by David Means (2016)
FSG (2016)
352 pp

This is it, man. The real deal. Please disregard other notes and take this one seriously. I’ve been typing like a madman and failed to get the following, not verbatim, but in essence.

Hystopia is a slippy, trippy novel. At its best, it mirrors the fractured, jumpy mental states of its febrile, badly-rewired protagonists and is both impressively peculiar and disorienting. At its worst it feels like an obvious, failed attempt at a Robert Stone pastiche. For me, the good outweighed the bad, and I came out in favor of Means’s attempts at cultivating a very difficult fictional landscape.


There are, though, problems, and at times Hystopia simply feels bashed together. There is a recurrence of a simile that feels lazy (“frosted by moonlight” for those interested), not problematic because it doesn’t work, but because it appears in quick succession. There is some heinous expositional stuff whereby Means exhibits contempt for an audience that, like, might not get it, man (if you read Hystopia you’ll get used to a faux-70s vibe, which is largely successful, occasionally annoying). There is a patronizing and deeply unnecessary chapter called “Duluth” that’s worse than anything else you will read in any of the Booker longlisted books and which should be excised immediately. There are simple plot errors that prod you out of the novel. (With such a novel, I suppose the fallback is that the whole thing is so drug-hazed that these things are to be expected, and should be overlooked, and are even intentional, but there’s surely a difference between a pilled-up Vietnam veteran talking gibberish and an amped-up proofreader’s inability to successfully fact-check.) However, Hystopia still has plenty enough going for it to be considered a success.

Eugene Allen has returned from Vietnam and, as part of a process of catharsis and self-psychiatry, has written an autobiographical novel, Hystopia, which, in true Russian Doll style, is itself nested in an alternate world in which President Kennedy is in his third term of office. The novel-within-the-novel itself constitutes Allen’s fictionalized derangements made somewhat palatable/more conventional, his trauma set to the incessant strains of Iggy Pop and a backdrop of particularly-crazed Vietnam vets run dangerously amok. The novel-within-the-novel also serves as his partial attempt to make some kind of sense, not only out of the Vietnam War, but out of his own pre-war past, neither of which he can recover from.

Allen’s/Means’s novel, as mentioned, owes plenty to the fictional devastations of Robert Stone, who similarly wove cultural milestones with his terrifying, irrevocably damaged milieu of sociopaths and estranged losers. Means, like Stone, makes the political personal, and vice versa, but adds a Philip K. Dick flourish to Hystopia that’s admirable and daring. We’re all familiar with numerous fictional representations of Vietnam: this avoids losing itself in much-visited territory by bringing it all back home, to a post-Vietnam, pre-apocalyptic USA roamed by rogue “failed enfolds” (more on this shortly) who have not had their demons assuaged sufficiently to reintegrate and are, instead, targets for a shady Government faction called Psych Corps, which is “dedicated to maintaining the nation’s mental hygiene by any means necessary.”

Their attempts to do this involve “enfolding” returning combat veterans, which basically means getting rid of traumatic memories with the aid of near-identical re-enactments of the scenarios that plague the afflicted along with heavy doses of the drug Tripizoid. Those enfolded are warned that certain triggers — deeply orgasmic sex or very cold water — can quickly demolish their recovery. Failed enfolds — in this case the horribly damaged and psychopathic Rake character — run amok, addictively and seemingly helplessly reconstructing scenes of violence and torture. Rake is the seething epitome of the forgotten solider thrown back into a country he can no longer understand or inhabit, twisted by his experiences and ready to blow.

Them. It’s us against them and they know it, and the thing about them is that the only thing they really know, if you get my drift, is that they failed me. The failed me big-time by not taking care of me when I returned from the war. They took me down to Texas and put me into one of their re-enactments and pumped me full of Tripizoid, and then all they did was double it down, increase what they were trying to decrease. If they knew how bad I was feeling, they’d never sleep at night. They’d lock the doors and nail the windows. They’d put me in their prayers and ask for protection specifically against me. They’d walk faster and glance back more often.

A member of Psych Corps — Singleton — is, along with another agent, Wendy, drawn towards Rake at the behest of his commanding officer, Klein. Singleton and Wendy are carrying out a clandestine and deeply improper (agents are not meant to become emotionally entangled, particularly not these *spoiler alert*) affair in an Orwellian atmosphere of hawkish surveillance (in which suddenly-solicitous waitresses deliver imprecatory warnings). Klein (who comes across like General Jack D. Ripper meets a cartoon Nixon) is a stream of barked directives and avuncular pep-talk aphorisms, and seems, perhaps by his own design, to have mercurial objectives which Singleton either ignores or mulls over the ambivalence of, eventually taking matters into his own (inevitable, and quite possibly Klein-approved, as it turns out) hands.

Rake, meanwhile, vanishes for days at a time from a backwater ranch set back from the road, in which also resides fellow veteran and buddy Hank (who has a strange accord with trees, a bit of a motif here), Hank’s prone-to-strange-fits mother, and Meg, who Hank loves but who is Rake’s captive obsession. Another character, Haze, forms a combustible and eventually crucial counterpoint to the characters in that strand of the novel, before both parts of Hystopia are finally woven together.

The solemn nature of Hystopia is perhaps inevitable, but the absence of bleak laughs bogs the book down. There is very little by way of levity, and Means’s po-faced, brow-furrowed penchant for hurtling through glum set-pieces runs its own risk: some of the scenes almost topple over into parody. The Rake character is so utterly, indefatigably awful that he can feel facile, a ruined-grunt appliqué, and there are stand-offs, such as the following, which walk a fine line between tense and gigglesome.

The next shot’s going to be between your eyes if you don’t put that pan down and shut the burner off.

You’ll laugh it off when we’re equally armed, Rake said. You let me have a gun so we’re on equal terms and then I’ll know I can trust you, he said.

You think I’d trust you with a gun right now?

I think you let me have a gun, you trust me, I trust you, and we’re on equal terms, Rake said.

You want a gun? Hank said.

That’s right. Let me reach behind and get mine, and I’ll hold it on you and you hold yours on me and we’ll be back where we were before all this started.

Man, Hank said. If I didn’t know you so long I’d think you were crazy. But knowing you as I do, I’ll let you get your gun, he said.

Rake reached around and pulled out his gun and pointed it and said, There. Now we’re both men. Now we’re each facing the same shit.

This kind of thing can be overplayed and veer very close to parody. In attempting to convey the convoluted nature of such psychosis and reinforce his “enfolding” idea, Means sometimes doesn’t seem to know how to grind things to a halt, allowing them instead to crash-land. He’ll then spend pages recultivating a snappy and involving atmosphere only to detonate it again with a slightly overwrought exchange, and so on.

What Hystopia does gives you, for the most part — other than all those things you might well expect (much about the redemptive/healing nature of art, a plea for sanity during similarly insane times, mysticism and stoicism as admirable substitutes for those unwilling to heal, the moral/karmic differentiation between choosing to kill and killing to survive) — is a surprisingly blistering read. For all its knowing complexities and layers of bizarro plot paradoxes, very rarely will you feel particularly lost in the mayhem. Hystopia often reads like a dream, especially when Means sticks to his strong suit; i.e., when he lets the tale do the telling, rather than the characters. Means is a masterful writer of short fiction (a discipline he is certainly better at, judging by his debut effort) and has clearly sought out a suitable subject matter with which to head out beyond twenty-page limitations. For the most part, he pulls off the longer form (though comparisons with Nabokov surely cannot be serious). Occasionally, the material, and his overly-didactic handling of it, takes the book away from him, and the reader, but if you can forgive those instances there’s much here to appreciate.

This is it, man. The real deal. Please disregard other notes and take this one seriously. I’ve been typing like a madman and failed to get the following, not verbatim, but in essence.

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