David Means wrote a novel. David Means wrote a novel! Reading the hype around Hystopia – the new novel, the first novel, so far the only novel by the American writer David Means – you have to wonder how much pressure Means resisted from his publishers to forswear the pleasures of the customary gnomic cipher (American Enchiridion, The Accidental Occidental) and just call the book that: David Means Wrote a Novel: A Novel Written by David Means. Until now, Means was merely, dare we say meanly, the author of four collections of short stories. Four collections of aching, accomplished and often impeccable short stories, I hasten to add. But they were short stories nonetheless, published at a time when all the big books were big books: the sternum-bruising heavies like Infinite Jest and Underworld and 2666, the multi-volume massifs by Hilary Mantel, Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard. Did it matter that Means (with his wife) was the dedicatee of one of the most celebrated megaliths of the past quarter-century, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections? Of course not. Or that Means had worried, not unreasonably, that the idea of ‘going big and wide for the sake of giving into the possibility’ was for him the succubus of an unholy temptation? No. Did it matter, even, that he was, at his best, as good as anyone, and better than just about everyone, at producing supple, seductive little narratives full of heartwreck, depravity and shivering desolation? Nice try. The verdict was unanimous: he needed a novel.
And here it is, a tome of his own: not the fifth book by a major writer of minor things but, as the cover flap has it (you can almost hear a sigh of relief issue from the colophon) the ‘highly anticipated first novel’ by the debut novelist David Means. As if to make up for lost time, Means has delivered not one novel but two. The first is Hystopia, which was published by Faber and blurbed by Richard Ford and is being reviewed right here in front of your very eyes. The second is also called ‘Hystopia’, but this one, as that shift in typography suggests, purports to be a posthumously discovered manuscript by Eugene Allen, a young Vietnam veteran who committed suicide in 1974. ‘Hystopia’ fills out the vast bulk of its namesake, nestling against the inner edges of the outer story with the snugness of a matryoshka doll. The forty or so pages of paratext that bridge the two books – notes by Allen and an unnamed editor; snippets of journals and psychological reports; excerpts from interviews with the fictional author’s fictional friends, family and acquaintances – are enough to establish an ontological air gap, but Means makes it clear that the worlds of Allen and his novel, while not identical, resemble each other more closely than either does our own.
The title of both books is a blunt-force concatenation of ‘historical dystopia’, which, its sins against etymology aside, captures the mood of Allen’s manuscript. The novel within a novel begins in April 1970, a grim month in real history (q.v. the break-up of the Beatles, the crippling of Apollo 13, the invasion of Cambodia) that becomes even grimmer in Means’s counterfactual telling. When ‘Hystopia’ starts, John F. Kennedy is still alive and is serving his third term as president. But after six unsuccessful assassination attempts, he’s slipped into the thrall of a death wish, which has him conducting coast-to-coast ‘wave-by tours’ in open-air limos and ‘throwing [his] fate to the whims of the nation’. The change in management appears not to have affected the latter stages of the Vietnam War for the better. If anything, the conflict is thundering on even more assiduously than it did in our own dimension, under Johnson and Nixon.
The story is set, like much of Means’s short fiction, in his home state of Michigan, whose loose geographical resemblance to the Indochinese peninsula is irresistibly attractive to the legions of veterans who have returned home from overseas. By the time we get there, the large numbers of war-wounded, the amputees of body, mind and memory, have turned Michigan into its own sort of Vietnam, the site of an ever expanding zone of anarchy. A third or so of the state is overrun with motorcycle gangs, another third is in ashes (the result of the governor’s decision to answer riots with flamethrowers and Molotov cocktails), and the remainder has been established as something called the Grid, a free-range recovery area for veterans who have undergone a trauma-abatement therapy known as enfolding.
The Grid and the enfolding procedure are the administrative responsibilities of a government agency called the Psych Corps, which loony late-term Kennedy created to ‘solve the problem of mental illness in general and the vast horde of returning vets in particular’. Enfolding, we’re told, is a cure for post-traumatic stress that works through selective amnesia. With the help of a drug called Tripizoid, and backed by a sketchy theory that carries echoes of psychoanalytic cathexis and Nietzsche’s active forgetting, the procedure causes traumatic memories to collapse in on themselves – ‘like a nut, like some seed of potential’, as one character puts it – creating a mnemonic blind spot that allows the afflicted to get on with their lives. But when enfolding doesn’t work, it amplifies the traumatic memories it’s supposed to be sealing away. Crucially for the plot, even successful enfolds are susceptible to reversal. As though in tribute to the woolly erotic epistemologies of the time in which Hystopia is set, the novel establishes that especially thrilling orgasms can unfold the bundled traumas and release a rush of dangerously vivid memories. (Immersion in cold water has a similar effect.)
‘Hystopia’ opens in the aftermath of a kidnapping and a rape, just as a killing spree is getting underway. The author of these crimes is Rake, a psychopathic veteran who was an unsuccessful test subject for the Psych Corps’s early experiments in enfolding. Rake’s propensity for violence predated his military training – as a teenager, he slit the throat of an uncle who tried to molest him – but his experience in Vietnam, along with the failed treatment that amplified his traumas, hardened his determination to bring the war home with him. ‘When I get back I’m gonna take the state by fucking storm,’ he told one of his platoon mates. ‘I’m gonna haunt that place like a motherfucker. I’m gonna be their worst nightmare.’ Rake kills without reason or remorse, and right up to the end of his life, he appears to answer only to what Auden called ‘the insane will of the insane to suffer insanely’. He is not so much acting out as he is Acting Out – a walking, shotgunning, drug-dealing personification of Freud’s Wiederholungszwang.
The victim of the kidnapping and rape, and the captive witness to many of Rake’s many murders, is a girl called Meg Allen. (As her last name suggests, Meg also appears in Hystopia’s frame story, as the wayward sister of Eugene.) Meg is a freckled teenager, not a combat veteran, but the mental breakdown she suffered after her boyfriend, Billy-T, died in Vietnam suggests that she, too, in her way, is a casualty of the war. When Rake snatches her out of the Grid, still groggy from her enfolding, she remembers only that she wants to hear the Stooges on the radio. It will take her several submersions in the frigid waters of Lake Superior to discover what her captor has known all along: the death of Billy-T bears an essential relation to Rake’s own major trauma.
About sixty pages and six dead bodies into ‘Hystopia’, Rake and Meg wash up in a house that belongs to a bearded man called Hank and his epileptic, Bible-spewing mother. Hank is another veteran, a lumber poacher who swears he can locate giant trees by listening to the way the wind whistles through their needles. He was also, until recently, Rake’s eager accomplice, but after arranging his own successful amateur enfolding he sets himself secretly against his former partner. Hank wastes no time enlisting Meg to help him stop Rake’s rampage.
Preventing Rake from turning Michigan into a free-fire zone is also the task handed to Myron Singleton, a Psych Corps trainee. Singleton is a familiar type: the outwardly functional, inwardly shattered veteran who shows up for work on time but wants nothing more than to smoke pot and have sex with his girlfriend, a fellow trainee in the Corps called Wendy. Like Meg and Hank, Singleton has a hidden history with Rake; like theirs, his memory of that history needs time (and, in his case, several doses of Wendy) to emerge.
As the above sketch indicates, Means takes immediate advantage of the expanded space of the novel to set in motion a complicated narrative machinery. The counterfactual history, the cod psychiatry and the metafictional scaffolding can feel rickety at times, but together they suggest, at least initially, the work of an author who is determined to unleash the centrifugal energies that are the novel’s birthright. This sense of freewheeling multiplicity is only helped by a forest of allusions to other war fiction – ‘There must be a catchphrase for someone in a situation that is simply not winnable,’ Singleton muses, ‘for a road that splits into two options that are just as bad’ – along with a narrative that rotates among several perspectives and timelines. It turns out, however, that Hystopia is not built to sprawl. The bewildering welter that greets us in the opening pages of the book settles down into a few basic uncertainties that pull the story towards resolution along the tracks of a fairly traditional plot. This is, for the most part, a welcome development. Once the armatures are in place and the brakes come off – and helped along by the ‘good fucking and cold dunking’ that allow the characters access to their enfolded memories – the story moves along with impressive force.
The streamlining of Hystopia’s narrative whorls and eddies is matched by a thematic convergence. The extreme violence of this novel will be no surprise to anyone familiar with Means’s short fiction. Some of his best stories rendered scenes of aggression in a language of maximum rigour and subtlety, a productive disjunction of subject and style that resulted in eloquent phenomenologies of pain. But Hystopia quickly makes clear that its subject is not so much violence, or even war, as the ruins that each of these leaves behind. Trauma, in short, is the novel’s central theme and predicament. (A timely theme, I’m tempted to write, a decade and a half into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but when is trauma, even specifically postwar trauma, not timely?) Each of the novel’s principal characters spends the novel struggling to accommodate the quantum dilemma at the heart of the Psych Corps’s theory of enfolding, which says you can remember a trauma, or you can exist comfortably in its wake, but you can’t do both. As Hank the tree-whisperer puts it late in the book, ‘You have all of these folks drifting around with the pivotal point of their lives buried, not sure if they should be digging around.’ In this respect, the novel lives in the long shadow of Pat Barker, Tim O’Brien and especially Ernest Hemingway, who is credited by Singleton with capturing ‘a new way of thinking and speaking that came from what was left out, from the things war had demolished and pushed away for ever’.
The result of all this compression is a novel whose pressure on its major theme can feel too insistent – even, at times, claustrophobic. This is a surprise, not least because Means’s previous work was so notable for its expansiveness. As James Wood wrote 11 years ago, in his review of The Secret Goldfish, Means’s stories ‘wilfully resist the formal tidiness of most contemporary short fiction: they drift, fragment, expand, change perspective and then run out of steam.’ Though Hystopia is not what anyone would call tidy, and though its sentences are far less taut than the steel-belted constructions that provide the tension in Means’s short fiction, the novel nonetheless has a singular point of focus, much like a traditional short story. For all their apparent diversity, Hystopia’s narrative elements work relentlessly to direct our attention to the book’s central question: namely, whether and how a person can go on living with a significant trauma in his past.
Even the book’s involuted narrative structure, which has led several early reviewers to reach for the adjective ‘Nabokovian’, shares this quality. Unlike Pale Fire and Lolita, whose metafictional structures are fundamentally ironic, and work in the service of diffraction and destabilisation, the doubled ontologies of Hystopia are each, in their way, addressed to the novel’s central theme. In the slender fiction that frames the novel within the novel, Meg Allen, Eugene’s sister, appears again as the bereaved ex-girlfriend of Billy-T, but here she is also presented as a promiscuous and mentally unstable young woman who has recently gone missing. The editor’s notes and interview snippets explain that Eugene wrote his novel after his sister disappeared and before her body was discovered. (They don’t, however, explain how this Meg Allen, whose remains are found in a ditch in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, relates to the Meg Allen whose corpse is dragged out of the water at the base of the Niagara Falls in ‘The Spot’, the title story of Means’s 2010 collection.) This sense of an interregnum is important: it allows Allen to end his manuscript with the suggestion that several of the main characters, Meg included, have discovered something like peace. The frame story, by contrast, permits itself no such optimism. The single vector of causality that connects Billy-T’s death, Meg’s murder and Eugene’s suicide puts an immediate spin on the tentative hopefulness of Allen’s ‘Hystopia’, rendering that hope as a fantasy, at best, of wish fulfilment.
In the acknowledgments to Hystopia, Means says that he wrote the novel ‘in the spirit of via negativa’. It’s not hard to see what he might mean, especially if he has in mind something like the stark dualism of Simone Weil, who envisioned existence as a bleak domain of gravity only occasionally illuminated by bolts of grace. (Near the end of the frame fiction, Eugene Allen laments that ‘I got all the pain in the thing I’m typing but couldn’t get that tiny, little sliver of grace.’) But in many ways, Hystopia struck me as more science than prayer: a narrative mechanism whose counterfactuals and metafictions function like the deep-mountain burial of a minutely calibrated particle detector. It’s not for me to say whether Means succeeded in snagging his God or his God particle – in interviews, he has spoken about a family trauma that pushed him to write the book – though I can report that after so much time underground I began to miss the static and noise of the surface. By all accounts, grace is a wondrous thing, a quality fervently to be hoped for even by the irreligious. But it’s not the novel’s responsibility to bring us grace. Its job is to bring us life.