The conceit of Hystopia, author David Means’ first novel, is that the novel it contains was written by a Vietnam vet, Eugene Allen, who leaves the completed manuscript and a set of notes behind when he commits suicide. Eugene’s novel is bracketed by a series of editor’s notes and snippets of interviews with Eugene’s friends, family, and acquaintances, through which we come to understand how much of his novel is autobiographical.
Means makes it clear from the start that all of this is alternative history. The book opens with an editor’s note mentioning, “Details of the seventh assassination attempt made on John F. Kennedy, now known as the Genuine Assassination, have been changed slightly in Allen’s narrative…”
As the novel inside the novel describes, Kennedy’s administration has developed a therapy called enfolding, which attempts to heal returning veterans’ psychological trauma. Vets take a drug called Tripizoid, re-enact the scene of their trauma, and thereby cancel the event out of their conscious and unconscious memory. It doesn’t work on everyone, and a failed treatment deepens the damage.
The story alternates primarily between Singleton and Wendy, agents of Kennedy’s Psych Corps, and a variety of characters roaming the wastelands of Michigan, burned to the waterline by rampaging gangs and failed enfoldees. The worst of these is psychopathic Rake, who has kidnapped a young woman and is holding her at his buddy’s cabin. All of these characters are damaged, some irretrievably, but as the story lines eventually converge, Means allows Eugene to give his characters a measure of light at the end of their dark tunnel. For us, Means has woven an ingenious, compelling, brutal story of the ravages that war exacts on the society that wages it.