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

Contributor

Anthony Cummins

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Hystopia by David Means review – bewilderingly brilliant
This Booker-shortlisted writer uses the ‘novel within a novel’ device to explore the darkness of pain and trauma

Anita Sethi

12, Feb, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
Instructions for a Funeral by David Means review – brawlers and bawlers
David Means’s latest collection of American stories confirms his standing as a master of the form

Tim Adams

31, Mar, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
Real Life by Brandon Taylor review – a brilliant debut
This tale of a black research student and his ‘benign’ white colleagues crackles with the painful comedy of privilege and prejudice

Anthony Cummins

17, Aug, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Hystopia by David Means review – the virtuoso short story writer’s tricksy first novel
In an alternative version of 1970s America, the Vietnam war grinds on and on; but the urgent, unspoken presences on this novel’s pages are the veterans damaged by the US’s recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq

Laura Miller

21, May, 2016 @6:30 AM

Article image
At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop review – war and mental collapse
The International Booker prize winner is a brilliant, shifting tale of a Senegalese soldier’s descent into madness

John Self

20, Jun, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls review – beautiful paean to young love
A moving and hilarious tale about adolescence and the power of art

Alex Preston

08, Jul, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Elizabeth Strout: ‘I don’t care how badly my characters misbehave’
The US novelist, longlisted for this year’s Man Booker, talks inspiration, warts-and-all writing and her long slog to success

Alex Clark

07, Aug, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
Man Booker prize 2016: the fine line between fiction and literature
The strongest shortlist in years heralds the next generation of great writers

Robert McCrum

24, Oct, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
More Than I Love My Life by David Grossman review – the personal is political
An Israeli family’s journey to Croatia throws up secrets that illuminate their pain in a beautiful exploration of the lingering power of history

Alex Preston

24, Aug, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Upstate by James Wood – review
The hero of James Wood’s midlife novel spends too much time with his implausibly well-organised thoughts

Rachel Cooke

13, Mar, 2018 @7:00 AM