Born and raised in Michigan, David Means made a name for himself through a series of superlative short story collections, with Assorted Fire Events (2000) winning the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, The Secret Goldfish (2004) shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story prize and The Spot (2010) winning an O. Henry Prize. April saw the release of his debut novel, Hystopia, which in keeping with the trend of acclaim has been nominated for 2016’s Man Booker Prize.
A book within a book, Hystopia is actually the novel left behind by Eugene Allen, a Vietnam vet from a slightly-alternate version of the 60s where John F. Kennedy survived Oswald’s assassination attempt and is serving his third term in office. Opened and closed by various notes and testimonies from friends and family members, Allen’s work makes up the majority of the novel, a narrative imagining characters from his time in Vietnam once they return home. The kicker, though, is that while they are back in the States, they never really ‘get home’, with the war following them back to a dystopian (but far from unrecognisable) America ravaged by biker gangs and forest fires.
In an attempt to solve the crisis of PTSD and violence, the government turn to an experimental psychiatric method called ‘enfolding’, where veterans reenact traumatic scenes while dosed up on a tranquilliser, Tripizoid. While even the doctors working on the project believe the technique to be without substance, it proves paradoxically effective for many subjects and blanks memories of combat. “Confusion is undoubtedly an element of the curative process,” writes Means. “In most cases the patient does forget about it, becoming fully immersed in the reenacted trauma’s nullification of the real trauma”.
Which isn’t to say it’s a silver bullet. Indeed the novel opens with a “failed enfold,” Rake, a man filled with the sort of all-consuming rage and propensity for violence unique to men forced into the sacrifices of war only to end up on the losing side. We find him with Allen’s sister, Meg (whom he has almost certainly kidnapped, and has undergone some degree of enfolding too), as they drive across Michigan on an anarchistic rampage of murder, drugs and destruction. Eventually, they reach the home of Hank, Rake’s former sidekick who has developed a love of trees since enfolding, a man who tries to protect Meg and figure out a way in which they can save themselves from Rake.
The second strand of the story deals with another enfold Singleton and his colleague Wendy, government officials breaking protocol to meet up and fall in love, who somehow end up on the trail of Rake, as though their rule bending was in fact a conspiracy on the part of their superiors to engineer the operation. Again though, confusion reigns, with Singleton’s boss admitting that a key part of being a commander is having the “gumption to go back and revise history”, talking of writing operation plans after the operation in order to ensure they are correct.
This sense of counter-history runs throughout the novel, from Singleton and Wendy’s quest and Hank’s transformation into peaceful nature-lover, right down to Eugene Allen’s re-telling (re-imagining?) of his sister’s story. What becomes important for these troubled people is not discerning the capital-T Truth but rather finding a variation they can believe in. More often than not, this involves a sense of mission, the victim’s need for order in the face of chaos, the desire for purpose or meaning in “an age when everything else seemed to be spinning deeper and deeper into despair,” anything which enables them to form a narrative of the world in a way they would like it to exist.
“It was crazy, he admitted, but it kept him going and like all good delusions it was fuelled by genuine hope and dedication to the truth”
And that’s what sets apart David Means’ Vietnam from that of the postmodern cannon. Yes, it is full of claims and counter-claims and impenetrable paranoia, but rather than using these to trace a descent into bewilderment, Hystopia utilises them to chart a way out. In a world where confusion and conflict constitute the resting face of the planet, maybe disinformation is needed not to obscure the truth but rather create it?
Here’s a playlist of songs that are suitable or relevant in one way or another, or maybe just capture the mood of certain characters and scenes.
1) Search and Destroy – The Stooges
2) IN EVIL HOUR – Battle Ave.
3) High & Wild – Angel Olsen
4) My War – Black Flag
5) Everything Falls Apart – Hüsker Dü
6) Saigon Shrunken Panorama – The Mountain Goats
7) Rugged Country – Japanese Breakfast
8) Meg – Hovvdy
9) Love, Come Save Me – Right Away, Great Captain!
10) I Need You To Tell Me Who I Am – John Moreland
11) Drugs To Make You Sober – Jeremiah Nelson
12) Are We Failing? – Hallelujah The Hills
13) Flaming Home – Mount Eerie with Julie Doiron and Frederick Squire
14) Lovers as Mirrors – Paper Bee
15) Forgetting is Believing – Nathaniel Rateliff
16) Redemption:1 (An Army Man And His Self-Discovery) – Justin Vernon
Hystopia is out now via Faber & Faber (UK) and Farrar, Straus and Giroux (US) and you can get it from most good bookshops. Check out the other works by David Means on his Goodreads page.