Hystopia by David Means – review

Traumatised Vietnam vets bring mayhem to the streets of a reimagined 1960s America in this ambitious but problematic contender for this year’s Booker prize

Imagine that the Man Booker prize had always been open to novels from the US. Would Graham Swift’s Last Orders still have won in 1996, the year David Foster Wallace published Infinite Jest? How about Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, the year Don DeLillo published Underworld?

It’s hard not to feel that a certain anxiety about answering (or even asking) those questions might lurk behind talk of the prize having lost its identity, after the recent rule change that lets the panel nominate US writers such as David Means. Hystopia, about a parallel America during the Vietnam war, exhibits a level of conceptual and stylistic density that British novelists seldom hazard; it flies the flag on this year’s longlist for the kind of maximalist aesthetic the judges were once obliged to ignore.

Set in the late 1960s, the story turns on the development of a psychiatric remedy known as “enfolding”, intended to suppress painful memories. The procedure is being tested at a secret facility in New Mexico, where traumatised veterans re-enact combat scenes while doped up on a horse sedative called Tripizoid. It doesn’t work – surprise – and soon runaway patients are bringing mayhem to American streets already lawless with biker gangs and riots.

We focus on one of these fugitive “enfolds”, Rake, a murderous psychopath who rampages around the midwest, daubing pentagrams with the blood of his victims. He abducts a mentally ill woman, Meg, and coerces her into abetting his crimes before imprisoning her at a woodland hideout. On Rake’s tail are two lovestruck agents from a shadowy federal agency: Singleton (another enfolded vet) and Wendy, described as a “strange mix of kindness and care and wildness”.

The action takes place in short segments that cut between Meg’s point of view and Singleton’s. Pace isn’t the object: Means deliberately avoids clarity and spends a lot of time outlining his alternative reality in a vortex of fiddly counterfactuals, chiefly to do with the assassination of JFK, reconfigured in ways that prove less important than billed. It’s also stated from the outset that the events summarised above are merely what happens in “Hystopia” – a posthumously published novel by a 22-year-old Vietnam veteran who committed suicide after the death of his mentally ill sister, Meg.

While Means throws the kitchen sink at disorienting the reader, Hystopia eventually boils down to a tricked-out chase narrative. Even the odder elements of his scenario have pretty familiar effects. The so-called enfolds are able to access their repressed memories through orgasm, which elevates “sexposition” to new heights of absurdity – as Means well knows. “All that conveniently in your unfold,” says Wendy, as Singleton unburdens himself mid-clinch.

The wink is typical. Introducing the novel-within-a-novel, supposedly published in 1974, the anonymous editor tells us it was “hardly fit for the fiction market at the time (or at any time) but was publishable because of the marketability of the so-called backstory”.

That multi-level joke aims partly to reassure any readers who may feel lost in the darkness of a novel that gambles heavily on you sticking around until the lights go up. The slow trickle of revelations, punctuated by sex and bloodletting, leads in the end to an explanation of why “Hystopia” was written in the first place; as a character study in which the lead character never appears, it’s certainly clever. But the solemn regret over war’s brutalising effect, offered as a payoff, isn’t easy to swallow in a novel that uses extreme violence as the hook to keep you reading.

Hystopia is published by Faber (£16.99). Click here to buy it for £12.99


Anthony Cummins

The GuardianTramp

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