When it comes to our attitudes about particular wars, fiction has always been a lagging indicator. War and Peace describes a conflict that took place six decades before Leo Tolstoy wrote about it; Catch-22 is a World War II novel that was published just in time for the United States to begin escalating its involvement in Vietnam. More recently, it’s taken the better part of a decade for writers to begin processing America’s military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Novels like Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds and collections like Phil Klay’s Redeployment, however bracing their storytelling, were always going to feel a bit like historical fiction. We’ll know that ISIS is old news when the first novel about it arrives in stores.
In this context, David Means’s debut novel, Hystopia, is wonderfully peculiar: It’s a war novel that feels on top of the emotions war evokes now while avoiding the well-worn modes of stark realism or over-the-top satire. On the surface, the book is meant to resemble a ’60s hangover of PTSD and stale pot smoke. The “editor’s notes” at the opening and closing of the book tell us that the novel is the product of one Eugene Allen, a novel of protest unearthed from a former era, as if somebody recently had turned up a cousin to Slaughterhouse-Five in an attic. We’re told that Allen suffered from something called “Stiller’s disease,” whose chief symptoms include “a propensity . . . to witness the world from a distance and within secure confines.”
The story proper involves a handful of Vietnam vets in Michigan whose post-combat lives put them in various, sometimes opposing legal positions. On one side are federal agents like Singleton, part of a “Mental Health Psych Corps” that’s attempting to respond to the waves of antiwar riots in the state, as well as shell-shocked vets like Rake, who’s been on a mass murder spree during 1970’s “Summer of Hate.” (In this alternative reality, John F. Kennedy avoided Oswald’s bullet and is serving his third term as president, but the odds of his surviving it are slim.) The chief means of putting out the fire is a drug called Tripizoid, which allows users to “enfold” — that is, erase — their bad memories. An editor’s note quotes a critic who says Allen’s novel is “as violent and destabilized as our own times, as pregnant and nonsensical.”
Hystopia‘s structure implicates the reader more than the average war novel, suggesting that we’ve been on our own Tripizoid bender in response to a barrage of news stories. And by framing the book as an alternative reality tale, Means finds a third way into the war novel — neither Naked and the Dead serious nor as satirical as Heller or Vonnegut. The mood is unrealistic, but only just so, and thick with dread: The Stooges always seem to be growling on the radio; a rebel motorcycle gang called the Black Flag is on the loose, and a Zone of Anarchy provides a haven for outlaws. Rake has kidnapped Meg, a pharmaceutical heiress forced to witness her captor’s rampages. And Tripizoid, originally a horse sedative, is a lousy trip: Though it’s supposed to suppress trauma, it does an imperfect job of scouring the bad stuff out of our brainpans. “You feel good and clean with the trauma put away, but at the same time you want to know what really happened,” Singleton’s superior tells him.
Means, who’s written four acclaimed story collections since 1991, has gone so far to establish himself as exclusively a short-story writer that it’s a surprise Hystopia exists — he’s bemoaned the cultural pressure to cough up a novel. But this one is brisk and uncomplicated in ways that play to a short-story advocate’s strengths. Despite its funhouse-mirror version of 1970, Hystopia is a straightforward chase yarn — will Singleton and company catch up with Rake, and what will they find when they do? What the novel’s length allows him to do is to explore the multitude of ways memory worms into our consciousness, despite our best efforts to suppress it. Tripizoid’s effects can be undone by good sex, or cold water, or thinking too hard, or talking to another enfold too much, or pressing hard on your temples, or just being mean-spirited enough — Rake was an early enfolding experimentee. That’s the grand joke that emerges over time: The simple business of living is going to force our trauma to the surface. Whether we’re capable of responding to it well is another matter.
If there’s one element of Hystopia that’s flatly realistic, it’s Kennedy’s rhetoric about the long war, which echoes the promises of progress we’ve become inured to since 9/11. In one speech, “he talked of retreat from the DMZ and a fragmented force left behind in the aftermath of retreat and something about a reckoning at hand.” In this alternate universe, Tripizoid is the way to take the edge off, but aren’t we always seeking out imperfect ways to do that? “Without something to enfold there’s no enfolding,” Means writes. “Men go out and make sure they have something to treat.” As ever.