With four acclaimed short story collections under his belt, it was high time for a David Means novel. It is called Hystopia and it is wonderful.
The premise is ambitious: What if Lee Harvey Oswald’s aim was slightly off and John F. Kennedy not only survived that fateful day in November, 1963, but went on to survive regular assassination attempts? What if JFK then served three consecutive terms? What if the Vietnam War became as endless and self-perpetuating as our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan? What if, through a psychotropic process known as “enfolding,” returning vets had their memories wiped clean… but not quite?
Hystopia is a “framed story” in three sections, including a novel-within-a-novel. It examines a fictional author, Eugene Allen, who committed suicide after writing Hystopia. In other words, nothing can be taken at face value. Like the central characters, the reader is constantly digging for the truth. In the world of Hystopia, the truth is accessible only through “orgasmic sex,” “cold-water dunking,” and doses of a drug called Tripizoid.
I like to think of Hystopia as a Poetic Pharmaceutical Apocalypse. For while the psychotropic plot device of Tripizoid propels the characters forward in this retelling of history, Means never lets things devolve into hallucinogenic parody. The prose is beautifully rendered. The story arc has a romantically entangled pair of “Psych Corps agents” (Singleton and Wendy) on a collision course with another couple (Hank, a vet, and Meg, the mentally unstable sister of Eugene Allen). Hank and Meg are being controlled by a psychopath named Rake. Civil war seems imminent, if not underway; motorcycle gangs roam the land; the flaws of “enfolding” have become apparent. After seven attempts, JFK is finally assassinated. Everything is unraveling in an Armageddon of sex and violence.
Means’ home state of Michigan, the setting for many of his short stories, feels like a character in the novel. In fact, the title story of Means’ collection The Spot eventually became Hystopia and it is where novel’s two rogue characters first appear: Meg Allen and a narrator who might be Hystopia’s enigmatic Billy-T. However, this is not to say Hystopia is merely an expanded version of “The Spot”—the book is the book and the story is the story. Fans of David Means might wonder if Hystopia marks the beginning of a literary mythology similar to Roberto Bolaño’s body of work. Bolaño, like Means, was also a poet.
Speaking of poetry, I very much enjoyed the Whitmanesque, tree-loving character of Hank:
“You’re a man of the woods,” Singleton said.
“No, I’m a man of the forest. There’s a big difference between the two, but I’ll spare you the lecture right now.”
Hank’s levelheaded, protective devotion of Meg, the way he’s mastered his violent past through his love of nature, provide some of the best moments in the book. Hank says to Singleton:
“There must be a catchphrase for someone in a situation that is simply not winnable, for a road that splits into two options that are just as bad. Two roads that lead back to the original option.”
This sums up the entire point of Hystopia: The novel-within-a-novel and the reality of the Vietnam War are equally, insane.
The blighted, dichotomous state of Michigan with its two separate landmasses is the perfect arena for this tale. Certain details seem prescient. The idea of urban destruction alongside dense wilderness has actually come to pass in Detroit, where nature has reclaimed vast abandoned sections of once-thriving suburbia to the point where hunters are often invited to cull the exploding deer population. Trees grow in the middle of once-paved streets; block after block of burned-out houses. And then there’s the sad city of Flint, which figures so prominently in this book that one must be reminded: Means completed his novel well before the current water crisis scandal. But oh, how the current disaster makes Hystopia seem all the more plausible.
Much of the narrative comes from Singleton’s “report” that he’ll be turning in to the Psych Corps. The constant attention paid to the report intentionally wears the reader down, as it does to Singleton’s lover, Wendy, who finally says: “Enough with the report.” But that’s the point. The report itself is another subtle indictment of the Vietnam War, where U.S. generals often wrote their battle plan after the fact, making the war itself a work of fiction. In a recent interview, Means states: “History is delusional. Not just an illusion, it’s a delusion. America is this giant country, so it has these big delusions, and history is where delusions play out. That’s where our delusions of who we are take place—not in the present moment, not in the future, but in the past.”
African-Americans seem absent from Means’ Hystopia hellscape. At first I found this a little odd. Then it dawned on me that it sort of makes sense: the Vietnam War hit African Americans especially hard. In Hystopia’s protracted aftermath of ‘Nam it is easy to envision that segment of the population has been vaporized by the Southeast Asian holocaust.
Means adroitly employs 60s and 70s pop-culture touchstones such as the Beatles, Stones, Sinatra, and Iggy Pop. The Stooges are often mentioned as everyone’s favorite band; the predatory motorcycle gang is named Black Flag. In this manner, Means accelerates the rise of Punk culture in America by about ten years, effectively preempting the bubblegum 70s. I am grateful to report that you won’t find any mention of The Brady Bunch or Donna Summer in Hystopia. The recently departed Morley Safer makes an appearance as a young reporter; there’s even a nod to contemporary Walking Dead lore with a wreck of a character named Zomboid.
Which brings me to the plot device of Tripizoid. The best period pieces are really about today. And what better way to hold a mirror to our current era than a pill designed to eliminate all reminders of a ghastly, endless foreign entanglement? One need look no further than the explosion of returning combat veteran suicides and the Big Pharma-driven opioid epidemic to understand the relevance of Hystopia. In my job as a creative writing instructor for veterans suffering from PTSD, I hear and read echoes of Singleton, Meg, Hank—even Rake.
The Michigan of David Means’ brilliant debut novel is actually modern America. And we don’t need no Tripizoid—we have TMZ.