Hystopia by David Means review – the cunning debut novel from the virtuoso short story writer | fiction


IIt’s not just generals who are used to fighting the last war rather than the one to come; artists do it too. The novels, movies, and TV shows that best captured the grim paradoxes of the Vietnam War for Americans – Catch-22, Slaughterhouse 5 and MASH POTATOES – took place during World War II or the Korean War. So while David Means’ new novel features characters damaged and obsessed with ‘Nam’, the urgent and unspoken presences on its pages are the recent US conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, or, rather, what they did to the men and women who fought them.

But another war is also felt in this novel: the struggle between a writer and his time. Means has published four short stories and is recognized as a master of form. Its main subject is suffering and its transmission, through loneliness, mourning and violence. With phrases that seem carved out of granite, it depicts, typically, a dark Midwestern landscape populated by abandoned people who once served as the industrial working class in the United States, as well as cannon fodder for the architects of the Wars of the United States. nation in Asia and the Middle East. . Evil and bad luck are their legacy, passed on to strangers, friends and relatives.

As exquisite as Means’ stories are, their emotional content ranges from dark to tragic which, apart from being short stories, limits their appeal to anyone except the bravest of readers. Editors tend to view news collections as preparations for the inevitable novel, which is why Hystopia has been described more than once as long overdue. But not all virtuosos in one form excel equally in the other, and Hystopia shows the tension of an author pushing to adapt to a form in which he is not at home.

The novel comes with a lot of metafictional devices. It is framed by editor’s notes and appendices explaining that the main body of the book is the work of a veteran named Eugene Allen. The novel within the novel is set in an alternate 1970s version, in which John F Kennedy was not assassinated in 1963, but instead survived multiple attempts to kill him and convinced the American public to elect him ( unconstitutionally) for a third presidential term. In Hystopia, Vietnam works over and over again under Kennedy’s command and has been stripped of all elements of strategy or geopolitical significance, even mistaken or fabricated. The novel is set entirely in the state of Michigan, and although many of its characters are veterans psychologically overwhelmed by the horrors they endured or perpetrated during the war, no one bother to say why. War is quite simply. As, perhaps, life itself is a trauma-producing factory, and trauma management is what every character is concerned about in Hystopia.

A government agency known as the Psych Corps has developed a drug technique called a “wrap,” which allows veterans to separate their memories of horrific events in an inaccessible corner of their brain. They institutionalized denial. Much of Michigan has been set aside for the rehabilitation and reinstatement of “asphalt,” but since the process, when it goes awry, makes the subject incredibly violent, other parts of the state have almost been caught in the dark. charge by “” veterans and biker gangs. The novel centers on two heterosexual couples: a pair of Psych Corps agents tasked with tracking down a “stranded” psychopath named Rake and two hostages held by Rake in a rural house in the lawless sector of northern Michigan.

For the first two-thirds of the book, these characters seem mired in a state of gooey, drug-fueled semi-stasis, while all around them the novel sizzles and hisses with proliferating palaver reminiscent of Don DeLillo’s fiction or David Foster Wallace. Singleton, a wrapped Psych Corps agent, suspects his assignment might be his boss’s new variation on wrapping: “If it’s some kind of treatment, or if we’re supposed to think it’s treatment, it would like us to be aware that we are aware of our own situational awareness.

Can Means himself really care about this fragile paranoia and the elaborate vanity of Eugene Allen? It’s as if he feels that the stuff novels are made of – multiple storylines, rising and falling cadences of narrative excitement, building a plausibly imagined world – is just that. alien, padded scaffolding erected around a truth, rather than a form that truth can take. When he turns, instead, to another character’s beautifully precise observations of the natural world (“The trees thinned out where the rocky berm began, showing shards of slate-colored lake”), the book settles in on its own, but to get things done, it has to go back to its frantic efforts to tackle “big ideas.” For Means, whose main theme is the harshness and communicability of pain, as well as those flashes of beauty that make it worth bearing, many of the elements required by a novel are superfluous. Like the wrap, they prevent us from looking at what he most wants us to see.

Order Hystopia for £ 12.99, go to bookstore.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK delivery from £ 10, online orders only. Min p & p phone orders £ 1.99.