'Hystopia' Envisions an Alternate Vietnam War-Era America

In this Aug. 14, 1966 photo, U.S. Army soldiers wait for a helicopter to pick up the body of a fallen comrade. (U.S. Army/Paul Epley)
In this Aug. 14, 1966 photo, U.S. Army soldiers wait for a helicopter to pick up the body of a fallen comrade. (U.S. Army/Paul Epley)

David Means' highly anticipated debut novel, "Hystopia," takes the reader to an alternate but fully realized America, set during the Vietnam War.

The reader enters the novel through notes from fictional Editors, reminiscent of Mark Z. Danielewski's "House of Leaves." These Editors are giving context to the novel within a novel, also called "Hystopia," written by a young Vietnam veteran named Eugene Allen. He committed suicide after completing it.

In his third term of office, President John F. Kennedy instates the Psych Corps to rehabilitate the countless young veterans returning from the failing Vietnam War. The process, called enfolding, relies heavily on the drug Tripizoid to destroy harmful memories.

When the enfolding of a veteran called Rake goes awry, his suffering and his violent nature are doubled, making his painful memories more intense. He kidnaps a woman named Meg, who has also been enfolded, and forces her to bear witness as he goes on a murder spree, espousing his thoughts on government, war, drugs and memory. The plot is driven by the efforts of Agent Singleton, another vet who has been enfolded, to stop Rake's spree.

Most of the novel takes place in a bleak vision of Michigan, but despite the constant state of loss, cynicism, drug abuse and violence, Means really gets to display his talent for description.

Even when evoking tedium, Means does so elegantly: "The last of the industrial surge, cars partly formed, their frames and skeletal strutwork floating down the line, bucking slightly from the conveyor jerk, surrounded by the pop of pneumatic guns and bolt drivers as he punched the rivets quickly and then stood back, looking sadly down the line at the other men who seemed caught in a perplexity of automated movement, waiting for the next door to arrive."

The true themes of the novel are notably prescient. It is about war; not just one specific war, but the cycles of violence that human beings subject one another to. Are we better served forgetting the worst atrocities we have seen (or perpetrated), or is it more beneficial to confront them directly and soberly? Means examines this complicated question without a hint of cliche.

There are a few slow parts, at times when the world-building is done via long dialogue, or when the climax comes into view. However, the touching characterizations and thought-provoking issues are more than enough to sustain readers through these small segments.

Means' abilities were already cemented in his four collections of short fiction, including "Assorted Fire Events" and "The Secret Goldfish." It is impressive and exciting to see him write in a longer form.

The novel tackles broad subjects; even if such issues cannot ever be fully resolved, it does not fall into pretentiousness. It is simultaneously heartbreaking, bitingly funny, realistic and satirical; the hoops it asks readers to jump through regarding structure and authorial intent are a joy, not a burden. It successfully finds a fresh approach to war fiction.

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