“Hystopia,” David Means’ first novel, is about the trauma endured by war veterans, specifically Vietnam veterans, their families and their relatives. Means is a widely published short story writer, whose stories have been collected in four volumes. This novel is one of those novel-within-a-novel novels. The novel within, also called “Hystopia,” is by the fictional Eugene Allen, and comes with notes and interview excerpts from Allen’s fictional editor and friends and relatives. Means defines hystopia as dystopia set in a certain historical period. That period encompasses the late 1960s and early ’70s. Sort of.
In this hystopia, Kennedy has survived the assassination attempt of 1963 and is in his third term. He’s started a program called “Enfolding” that is supposed to cure the trauma of veterans. The program includes ingesting the drug Tripizoid, a treatment deemed better than an acid trip, but originally intended to sedate horses. What could possibly go wrong? Soon the treatment is refined in Michigan, which becomes known as the Psych Project state, with a release area called the Grid. The program works terribly. Many of the treated veterans become raging criminals. The peace movement falls apart. What might have been the Summer of Love becomes the Year of Hate. Riots. Murders. Kidnappings. Arson. It’s up to the Psych Corps to try to keep order and capture escaped enfolds.
Two Psych Corps agents – Singleton, a former vet who’s been successfully enfolded, and Wendy – are tracking the murderous Rake, an enfold who has unfolded his treatment. His credo is, “never kill for a good reason. If you’re going to be a failed enfold, then do it wholeheartedly and with all the gusto you can muster.” He kidnaps Meg from the Grid. Meg was enfolded because she shared the trauma of her lover, a traumatized veteran.
The point of the story is, of course, to highlight the mistreatment and neglect of traumatized veterans. That’s made clear early when Rake says, “They failed me big-time by not taking care of me when I returned from the war … and (they) pumped me full of Tripizoid, as per treatment, and then all they did was double it down, increase what they were trying to decrease.”
Through his surrogate novelist, Means tells an absorbing and entertaining story that’s full of horrific adventure and serious political satire of a trippier sort than that other war satire, “Catch-22,” which doesn’t exist in Eugene Allen’s world – the book or the phrase.
Means succeeds in detailing a surrealistic look at the perils of post-traumatic stress, but some of the drugged-up violence is hard to take. And chunks of the book are written with the psychotic exuberance of Tripizoidal voices. Here’s part of a 15-page diatribe about the war in Vietnam.
“The texture of history; the rubbery material it’s made out of – say, latex. No. Something stronger than latex that can stretch out to a pure translucence until it’s nothing but a molecule thick, man, not even that. You had to be high to be there. Listen up, man, let me tell you, they can’t reproduce the shit I went through, Tripizoid or no Tripizoid it isn’t going to work for me. No confusion (some guy said, raising his fingers up in the V sign). Don’t give me that Walter Cronkite that’s-the-way-it-is bullshit, man; I don’t care who’s directing the reenactment chamber, I’m gonna out-Hector Hector, man, and there ain’t nothing to be said.”
Reading bursts of drug-addled prose left me with a headache and the sense that I was enfolding and unfolding myself. “Hystopia” is an interesting but sometimes difficult read, which, like much serious fiction about war, poses only more questions and offers no definitive answers.
By David Means
Farrar, Straus Giroux 320 pages