Hystopia

hystopiaThe Short Version: After a Vietnam vet’s suicide, his mother discovered a manuscript of a novel that seemed to take place in a reality just next to their own, about Vietnam and the plight of returning vets. But even the vet’s reality is one far removed from our own, where JFK survived six assassination attempts and held a third term – and where returning vets were “enfolded” to help process their PTSD…

The Review: I had such high hopes for this book. The premise, or at least the premise of the book’s universe, is a fascinating one: Kennedy survived Oswald’s assassination attempt (funny enough, this is the second book I’ve read lately that posits this, albeit in radically different ways) and another five attempts to make it to 1970 (and a third term). In response to the Vietnam War, he creates the Psych Corps, a massive federal bureaucracy that’s meant to treat returning vets with drugs and a process called “enfolding” that will essentially bury the memories of the terrible shit they went through somewhere deep in their subconscious. Vets can be “unfolded” by a sudden dunking in ice cold water or really, really amazing sex. Oh and most of Michigan is on fire or soon to be.

It’s the sort of thing that feels straight out of Thomas Pynchon or Joseph Heller or their ilk – a fantastically wackadoodle war novel that manages to cut straight to the heart of the realities behind war and human nature. And if the novel had, in fact, told a story that actually engaged any of those concepts beyond superficial and/or plot-device levels, it might’ve been something really potent. But instead, David Means sets up a whole universe and then basically picks and chooses what he wants to do and when. The book reads like the mind of a stoner: brimming with invention and detail but hopelessly mired in one corner of the picture for far too long.

First of all, I was worried by the conceit of the novel: the novel-within-a-novel, that is. The first 25 or so pages are editorial notes, author’s notes, and interview quotes about a guy called Eugene Allen who apparently wrote a book called Hystopia before he killed himself. These notes put things into context – and make it clear that the world of the “novel” is in fact a different one from the world of this novel… which is also, in turn, different from our world. But I couldn’t figure out the reasoning behind subtle things like (as the opening editor’s note writes) “details of the seventh assassination attempt on [JFK]… have been changed slightly in Allen’s narrative, which has it taking place on a mid-August afternoon in Galva, IL. As we know, Kennedy was killed a month later, on September 17, as he drove through the town of Springfield, IL…” Especially considering that this is the very first thing we’re reading in this novel, there’s a sense that it will – somehow – matter. We’ve been introduced to something fantastical in the idea that Kennedy survived six goddamn assassination attempts and kept on truckin’ – and that the difference between the ‘real’ world and world of Allen’s novel will somehow be a thing that’s worth noting.

But Means isn’t interested in the world he’s set up, to the point that when the assassination finally occurs, it apparently isn’t clear in the world who’ll succeed to the Presidency? Or at least it isn’t clear to Means’ characters, which… sorry, it just doesn’t make sense. Or, if it does, it does because of things that we as readers are unaware of. I know I’m harping on this particular example but it feels exemplary and reveals (to this reader, at least) a decided lack of worldbuilding and attention to detail by the author. Or, perhaps to put it more concretely, a lack of follow-through – as this world is, in its own way, plenty detailed.

 

The credit I will give Means is that his sentences and descriptive passages can be breathtaking. The plot follows two parallel narratives – that of a Psych Corps operative and his colleague as well as that of a failed-enfold vet-turned-serial-killer, his comrade, and a woman he’s kidnapped – and there were moments where I sank into the prose, luxuriating in the descriptions of Michigan’s wilderness, of the stillness of nature, and the tumult of the human heart. Even the sex writing is actually quite good, which is a rarity in really any fiction. But I was jolted out of these reveries almost as soon as I fell into them by a sense that none of this seemed to be… not going anywhere, because there is a plot: Singleton and Wendy (the Psych Corps operatives) are trying to track down the serial killer (Rake). But most action is dispatched with quickly, pushed out of the way in favor of more listlessness. We start to realize that the two timelines of the novel are out of sync and the moments that the book has been ostensibly building towards are undercut by the fact that we’re told, long before we realize it, what will happen.

To again use the pot metaphor (which feels right, considering the rampant drug use here), the book feels like the kind of high that doesn’t quite take – where you can’t sink into the bliss of it all and keep snapping back to the ‘present’ with a kind of low-grade paranoia. Except that you don’t feel paranoia here; just confusion. A writer of Means’ evident talents, both at evoking beautiful pictures and at plumbing the depths of the human soul, ought to be able to put all of the moments together into a coherent story. This is his first novel after several acclaimed story collections – and perhaps he’s an author meant to work in the smaller format, where the world doesn’t need to be built so well. Maybe this was just a bad attempt to capture the druggy intensity of better authors’ war novels. I suppose it doesn’t much matter.

Rating: 2 out of 5. An astounding number of wonderful possibilities feel utterly wasted in the execution of this novel. The experience of reading this felt like walking through a classic Hollywood set, where the facades seem beautiful and vivid and full of life, but they’re really just plywood fronts in the middle of the desert. There’s no there there, nor is there any here. Means has a gift on a sentence-by-sentence level and there are moments of great insight into the minds of veterans (the “enfolding” idea is a brilliant one and it does get a bit more fleshing out than some of the other concepts) but this book is a mess on the substance level. A pretty cover and a fair amount of flash, but when your eyes adjust, it’s nothing all that special.

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