Hystopia by David Means

David Means’s Hystopia is an alternate history where John F. Kennedy wasn’t assassinated in 1963 and went on instead to seek a third term as president—and where Eugene Allen, a young Vietnam veteran with Stiller’s disease, commits suicide after completing the final draft of his novel, Hystopia.

means david hystopiaEugene Allen’s Hystopia is also an alternate history. In Allen’s novel, unlike in the “real” world of Means’s novel, there exists a drug called Tripizoid—a drug whose effects are not fully understood.

In Inner Hystopia‘s world, that’s what makes Trip a “drug”—Wendy, a nurse, specifies at one point that in her work she gave people “medications,” which were different entirely. Drug status isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this world, though: remember, it was Richard Nixon who started the War on Drugs, declared drug abuse “Public Enemy No. 1,” and implemented the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, and Nixon has never been president in either Inner or Outer Hystopia. Tripizoid is in wide use as part of a psychiatric treatment called “enfolding.”

People in this world are able to “enfold” a past trauma—along with an entire Causal Events Package leading up to that trauma, which might consist of almost their entire lives—by reenacting it under the influence of Tripizoid. Think Vietnam veterans taking part in staged battles across the state of Michigan, tripping balls, and afterward remembering none of it. Ignorance is bliss.

But there are also “failed enfolds,” and one such is Rake, who kidnaps a young woman named Meg—also enfolded, though not a veteran—and takes her on a killing spree, eventually depositing her with a war buddy who has secretly enfolded himself behind Rake’s back. This man, Hank, helps eventually free Meg (and himself) from Rake. Meanwhile, Singleton, a member of the Psych Corps, is having an illicit affair with a coworker (Wendy). As part of their job with the Corps, they end up hunting down Rake and finding Hank and Meg, and Singleton and Meg uncover elements of their past in a process of semicontrolled unfolding.

All this is framed by editor’s notes and interviews with people who knew Eugene Allen, laying out the differences between the two alternate histories as well as the inspirations for much of Allen’s novel. Meg is based on his own sister, who disappeared and was eventually found dead. Rake is based on a bad seed from their neighborhood, who by the time of his interview is in prison for murder. And so forth.

In the Atlantic, Amy Weiss-Meyer writes that “Allen’s subsequent suicide, we already know, means his own effort at retelling has failed to cure him. Yet throughout his feverish novel—the novel we’re reading—he’s interested in asking that very question through each of his characters.” My response to that is, “Yet”? Of course he is! It’s the point of Inner Hystopia: what would life be like if retelling could cure trauma?

Allen’s answer to that is, “Not much different.” Essentially, the very nature of the world—some part of the underlying structure of reality that Allen couldn’t knock into alignment with his alternate history—prevents people from curing trauma in this way. You simply cannot forget the bad things that happened to you and go on to lead a normal, healthy life.

Some of the reviews I read after reading Outer Hystopia failed to take the frame into account at all, and others acknowledged that Inner Hystopia was written by Allen but failed to really engage with what that meant beyond the most superficial. The difference I highlighted above—Tripizoid—is, I believe, the most significant, but there are many others. The exact date of Kennedy’s assassination was off by a month, though like in “real life” it occurred during the seventh attempt. The second great lumber boom happens only in Allen’s universe—at least, until sometime after Inner Hystopia was written, when a second great lumber boom does happen.

It’s probably things like this that lead Max Liu in the Independent to complain of Means’s “fairly well-worn metafictional tricks”; many people get bored of this stuff. But some of it matters, and that’s interesting.

In turn, what’s not different between the two worlds is significant. Inner Hystopia is in large part a criticism of a society that hypermedicalizes nearly universal personal problems. War may be terrible, but it is ultimately a common human experience. Losing a loved one, even violently, is simply a part of life, not a reason to wrap half a lifetime of memories in a Tripizoid fuzzball, inaccessible for the rest of time (unless you take some simple steps to unfold yourself, which will always be a temptation, of course, because ignorance is not really bliss).

The world Allen lived in also treated personal problems like teenage angst and social nonconformity like diseases to be cured. His sister Meg was institutionalized for being “unbalanced” and a “slut.” And then there’s Allen’s Stiller’s disease.

Eugene Allen had a tendency to self-isolate and was prone to bouts of Stiller’s disease, a common condition in the Middle West of the United States. Although the diagnosis is relatively new, still under study, symptoms include a desire to stand in attic windows for long stretches; a desire to wander back lots, abandoned fairgrounds, deserted alleys, and linger in sustained reveries; a propensity for crawling beneath porch structures and into crawl spaces in order to peer up through cracks and other apertures to witness the world from a distance and within secure confines, the reduced field of vision paradoxically effecting a wider view by way of a tightening sensation around the eyeballs and eyelids. …Stiller’s disease in older teens can lead to wayward tendencies, antisocial ideation, and profound spiritual visions leading to a desire for artificially induced visions.

So because a young Eugene Allen liked to sit in his grandfather’s attic looking out the window, he is suspect—at the very least, ill. And it’s probably why he killed himself. The reader will also note that this information is taken from the “extensive report” from the “standard postmortem psychological examination” of Allen.

I read a handful of reviews of Hystopia, and I also didn’t come across any discussion of the report-writing that becomes an obsession of Singleton’s by the end of the inner novel. Singleton is the most prominent character in the inner novel, and, in my reading, that novel’s representation of Eugene Allen. Singleton’s commanding officer in the Psych Corps, Klein, refers to advice he once gave Singleton about how to write an operations report, and tells Singleton that if he does so, he might find a pattern. Later, we find out what that meant.

His operation plan, attached to his report, would be written after the fact, postdated to cover tracks and make it seem preordained. That’s how it was done, Klein had explained. Orders in a plan have a snap and zing, a knowingness, a resonance ahead of the curve. Gumption is what you need to be a commander, Klein had explained. The gumption to go back and revise history.

For the remainder of the inner novel, Singleton is obsessed with the operations report—which he finally does write, and which itself becomes legend. What is the relationship between Singleton’s operations report and Allen’s manuscript—especially if Singleton represents Allen? Why is Singleton so preoccupied with it—with “this need to put everything into a system,” as Wendy asks?

Jonathan Sturgeon, writing in Flavorwire, may have part of an answer:

In Hystopia, he diagnoses America’s certainty about its own history—its sense of realism—as its own psychological evasion: a kind of sick faith in official narratives. In Means’ novel, realism is just a confluence of competing hysterias. And it reminds us more than once: “All cures are bogus.”

Teresa at Shelf Love, a fellow Shadow (Wo)Man Booker Panelist, was not so crazy about the frame and the competing alternate histories.

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.

An interesting counterpoint to Sturgeon’s suggestion about Means’s realism—and Allen’s, I think, for another similarity.