David Means, known for his “razor-sharp” short stories, meticulously conceives a complex and recondite reality in his debut novel. Hystopia is told as a frame story detailing an alternate historical timeline. Means takes on the Vietnam War, psychology, treatment for veterans, and the nature of storytelling—or rather, story remembering—in this elaborate narrative. Means’s precision, honed on short stories, lends itself well to this work; his characters are sharply drawn, and though the subject matter is complex, he makes the details manageable. His abstruse narrative evokes Tim O’Brien’s words: “Fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth.” Though Means’s work is entirely different in structure and content, it recalls the flexible, broken storylines of O’Brien’s meditations on war; it too asks its readers to understand a kernel of truth about trauma through the specific limitations and abilities of story. Means’s Hystopia is a compulsively readable tangle of memories; it complicates without losing its mystery.
It’s impossible to go any further without a little context. This epistolary tale, told in its entirety as a found manuscript after its fictional author’s suicide, is bookended by fictionalized notes from its author and editor, as well as a series of interviews from parties the fictional author knew; Means folds in the idea of pseudo-autobiography, creating a roman à clef for his narrative author, Eugene Allen. Hystopia details a different United States of the 1960s and 1970s: one where Kennedy’s assassination is unsuccessful, and is followed by a series of additional assassination attempts on the emboldened president. As the Vietnam War continues, the American government pursues a therapeutic program that forces veterans to forget the horrors of war. Anything connected to trauma is removed from the soldiers’ minds with the aid of reenactments and a hallucinogenic drug—a process called enfolding. Yet sometimes this means removing chunks of their history or personal identity. These soldiers are then released into Michigan, to a grid where they can be monitored closely. Therapy in Means’s created world is just like therapy in ours—fallible, and inconsistent. Not all soldiers are treatable; for some, the treatment doesn’t take. Some soldiers begin to “unfold” themselves; they escape the grid. A drive to remember motivates nearly all of Means’s characters. It is their central, collective want, and though it manifests itself differently for each of them, it creates the central tension underlying each of the storylines.
Means’s complex treatment works because it is both specific and paradoxical. “Enfolded memory can be unfolded in two ways,” one of the interviewees tells us in the fictional foreword: “Immersion in cold water. (Extremely cold.)” or “Fantastic, beautiful, orgasmic sex.” Means continues in the story to detail the highly specific code about the process of enfolding. Yet he establishes the enfolding process’s “widely acknowledged bogusness. . . . The paradox was that the cure was actually often effective, so that the claim of its bogus nature was itself partly bogus.” Like so many war narratives, Means’s story relies on both the moral superiority of a strict code, and the paradoxical logic that accompanies strict adherence to one. The Psych Corps, the entity that investigates examples of failed enfolds, exists in a kind of necessary absurdity. The world Means creates for his enfolded (and unfolded) characters is only slightly more logical than the one they face in war. Truth is a flexible commodity, and rumors sometimes hold more power than what actually happens.
For all its codified rules and processes, its abstract ideas about war and stories, the heart of Hystopia is a manhunt. Psych Corps agents (and secret lovers) Singleton and Klein are looking for a failed enfold nicknamed Rake, who has kidnapped an enfold named Meg, and taken her with him on a rampage. This manhunt drives the story and also allows Means to echo, through the two converging narratives, the desire of his characters to piece together their truth. Meg, who lost her love in the war, ruminates on missing time:
That night, in bed, she went over memories. Everything beyond a certain point was a fuzzy abstract feeling in her head. The Causal Events Package, as the nurse had called it, started at an early memory point. She could remember being in her mother’s arms, the coolness of a glass of water held up to her little-girl lips, but after that things vanished into a perplexing blankness until she got to the Grid and Rake’s appearance—even that was fuzzy—and then her days on the road with him.
The tragedy of the enfolding process is that it removes the marginalia of one’s pain, too. If a soldier lost a friend from home in the war, he also lost his childhood memories. Meg is just one of Means’s characters who remembers little of herself. The author’s ability to create complete characters for the reader while including these lapses in their memories is striking. Though his characters are mostly missing themselves, they are true to others and to us. What they tell themselves, what they tell others: these things become more important because of how little they remember.
Hystopia acknowledges, often, and in critical passages, the authentic timeline it draws from. Whether it’s in a parallel the author draws to President Kennedy’s sister, Rosemary, lobotomized in order to render her more docile, or his reference to Hemingway’s influence on the character of both war and soldiers, Means’s work immerses its reader in the problematically entwined cultures of war, storytelling, and psychology. It notes, too, that lies can tell the truth effectively. “There was nothing but lies, Singleton thought, when a man began talking about combat.” Yet Hystopia relies on the idea of people connected through their traumatic stories.
About halfway through the novel, Meg is unfolded by another character who speaks at length about the lie of the story. This long stream-of-consciousness passage seems to get closest to Means’s philosophy about fiction. Though its aggressive, rambling nature makes this section slow going, it offers us perhaps the greatest insight into this matryoshka doll work:
You had to be there. You weren’t there. You should’ve been there. Should’ve been you. Reporters put fear in your eyes. Put fear in your mouth. The grimace. Reporters tell the story: take the hill, lose the hill. Take a hill. Lose a hill. Story has to rotate on an axis, has to spin around the Polaris of fear; story has to make some kind of sense, disassembled and reassembled: all ticker-tape bullshit and journalese code wired back.
Everything told in Hystopia is filtered through layers of fallible memory. There is no true. “Fuck plot and fuck story and fuck the way one thing fits into another and fuck cause and effect, because there wasn’t none, and if there was we didn’t see none of it.” Means understands the subtle conventions of fiction enough to bend them, break them, and throw them out to echo the disjointed nature of the war story. Hystopia is a masterfully broken narrative.
David Means’s Hystopia is many things: a frame story, a war story, a story about stories themselves. But it demonstrates, most clearly, an awareness of itself as a kind of rumor, ineffective in capturing the complete truth, and yet close to the emotional reality of trauma. “It was the kind of rumor that tried to speak of love without saying the word love,” he says near the end of the novel, “and it was the kind of story, however fragmented and varied it became, that retained a core of the validity that its hearers could taste even if they weren’t sure what they were tasting.” Means’s work can be opaque, yet it always illustrates an awareness of purpose. Hystopia is a wild, convoluted ride, the kind of calculated mess that gets to the heart of humanity.
Heather Scott Partington’s writing appears at The Los Angeles Times, Ploughshares’ Blog, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a contributor to Goodreads Voice, Las Vegas Weekly, Electric Literature, and The Rumpus. Heather lives in Elk Grove, California, with her husband and two kids.