By David Means
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 352 pp. $26.
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nolead ends Hystopia, the much-anticipated debut novel by David Means (author of such esteemed short story collections as Assorted Fire Events and The Secret Goldfish), brings the Vietnam War home - literally. And its provocative premise - that overcoming war-induced psychological trauma may prove impossible - has all the more resonance now, with the impact of the Iraq War. Unfortunately, however, the story itself veers between probing such trauma and satirizing it, all the while depicting ferocious violence perpetrated by a crazed veteran-turned-serial-killer. More often than not, this makes for an exasperating and faintly miasmic jumble.
Hystopia is presented as a novel penned by Michigan native Eugene Allen, a young Vietnam War vet who committed suicide in 1974. His novel is framed with editor's notes and snippets of interviews with friends.
In the novel and its alternative reality, a deromanticized President Kennedy, survivor of several assassination attempts and entering his third term, continues to prosecute the war with gusto, his "voice on the radio, Boston locutions from his repaired larynx, speaking of the nation's great vision, outlining another one of his projects, reading out figures that suggested victory's imminence in Vietnam." Meanwhile, rioters from various disaffected segments of the population burn down Detroit and Flint.
The novel's chief character is Rake - possibly crazy from the start, definitely unhinged by 'Nam, finally driven to apocalyptic violence by failed psychiatric treatment in Michigan. Rake escapes from a facility with a large supply of drugs and kidnaps a young woman whom he forces to ingest vast amounts of drugs as part of a mad experiment. Veteran Myron Singleton - recently emerged from a successful "enfolding," a process that submerges his memories of wartime - is assigned by the government-run Psych Corps to track down Rake.
"Enfolding" is a fascinating and horrifying invention. With a drug called Tripizoid, patients are plunged into reenactments that modify their traumatic events to nullification. But this otherwise promising notion obscures, rather than illuminates, key characters' pasts and trajectories. Rake calcifies into a one-dimensional character, and Singleton elicits only moderate sympathy.
These drawbacks mar Hystopia from beginning to end. Undeniably ambitious and frequently inventive, Hystopia too often sacrifices story for satire. Means has created a novel that is smart, edgy, and funny, but that also lacks cohesion and sometimes coherence.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and critic in Beirut.