David Means’s Hystopia is a much-anticipated novel–deservedly so, let me say up front–that looks at both veterans of the Vietnam War and two young women whose boyfriends were killed there–from a mostly Surreal perspective, or, one might say, from the perspectives of those on a variety of mind-altering drugs, and/or somewhere in between these different mind sets and perspectives. Hystopia is, however you may look at it, one of the four best novels about The Vietnam War to date–of which there have been many, almost all of which I have read (the other finest are Denis Johnson’s very impressionistic Tree of Smoke; Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn, which centers around the kinds of male bonding that war establishes, and, the best of them all, John Del Vecchio’s The Thirteenth Valley, which describes in excruciating detail the descent into hell that this war was for so many of the troops who fought in Vietnam).
Means’s novel is, amongst many other things, a novel within a novel, adding a whole other layer where we, the readers, wonder what’s “fact” and what’s “fictive” about the account, written by a soldier whose sister is one of its main characters. Means’s main trope: returning soldiers with violent tendencies caused by the Vietnam war–though some of the men may have tended towards violence before they went–are treated by a government sponsored “Psych Corps”; through drugs and whatever kind of counseling, they are “enfolded”, which means that they are made to forget what happened to them in Vietnam, what traumas gave them what we now call PTSD; each soldier or grieving wife/girlfriend will be forced to enact the actual trauma on an invented battlefield (quite an impressive riff on those men who actually live for the reenactment of old battles from old wars); after the trauma is relived, they are drugged (welcome to the 21st century: better living through chemistry) and are unable to remember what happened to them. This vast government-sponsored program takes place in Michigan, at least in this novel, during an invented third Presidency of John F. Kennedy, who is in charge of this vast program and who approves of its invention. A strange paranoia pervades much of the book, strange in its incredible persuasiveness, as one isn’t certain who’s spying on whom, whether people are put together randomly or deliberately by higher-ups. Those who have been “enfolded” are warned that certain forces, such as cold water and ecstatic sex, will “unfold” them, and thus they’ll remember their original traumas, and, presumably, go completely insane. Or so they’re told.
Five main characters dominate the book, three men and two women, and the reader has to decide whom to trust, whom each of them should trust, whether they’re being set up or being unenfolded, and the like. Trust is something that would be considered ludicrous–that key theme of this novel is depressingly sad and becoming a truism in the America of today, at least as Means sees things. And riots are occurring all over Michigan, which is being, more or less, burnt to the ground by a variety of roaming bands; everyone seems to be looking for a Vietnam veteran named Rake, who’s caused untold damage, goes on murder sprees, and who represents the farthest pole of evil in this novel. Suffice it to say that the five main characters will partly unenfold, and discover that they all knew one another/interfaced with one another/interconnect back in the war days. Means lets them (and us readers) figure out these connections slowly, and it’s possible that what’s found to be true may be little more than drug-induced hallucinations, as well. I wasn’t certain who should be trusted until the very end, and I’m still not certain that I was entirely right: that’s how we are inducted in this dystopian world, and how Means’ s world of paranoia is so convincingly rendered. And since the novel’s a novel within a novel, we have to wonder whether the invented author of the novel within has invented some things or not: concentric circles of paranoia exist, and, of course, Means is proposing how difficult it is for any of us to remember things accurately, much less men and women who’ve suffered from severe traumas. Hystopia gives us the horror of the returned/ruined veteran as well as any novel to date: we readers will try to look under the surfaces of these people to either try to find the psychological origins of their violence, or to hope that some decency resides in these people, whether anarchy is a possible reality in the not too distant future, and where love, of all things, may make a difference in the lives of the emotionally wrecked. And there’s also the possibility that the Psych Corps is behind all the wanderings and the search for Rake, the most violent of them all, as a way to test two of their operatives’ loyalty to the Corps, or whether their commander is setting them free, understanding that they’re “unenfolding” (etc.). Since the realities through which the characters have lived is beyond credulity, the horrors they’ve survived beyond the pale, why should “regular” life be any better? And who’s running the shop?
Means’s descriptions of Michigan’s Northern Peninsula are especially beautiful, haunting. One of the surviving four characters has an understanding of nature that will enable the four, two men and two women, to escape the violence of the raging fires and riots–or so we think, and we’re never sure, but the author does slip in moments of amazing beauty, which are that much more haunting given the violence surrounding everything and everyone.
I’m not aware of any other novel or writer who’s chosen to explain the plight of the Vietnam veteran beginning with their return from Vietnam; occasional flashbacks occur, when the characters “unenfold”, but for those of us who care enough about all of our vets and those whose traumatic deaths and/or injuries plague them to this day from all sorts of wars, Means gives us real glimmers into the minds of those whose lives have been ruined by Vietnam, and force us to some understanding of what it’s like to live in their violence-obsessed brains. Occasional flashes of humor also pop up here and there, gentling the relentless horrors of the book. I suspect that Hystopia’s a novel that our college youth could and should read, both for the descriptions of PTSD, of an America where violence has run rampant, and for the amazing quality of the writing, its hallucinatory qualities, and for the Surrealism that Means describes as a way of living every day. This novel is a near masterpiece, one of the year’s finest to date, and refreshingly unlike any recent novel.