Author: David Means
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Summary (from inside flap): At the bitter end of the 1960s, after surviving multiple assassination attempts, President John F. Kennedy is entering his third term in office. The Vietnam War rages on, and the president has created a vast federal agency, the Psych Corps, dedicated to maintaining the nation’s mental hygiene by any means necessary. Soldiers returning from the war have their battlefield traumas “enfolded” – wiped from their memories through drugs and therapy – while veterans too damaged to be enfolded roam at will in Michigan, evading the government and reenacting atrocities on civilians. This destabilized version of American history is the vision of twenty-two-year-old Eugene Allen, who has returned from Vietnam to write the book-within-a-book at the center of Hystopia. In conversation with some of the greatest war narratives, from Homer’s Iliad to the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” David Means channels the voice of Allen, the young veteran out to write a novel that can bring honor to those he fought with in Vietnam while also capturing the tragic history of his own family.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am currently attempting to read the entire Man Booker 2016 long list before October 25th, when the winner will be announced. So far I have read two of the thirteen, both of which I have written full reviews of – The North Water by Ian McGuire and My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. Hystopia by David Means is my third Man Booker read. I’ve decided to take a little break and read some other books before continuing with the long list, so this may be my last Man Booker post for a week or two.
“When I start to feel the urge to recite poetry, I know we’re about done for the day. And I feel that urge. In that war you had a superabundance of highly educated men in the trenches carrying a working knowledge of Greek and Latin, reading Hardy and Dickens, filled with a desire to capture in words the way a sunrise or sunset looked from the bottom of the trench, or the way it felt to do a stand-to at dusk or twilight. All we’re getting from this war is the desire to write rock-and-roll lyrics.”
Disclaimer – I didn’t finish this book!
Before I begin this review, I want to make sure that it is absolutely clear that I did not finish this book. I got about halfway through Hystopia – around 173 pages – but eventually I decided there were other books I wanted to read and set it down. Under normal circumstances I would not be writing a full review of a book I didn’t finish, but as I’ve promised to share my thoughts on the Man Booker long list you’re getting this review. Please, please keep in mind that my thoughts and opinions are based off the first half of the book only, and I may have changed my mind if I had read this novel in its entirety.
The Structure of Hystopia
As mentioned briefly in the blurb I included above, Hystopia is a book-within-a-book. David Means has created the fictional character of Eugene Allen, a twenty-two year old Vietnam vet who has returned from the war to write his novel, which is also titled Hystopia. The entire book is set up as if it were a copy of Allen’s novel we were reading and not a book by David Means: we start off with editor’s notes about the historical events Allen altered to make his fictional world work, and these editor’s notes are followed by comments from Allen’s friends, family and neighbors, as well as writings left behind by the author himself. Like any other novel, these introductory notes are followed by the full text of Allen’s novel Hystopia, and at the end are more notes and writings from Allen.
I actually think the way that Means has structured his novel is extremely, extremely clever. The introductory notes at the beginning are about twenty pages long and are extremely confusing at first because they talk about the novel without any context, however if you push through them the actual novel part is much more interesting. Also, it’s really fascinating to look at how the “real” events of Allen’s life translate into his fictional creation Hystopia. I promise this format makes much more sense if you read this book, but if you try and describe it with words alone you just end up twisting yourself into knots, like I’m doing right now. 🙂
“…fate was whatever you see when luck begins to make sense. It’s a retroactive thing, yeah, but it starts to speak and you listen to it and then it seems to have a shape. he said.”
The Plot Itself
Alright, so now that I’ve gotten structure out of the way it’s time to get to the meat and potatoes: the plot of Hystopia. As I mentioned earlier I did only read half of this novel, however from what I could gather from the bit I read there are two separate but connected plots running through the center of this novel. The first plot follows a man named Rake, a deeply disturbed Vietnam vet who runs around the state of Michigan murdering people and leaving weird symbols behind at the scenes of his crimes as a trail for the police. Sometime before the story starts, Rake kidnaps a young (young-ish, probably teenage) girl named Meg, who is now accompanying him on his weird, murderous travels. The second plot follows two agents from the Psych Corps, Klein and Singleton, who are working to catch Rake. Romantic relationships between Psych Corps’ agents are against regulation, however Singleton becomes involved with another agent Wendy and the two of them begin to question everything their society is based upon.
But wait, there’s more! In the fictional America of Hystopia, President JFK was never killed and is now entering his third term (the story takes place in the late 1960s). President Kennedy creates this massive federal agency called the Psych Corps whose job is to “cure” the disturbed veterans returning home from the Vietnam War. This “cure” is comprised of a process known as enfolding, where troubled veterans have the disturbing bits of their memory wiped away through a combination of drugs and therapy. Anything at all remotely related to the trauma gets wiped, which means that if it was somehow connected to a veteran’s childhood their childhood memories are now gone.
Many of the main characters in Hystopia have undergone the process of enfolding, which makes for quite a confusing plot. Gradually, as the novel progresses, the characters start to remember more of the details of who they are and what happened to them in their past, but readers don’t start with this information and the plot is only revealed in short glimpses here and there.
“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 much of it.”
There is no doubt about it: Hystopia is an extremely confusing novel. It’s also an extremely brilliant novel, I’m sure, but also very, very confusing. The best term I can use to describe the experience of reading this novel is dream-like: you feel like you’ve woken up in the middle of someone else’s dream and you’re wandering around trying to figure out what’s going on and who the heck all of these people are.
I was really excited about Hystopia when I first saw the Man Booker long list, however I unfortunately didn’t really enjoy it. I 100% admire what Means is trying to do here, I just personally thought that this wasn’t the book for me. Perhaps if I had read all the way to the end I would have had some profound revelation and a completely better understanding of this novel and what Means was trying to achieve, but I decided there were other books I wanted to read before the summer was over. One thing I can say about this with complete certainty, however, is that the writing is compulsively readable. That, and the fact that the story is set in Michigan (my home state) are really the reasons I kept going with this novel for so long, otherwise I probably would have given up much earlier.
So, if you’re wondering whether or not you should give Hystopia a go, I say try it! If you’re looking for something with a unique structure, maybe this is the book for you. If you’re looking for an alternate history or a book that deals with the mental impacts of a war, maybe this is the book for you. If you’re looking to step outside your comfort zone a little bit, maybe this is the book for you. Personally, I found that it wasn’t the book for me, but I’m glad I gave it a go.
Have you read Hystopia? Are there any alternate history books you’ve read and really loved? Let me know down in the comments. 🙂