes some incredibly stylish prose. Means’ depictions of the vast north, its ravaged cities and its forested wilds are bleakly evocative, but Hystopia, the PoMo construct inspires less belief. Enfolded in the depths of Allen’s ‘Hystopia,’ it’s easy to forget the mass of editors’ notes that bookend the novel-within-a-novel, that hold it to account and continually render it under erasure. They want to play the role of Foster Wallace’s maddening, byzantine footnotes, but they just don’t figure in the narrative. One could easily ignore them and read a stylish, trippy alternate history of the Vietnam war, none the wiser. Inside Hystopia lurks a story of grace and recovery, trauma and healing, but it’s one that fails to convince.