Several Doses of Wendy

Robert Baird

  • Hystopia by David Means
    Faber, 352 pp, £16.99, May 2016, ISBN 978 0 571 33011 9

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.

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