Hystopia: A Novel Hardcover – April 19, 2016
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“The most ambitious novel of 2016 so far, Hystopia might also be the last thing we expected in a first novel by the veteran storyteller David Means: a counterfactual narrative by a Vietnam veteran about his experience in a therapeutic, psychedelics-based trauma recovery program initiated by an unassassinated John F. Kennedy, with a Kinbote–like editorial apparatus attached. The concept is high, but the hardscrabble Means we’ve known for years is still present and in command.” ―Christian Lorentzen, New York
“Supremely gonzo and supremely good . . . If Flannery O'Connor had written about Vietnam, Rake is the kind of character she would have created. . . What is the relation between the chaos of lived experience and the coherence of narrative? How is trauma tied to the fracturing of narrative, to our inability to see the past as past, distinct from, yet leading to the present?” ―Anthony Domestico, The Boston Globe
“Hystopia quickly gains momentum and plausibility thanks to its richness of detail. Means is a writer of dazzling gifts: a challenging stylist and a keen observer whose senses seem, at times, pitched to a state of hyperawareness . . .Means writes beautifully about the natural world, effortlessly conjuring the sound of wind, the smell of Lake Michigan through the pines, 'the dry, lonely sizzle of cicadas going about their afternoon business.” ―Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review
“[A] wild, multi-layered and deeply affecting novel . . . Means conjures a haunting, almost dreamlike aesthetic akin to that of Terrence Malick’s 1973 film Badlands. His eye for detail is microscopic, and the natural world in particular is beautifully evoked . . . this rich novel takes us far beyond Vietnam-era America; it is a potent examination of what makes, and keeps, us human.” ―Francesca Wade, Financial Times
“David Means’s Hystopia is the boldest alternate history novel in years . . . A debut novel that reinvents a genre . . . In his fidelity to a peculiarly American brokenness, Means’ debut surpasses nearly all of his recent peers.” ―Flavorwire
“Hystopia by David Means is a fascinating novel within a novel. Complex without being confusing, the novel weaves Eugene’s own battles with mental illness and his sister’s disappearance into a beautiful, haunting tale of loss.” ―Nancy Hightower, The Washington Post
"Hystopia, David Means’s dark acid trip of a novel, reads like a phantasmagorical . . . mash-up of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Michael Herr’s Vietnam classic, Dispatches . . . It's a meditation on war (not just Vietnam, Mr. Means suggests, but the continuum of combat that links veterans through history) and the toll it takes on soldiers and families and loved ones. It's also a portrait of a troubled America in the late 1960s and early '70s--an America reeling from unemployment and lost dreams, and seething with anger, and uncannily familiar, in many ways, to America today.” ―Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"Hystopia, which follows a group of Vietnam War veterans trying to piece together what has happened to them, is a story about storytelling and the splintered shards through which accounts of trauma demand to be told. Here we find Means pushing on the structural bounds of the novel, testing their soundness to collect the disjointedness of unformulated experience. The effect is powerful and expansive . . . Hystopia gets at how storytelling is potentially therapeutic, alleviating the burden by sharing with others, but also fraught with outsider misunderstanding. ―Chantal McStay, BOMB
“[Hystopia] 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.” ―Ian Swalwell, The Kansas City Star
"In Hystopia, [Means] focuses on people affected in various ways by the Vietnam War, but in a bold move for a débutant novelist, he presents both an alternative history and a novel-within-a-novel, transforming his tale into a comment on how art and literature are very often used to twist reality into a comforting yet ultimately false shape . . . [Means] has produced one of those rare, self-conscious books that operates on multiple levels, alluding to its own insufficiency while paradoxically becoming sufficient as a result. It works as a stylized reimagining of the Vietnam era, it works as an indirect revelation of the emotional truth of this same era, and it works as a subtle critique of the inability of stories and narratives to truly compensate when more than stories and narratives are needed." ―Simon Chandler, Electric Literature
"The very structure of Hystopia, his first novel, is a testament to Means’s belief in the power of stories that demand to be told . . . Some stories, Means suggests, are so explosive that they invite countless retelling, shedding new light―and darkness, too. In the real world, as in Mean's novel, America has, of course, remained trapped in war. Means has a profound respect for the nation's actual explosive history; his plot gleefully alters details, but not the basic themes of the story, or their violent outcomes." ―Amy Weiss-Meyer, The Atlantic
“Hystopia’s critique of Vietnam is Means’s most realistic work to date, and its picture of social breakdown feels horribly believable, given the questions about civil rights, foreign wars and future leadership that Americans are asking today. Ultimately, like all Means’s work, this is about the human condition. How do we behave when our cultural and mental strength has been destroyed and replaced by a blundering government intent on doping us into submission? In the hysterical, dystopian history that is Hystopia there are no easy answers and no happy endings, just an intense and scary story of survival.” ―Melissa Katsoulis, The Times (UK)
“The horrors of war, especially the traumas of America’s experience in Vietnam, birthed the recursive, thickly ironized literary sensibility we call postmodernism. David Means’s violent, mind-warped novel-within-a-novel Hystopia is a throwback to this style’s heyday, a drug-addled nightmare version of American history nodding in the direction of Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson . . . Hystopia’s tale-swallowing metafiction ingeniously embodies the self-replicating mental prisons of war trauma (in Allen’s telling, even enfolded veterans feel caged inside their forgetfulness).” ―Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
"Brilliant . . . the writing is beautiful and exuberant, moving and funny, and always one step ahead. The descriptions of getting stoned are as vivid as the landscapes. Means s characters live in a state of constant sensory attention that keeps them always attuned to the texture . . . the smell of lakes and trees, the taste of carbon." ―Christine Smallwood, Harper's
"David Means, an excellent American short story writer, brings his exceptional talent to the fore in his first novel . . . [Hystopia] is a profoundly important book. It demonstrates the futility of war for all who have taken part." ―Michael D. Langan, The Buffalo News
"Hystopia is a thrilling novel daring, immensely readable, and also unexpectedly funny. David Means is that lucky (and brilliant) writer: a man in full possession of a vision." ―Richard Ford
“Means, up to now a short-story writer, brings rigorous interiority to the characters enmeshed in a violent, careening plot, along with weird digressions and meta-textual flourishes reminiscent of Pynchon at his righteous angriest.” ―Boris Kachka, New York
“Subtle yet evocative . . . there is a lot to unpack in this novel whose central themes include, but are hardly limited to, trauma, memory and violence . . . [Means is] a writer of imagination and vision, someone for whom history is not ossified but still very much alive, and rich with possibilities for reinvention.” ―Shoshana Olidort, Chicago Tribune
“David Means’s debut novel, Hystopia, is wonderfully peculiar: It’s a war novel that feels on top of the emotions war evokes now while avoiding the well-worn modes of stark realism or over-the-top satire . . . Hystopia‘s structure implicates the reader more than the average war novel, suggesting that we’ve been on our own Tripizoid bender in response to a barrage of news stories. And by framing the book as an alternative reality tale, Means finds a third way into the war novel ― neither Naked and the Dead serious nor as satirical as Heller or Vonnegut. The mood is unrealistic, but only just so, and thick with dread.” ―Mark Athitakis, Barnes & Noble Review
"A compelling, imaginative alternative-history tale about memory and distress . . . By turns disturbing, hilarious, and absurd, Means's novel is also sharply penetrating in its depiction of an America all too willing to bury its past." ―Booklist (starred review)
"After four story collections, Means delivers his first novel, and it s a dazzling and singular trip . . . Means writes stunning prose and draws his characters with verve . . . [Hystopia] reads like an acid flashback, complete with the paranoia, manic monologues, and violent visions, proving that some traumas never go away." ―Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"[David Means's] work is precise, relentless, unsentimental, an art of missed opportunities and missed connections, tracing, more than anything, the inevitability of loss. These same themes mark his first novel but in a manner we haven't seen before. It's not just the difference between long and short, although one of the pleasures of this dark and complex work is to see Means stretch out. Even more, however, it's the novel's manic energy, its mix of realism and satire, set in an alternative universe . . ―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"For every politician who launches a misbegotten war, there is a writer who says kaddish. The Edgar Allan Poe who went to West Point would have admired this ghost-haunted book. More: he would have comprehended its liminality." ―Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, author of The Watch
"David Means takes us on a twisted, revelatory trip to the darkest corners of American life in the long shadow of the Vietnam War. Summon the courage to go along and you will be amply rewarded. Terrifying and beautiful, Hystopia defies every evasion or sentimentality in its resolute evocation of a history our culture so readily avoids. Robert Stone would be proud." ―Christian G. Appy, Professor of History, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity
"A riveting, hypnotic dystopia of Vietnam combat veterans during the (fictional) second JFK administration. Amazing writing not for the faint of heart. Nuggets of beauty glowing in a pan of pain." ―Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D., author of Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America
"Brilliant. Nothing but. Hystopia goes straight to the heart of the American darkness, that most strange and twisted place where our wars, those perfect storms of high-tech mayhem and idiot blunder, cohabit with what we love to advertise as our virtue, our freedoms, our God-blessed mission to save the world. David Means's extraordinary book bends history to paraphrase one of the novel's characters no less violently than we've bent ourselves with our non-stop warmaking of the past fifty years." ―Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
About the Author
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Here’s where I try to tell you what it’s about. Okay, so it’s the late 1960s, the Vietnam War is raging on, and Kennedy is about to enter his third term in office. In this revisionist history, the U.S. government has created a federal agency called Psych Corps tasked with addressing the mental health crisis that plagues returning veterans. This treatment is pretty much Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for war veterans: they administer a drug combined with immersive therapy that, when successful, erases their memories.
Hystopia follows two separate by related plot lines, destined to converge: In one plot line, Rake, a disturbed veteran who resisted treatment, kidnaps a mentally ill woman named Meg and takes her along with him on a deranged killing spree. Meanwhile, two Psych Corps agents — one of whom underwent the treatment himself — fall in love and find themselves on a mission to track down Rake.
But the strangest thing is that the story might not actually be about what we think it’s about — because, as we find out right up front, Hystopia is actually a story within a story, written by a veteran named Eugene trying to process his own grief.
Sound weird yet? It definitely is. As I was reading it, I kept thinking to myself, “I really hope this all comes together in a satisfying way.” It’s a very challenging book, so as a reader, you kind of need that satisfaction to justify the effort. Luckily, it delivered.
I can’t say that I fully understand what I just read, but I can tell you that it evoked all sorts of deep emotions in me anyway. When it comes down to it, it’s a sad story that confronts heavy, important themes — from war trauma and mental illness to grief and love — leaving us to question the depths of our own resilience.
It is very difficult to write fiction this layered and complex yet still keep it accessible. But this is how Means writes and I, for one, love it. In the annals of what I call "speculative historical fiction," this one will be remembered alongside Roth's The Plot Against America. However, rather than take the plot device at face value, Means almost lovingly polishes even the most depraved character into stunning full development. There's mystery, humor, suspense and beautiful descriptions/dialogue throughout.
Means may well be on his way to crafting an interconnected mythology of work, much like Roberto Bolaño--who, like Means, was also a poet. Seems strange to say, but if Walt Whitman were to write a Vietnam novel with a Pharmaceutical Apocalypse, it just might resemble Hystopia.
Hystopia is a “war novel,” in vein of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, but it’s also several love stories wound together, it’s about executive overreach, it’s a man-hunt, an investigation, a mystery, and a tale of hope and frustration. The characters struggle to reclaim memories, to find themselves and figure out how they fit into relationships, their work, and their nation. More than anything, it’s a novel about trauma—individual trauma, familial trauma, local trauma, and national trauma—and each character wrestles with how to come to terms with his or her own trauma.
Means’ home state of Michigan stands in for the nation during the transition from the Summer of Love to the Summer of Hate, and through the struggles of the Civil Rights movement. The historically accurate Detroit Fires instead rage through the entire state and reflect the anger and frustration of the nation. This flashpoint is also mirrored by the rise of the punk movement. Punk is ever-present throughout the novel via an Ann Arbor radio station that only plays Iggy Pop and the Stooges. Though such a channel didn’t really exist, it should have. Whatever “love” psychedelia ushered in to the nation, punk was a middle finger to the establishment and an expression of the frustration felt by so many. In a novel that makes literary allusions to The Wasteland, Flannery O’Connor, Melville, and others, it should be no surprise that the Iggy All The Time radio station is what the characters—good and evil—in Hystopia seek out for comfort and consolation.
Top international reviews
The bulk of the text is a conspiracy theory story in an alternative history of the United States (clearly grounded in alternative reality by the survival of President Kennedy and his election to a third term in office) where Vietnam veterans are given medication to forget the horrors they have seen. This process – enfolding – does not always work and rogue veterans who resist the drug or start to unfold end up in Michigan, dodging the authorities and re-enacting the atrocities of war. Very specifically, we follow the pursuit of Rake, an unfolded vet who has hooked up with Meg Allen, Hank and Haze, by Singleton and Wendy, two officers in the Psych Corps. Singleton and Rake share a common history in Vietnam, but represent the different paths that veterans can follow, depending on whether they enfold or remain unfolded.
The whole thing is quite trippy, quite violent and quite pointless. Neither side seems to have any strategic objective. Both seem to be driven by powers they don’t control. And it’s certainly not a good versus evil thing – whilst the Psych Corps clearly represent “The Man” and Rake clearly represents The Individual, Rake is a violent and abusive man who is a danger to everyone he meets. Overall, I suppose it just represents an unhappy state of affairs – how do you resolve the dilemma of society and the self – answer: don’t start here.
It is very well told, switching narrative perspectives between both sides – albeit both sides told by the same strong unseen narrative voice. This allows a balance to be struck between action and editorial comment; there is a dose of philosophy coming through the narrator without having to put inauthentic expository dialogue into the mouths of the characters.
But here’s the rub. The narrator, Eugene Allen, is a character himself in the bookending opening and closing sections. These portray the core as a fiction written by Eugene to reconcile himself to the fate of his sister Meg and the grief she experienced at the death of her lover, Billy, in Vietnam. We have snippets of letters, interviews with friends and neighbours, authorial notes and editorial notes. The alternative history is set clearly as fiction, with the bookended sections presented as reality. This turns the gigantic conspiracy of the novel with its titanic characters into nothing more than a personal fantasy created to spite Eugene’s sister’s unsuitable friends.
Then again, the wise reader will realise that just as Rake is a character created by Eugene, so Eugene is a character created by David Means. In which case, perhaps Eugene was created just to tell the core story that might carry some greater truth…
And it would be great if we could have a little blue pill that would make us forget all our troubles. Wouldn’t it?
I don't know much about the Vietnam war, or American history around that time, which I don't think helped my grip on the book. To appreciate an alternate history, you need to understand the 'real' history and context to start with. It couldn't understand why Kennedy not being killed would have led to this state of affairs. I never fully grasped what the purpose of the 'Psych Corps' was and why they had some of the strange rules they did (like agents not being allowed to associate with each other). This was a major problem since the plot is concerned with two agents (who aren't supposed to work together) pursuing a crazed veteran who has kidnapped a mind-wiped girl and gone on a killing spree. It may be that it was all explained, but it couldn't hold my attention well enough for me to absorb it. I did skim read parts out of boredom and the desire to finish quickly.
If you like clever books that are more about literary brilliance than telling a good story, then you may well like this - it has good reviews and been nominated for prizes and so on. If you have a good knowledge of the Vietnam war and American history around that time you may also find it easier to relate to. For those who like me want something that tells a good story that they can enjoy reading, with characters they relate to, this is unlikely to be a good choice.
Une prose moderne et splendide, une histoire abracadabrante et des personnages auxquels on s'attache. Lecture exigeante comme tous les grands romans, mais un de ceux que je n'oublierai pas de sitôt.
A fascinating novel, one of a kind. David Means recreates the period of the assassination of JFK and the return of traumatized Veterans whom the Government is trying to heal by recreating their trauma and using a drug that enfolds the traumatic event. Obviously, this is not without consequences.
A modern and splendid prose, a crazy story and characters one gets to love. Reading as demanding as all the great novels, but one that I will not soon forget.