David Means, the author of four critically acclaimed collections of short stories, has written his first novel, and it is a tour de force of imagination. Freudian psychology, de-centered Vietnam vets and nonsensical bureaucratic language are rich ores for a novelist to mine. In particular, the languages of bureaucrats and stoners, entwined with one another, set up a hilarity that is almost joyful until we realize how soaked in menace the story is. We may find ourselves chuckling with our hearts in our mouth and then wondering how viable our response is. But that is what this book does: it makes us laugh and it makes us fearful, worried. Hystopia—the word may be a collision of “dystopia” and “hysterical,” or “historic,” and even “isotope”—is a novel within a novel, although both novels have the same title.
Doublings are not uncommon in literature, nor are alternative histories. Here, the novel-within-the-novel tells us that John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Galva, Ill., in August 1970. The “novel” or “fictional nonfiction” outside the novel within, but still a part of the novel Hystopia, tells us Kennedy was assassinated in Springville, Ill., in September 1970. But the reader knows that Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas in 1963, which means that there is a third tier to the book even if it is not stated.
Why all these layers? What is their purpose? Perhaps it is to shelter us from the full force of the grim reality of the Vietnam War. Violence has a place in this novel—often fairly graphic violence—and perhaps, to be true to that violence, the author wanted, to a degree, to muffle the screams, falling bombs, crashing planes and helicopters, pistols, M-14s and M-16s and grenades. One of the chief characters is Rake, a psychopath who shoots anyone who annoys him. He also shoots people who don’t annoy him. As a character in the book-within-the-book, he is, of course, written by a character from outside that book, one Eugene Allen. (Eugene is a character written by David Means. He bears a resemblance to Melville’s Bartleby.) The fictional Eugene Allen had a fictional older sister named Meg. The fictional Meg is different from the “real” Meg. She is more winsome and happier than the “real Meg,” who of course is also fictional. (Meg may have been inspired by Means’s own sister.) The maniac Rake holds the fictional Meg as a hostage, limiting what she may and may not do.
Happily, these convoluted and crisscrossing levels of reality are not difficult to follow when one is reading Hystopia. Means is a master sentence-maker. His characters are vivid, credible and engaging (even Rake, who is horrifying). And the layers, creating metafiction, let the reader know that the book is a serious endeavor, not mere titillation or the pornography of violence.
Early on we encounter a Stewart Dunbar, who contributes a comment on history and fiction. “The young man's creative effort...is realistic to the extent that it captures the tension of history meeting the present moment.” What this fine sentence may actually mean is not entirely clear, but I should think that any artist of any sort is aware that meeting the present moment is a confrontation that the artist must measure up to, resolve and possibly transform. So that is how I take it.
President Kennedy, before the “Genuine Assassination”—meaning the last fictional assassination—established a Psych Corps charged with helping young men who have been wounded physically and mentally to overcome their trauma. It's a lovely idea, although the Corps itself becomes a bureaucracy rife with confusion and stuck in bureau-speak. And is it helpful to “enfold” painful memories, or does that only increase the pain?
There are enfolding and unfolding processes that many of the characters undergo. Drugs, sex and dunking oneself in cold water contribute to the success of the procedure, which may eliminate or increase memory recall. The government itself has proposed these measures for the sake of rendering the vets saner, happier and free from repeating the trauma they incurred in war.
“The vets” includes Billy-T, the young man Meg loved who was killed in ’Nam. It includes two couples, Singleton and Wendy and Hank and Meg, who eventually recover enough memory to discover that they were all in, or connected to, Vietnam at the same time. Both couples have also tried to track Rake with the aim of taking him out, ridding the country of a predictably unpredictable murderer.
Much of the novel takes place in Michigan, a Michigan that is post-industrial and poor. It is hard to find work. People live in trailers or rundown, patched-up houses. It is desolate, suffocated by a cloud of desperation that cannot be relieved or dispersed except by bursts of violence.
This is not, however, a book in favor of violence. The real concern here is for how we live and how to die with dignity. Meg “hears” Billy-T talking to her, and one of the things he says is: “Did I imagine my fate was just ahead of me? You bet I did. Did I stand there at dawn, a Nam dawn creeping across our weary faces and fleshing out the colors in the jungle, and imagine my death? You bet.... What else could we do?”
Hystopia is a book that makes the reader think. All the same, much of it reminds us of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” a film in which wretched survivors drive berserk through the apocalyptic Australian desert. Means’s “Zone of Anarchy” might be the correlative term. But in the book one line reveals what is driving the story: “...when the love of two buddies in battle was broken apart, it was like the splitting of atoms into pure anguish.”
Bonds made in war are infused with something beyond earthly love. They are forged in the direst of circumstances, the extremest of emotions. We may speak of a “theater of war,” but nothing in war is theatrical. To kill a fellow human being is to kill a part of oneself. Eugene Allen ends his book with the suggestion that free will and “the grace of God” may enlighten us, that his story will endure and resonate.
But then he kills himself.