Hystopia by David Means

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Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth


In an interview with The Guardian, short story writer turned novelist David Means said: ‘History is delusional. Not just an illusion, it’s a delusion.’ Means’s debut novel, Hystopia, is precisely an exploration of such delusions, both personal and national. Through distorted representations of reality, Hystopia explores questions how war, any war, can be justified, what it means for an individual to remember, and ultimately, what is human freedom.

Means transports the reader into a dystopia set in the late 60s and early 70s America. The country is in the midst of a prolonged war in Vietnam, John F. Kennedy has survived several assassination attempts and is serving his third term as president, and riots have broken out all over the country, with fires raging across Michigan. Veterans returning from Vietnam are offered a new treatment to help them forget their traumas, aimed to erase mental health issues from America. In therapy centres, veterans are made to relive their trauma with the aid of a new drug Tripizoid, the trauma then being enfolded into a black box or ‘fuzzball’ in the veteran’s mind. The only ways to unfold a trauma are to come into contact with ice cold water or to experience orgasmic sex; however, remembering the enfolded trauma plunges the subject back into their living nightmare, the state warns.

This backdrop is not only the set up for Means’s novel, but also that for another novel called Hystopia, this time inside Means’s Hystopia: the novel by Eugen Allen, a war veteran who has committed suicide. The background to his story is tracked in a prelude of reports given by friends, family, and other veterans. From there, starts the dual storyline of Allen’s and Means’s Hystopias: the parallel tales of hunting criminals and running away from your hunters.

Enter Rake, a Vietnam veteran who has unfolded himself with mentally disastrous consequences and gone on a murderous rampage through Michigan. Following the rampage is the mysterious Meg, a young woman kidnapped and drugged by Rake. Captured straight after leaving her enfolding treatment, she is struggling for true consciousness and awareness of her past and present alike.

On the other side, there is Singleton, a young veteran working as a trainee agent for the federal organisation Psych Corps. Like others in the organisation, his trauma has been enfolded, but he craves for memories, being haunted by the things he may have committed in the war, now hidden away from his consciousness:

What had brought this example to mind from the myriad of possible examples? Jesus Christ, had he gone in there himself? Had he done such a thing? Was that the evil bullshit enfolded in him? The fuzzball in his head, free-floating.

Working with Singleton is Wendy, another agent touched by the war; her memories are intact, but she lives with the pain of knowing how the man she once loved lost his legs in battle. The two agents plunge into a forbidden relationship with each other, tainted by the knowledge of Psych Corps surveillance and their personal traumas.

From these premises, Means weaves a net of mysteries: Who is Meg? Why does Rake, otherwise a ruthless killer, hold her hostage without harming her? What is hidden in Singleton’s fuzzball? Is his and Wendy’s relationship set up and managed by the Corps?
These mysteries lend a thriller-like touch to the novel, and Means does an excellent job in harnessing the options arising from this. In particular, the action sequences are depicted with a cold brutality that makes the reader cringe and scream:

Rake shot him point-blank, producing a spongy, wet sound, and an outbound spew of bone and blood hit the wall, making another sound that she heard and reheard and heard again.

That’s that, Rake said, kicking the body.

Then they ransacked the house, pulling drawers, spilling underwear, unfurling panties, frilly things that she held for a moment and dropped to the floor.

The feel of silk was still on her fingertips. She could still see the look in his eyes as he stared at the gun. The black barrel in the black pupil.

But beyond the superficial plot, Hystopia is deep down a harrowing depiction of a country plunging into an endless, mindless war. Means balances with impressive dexterity between the minimalism of his thriller narrative and the dystopian images of burning towns, traumatised veterans, and those left without memories. A particular treat to the reader are the scenes nearing the feel of a stream of consciousness:

The napalm rounds came in halfheartedly, adrift on indeterminate axes, tumbling to the earth without the precision of a finned bomb; no careful target at hand; they just fell down from the sky tossed like coins, one after another, to spill fire into rectangular zones of death and destruction and so on. There was an arrangement to the fire they produced, but it came only after the fire raged, one bomb into another, to form as mass that could and would be driven into form by the wind, if there was some wind, Vietnam wind.

To its very best, Hystopia comes, however, when it descends to the personal level and the human struggle to be connected to one’s past, no matter how traumatising it may be.

When she looked up, Hank knew, just seeing her face, her teary eyes, that she had had a vision, caught sight of something that had been enfolded in her, the source of her trauma, and he could see it in the way she was walking, the shift of her gait, her toes pointed differently – with more assurance, he thought, a nimbleness on the trail, a sense of how to walk in the woods. [–] When a tree is damaged it forms a knot. You’ll do the same, he told her. Not the old adage about a broken bone being stronger, but something different than that.

Throughout the novel, the reader is forced to face the harrowing idea of what if: what kind of deeds that I have forgotten could I have committed? Do deeds make a human?

A thriller, a dystopia, an exploration of what it is to be human: Hystopia bridges many roles in one book. Risky as this may be, Means succeeds in his mission impeccably, delivering a thought-provoking, harrowing, page-turning read, rigged with the idea of delusions and what they mean to societies and individuals.

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Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist.

David Means, Hystopia (Faber & Faber, 2016). 978-0865479135, 352 pp., hardback.

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