Hystopia

HystopiaSet in an alternate version of the 1960s, this novel by David Means follows a trio of Vietnam veterans who’ve undergone a procedure called enfolding that eliminates their memories of past trauma. It’s not a fool-proof procedure, however. Drugs, a cold bath, or really good sex can bring memories back, and the enfolded will often feel driven to remember what they’re forgotten.

This idea of the role of memory in trauma is one of the more compelling aspects of this complex book. Is forgetting preferable to remembering? Or is there value in remembering? Is there a reason the mind seeks those memories? There’s no clear answer here. Some of the enfolded are able to function. Singleton has a job working for the Psych Corps, which is pretty amazing given that most of his memories were removed to prevent his mind from finding any links to his past trauma. Rake, on the other hand, has turned into a killer and kidnapper. Singleton’s job at the moment is to find him.

That’s just a small glimpse of the plot of this novel. There’s a lot going on, but it takes a while for any discernible story to appear. Means throws readers right into this world where JFK was not assassinated and large portions of Michigan have burned. And this whole story is framed with a series of Editor’s Notes indicating that it was actually written by a veteran named Eugene Allen who lost a sister (who becomes a character in the book) and committed suicide. This frame exists in the same general alternate history, but we’re told that some facts have been rearranged.

I found this book hard to enjoy. It’s one of those books that seems caught up in its own cleverness and not all that interested in telling a good story. But, upon finishing, I came to respect some of this cleverness, even if I never came around to liking the book much. Both my issues with the book and its ingenuity can be summed up in a few lines taken from a dream sequence in which a dead man speaks to his surviving girlfriend, who is learning to cope with her own trauma:

 Fuck plot and fuck story and fuck the way one thing fits to another and fuck cause and effect, because there was none, and if there was we didn’t see much of it. Maybe history was moving forward back in the States. Hell, it most certainly was grinding. The Year of Love was turning itself over to the Year of Hate. There was a purgative thing happening. Ideals were falling neatly to the wayside, one at a time, and giving over to violence. Nam was seeping home.

When I’m reading, I want plot and story and for one thing to fit to another and cause and effect. I’ve enjoyed books without these elements, but they’re hard for me to love. Means’s book resists a clear pattern. Elements of the alternate history don’t have a clear purpose, and the framing story adds messy complications. I’m not sure the character relationships are ever fully explained. But perhaps it’s supposed to be a mess. War and its aftermath are a mess. Trying to fit it into a neat story would be false somehow. Perhaps Means’s intention was for the chaos of Nam not just to seep home but to seep into his story. I may not enjoy reading that kind of book, but I can appreciate the effort.Save

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14 Responses to Hystopia

  1. Interesting review. I’m not sure whether I want to read this or not… if it makes the Booker shortlist, probably?

    • Teresa says:

      I wouldn’t recommend it unless the premise really appeals to you. Means is doing some interesting things, but that doesn’t keep it from feeling like a slog early on.

  2. Jeanne says:

    If it had been about anything but this self-centered, front-and-center baby boomer generation, I might have been more inclined to give the cleverness a chance, but as it is I read a bit and took the book back to the library.

    • Teresa says:

      I wouldn’t have finished it if it weren’t for the Booker Shadow Jury. I’m happy to read about Baby Boomers when a book is really good, but this story bored me.

  3. Stefanie says:

    Hmm, some of it sounds appealing but nothing tells me wow I should read this. Guess I will skip it and be thankful for your review that saved me from a book I probably wouldn’t enjoy :)

  4. Thanks for this review! Have been trying to convince myself to read this book since it’s been getting a good bit of buzz, but honestly the overview just didn’t interest me, so I’ve been resisting. Your review convinced me I’ve made the right choice to skip this book and spend time on other storylines that I’m genuinely interested in.

  5. Oh hell, I’m really torn. On one hand, I loooove stories about stories and the way we understand our memories and our pasts. And I love reading thoughtful depictions of the way people cope with trauma. On the other hand, plot’s important to me, and coherence in a novel, and I have THE LEAST patience with authors who spend all their time proving their cleverness. Hmmmmmmm.

    • Teresa says:

      I really don’t think this is your kind of book. He plays around with interesting ideas about memory and trauma but doesn’t go deeply. And the whole story in a story apparatus seems almost tacked on to make the book seem clever. If it were more of a novella-length, then maybe.

  6. Bellezza says:

    Great review, from your fellow (Wo)Man Shadow Jury member who thought the memory aspect interesting, but like you, wants story and plot well integrated.

  7. Well-written review that lets me know that I can safely skip this one. I appreciate authors playing a bit with structure and form, but not at the expense of character, plot, and story!

    • Teresa says:

      I’m the same way. I think really high-concept stuff like this works best when it’s really short, so the lack of story and character matters a lot less.

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