At the bitter end of the 1960s, after surviving multiple assassination attempts, President John F. Kennedy is entering his third term in office. The Vietnam War rages on, and the president has created a vast federal agency, the Psych Corps, dedicated to maintaining the nation’s mental hygiene by any means necessary. Soldiers returning from the war have their battlefield traumas “enfolded”—wiped from their memories through drugs and therapy—while veterans too damaged to be enfolded roam at will in Michigan, evading the government and reenacting atrocities on civilians.
This destabilized version of American history is the vision of twenty-two-year old Eugene Allen, who has returned from Vietnam to write the book-within-a-book at the center of Hystopia. In conversation with some of the greatest war narratives, from Homer’s Iliad to the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” David Means channels the voice of Allen, the young veteran out to write a novel that can bring honor to those he fought with in Vietnam while also capturing the tragic history of his own family.
The critic James Wood has written that Means’s language “offers an exquisitely precise and sensuous register of an often crazy American reality.” In Hystopia, his highly anticipated first novel, David Means brings his full talent to bear on the crazy reality of trauma, both national and personal. Outlandish and tender, funny and violent, timely and historical, Hystopia invites us to consider whether our traumas can ever be truly overcome. The answers it offers are wildly inventive, deeply rooted in its characters, and wrung from the author’s own heart.
“Supremely gonzo and supremely good . . . If Flannery O'Connor had written about Vietnam, Rake is the kind of character she would have created. . . What is the relation between the chaos of lived experience and the coherence of narrative? How is trauma tied to the fracturing of narrative, to our inability to see the past as past, distinct from, yet leading to the present? Henry James once described the real as ‘the things we cannot possibly not know. ’Hystopia often reads, strange as it sounds, like a Jamesian investigation of knowledge, albeit one fueled by amphetamines.” —Anthony Domestico, The Boston Globe
“The horrors of war, especially the traumas of America’s experience in Vietnam, birthed the recursive, thickly ironized literary sensibility we call postmodernism. David Means’s violent, mind-warped novel-within-a-novel Hystopia is a throwback to this style’s heyday, a drug-addled nightmare version of American history nodding in the direction of Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson . . . Hystopia’s tale-swallowing metafiction ingeniously embodies the self-replicating mental prisons of war trauma (in Allen’s telling, even enfolded veterans feel caged inside their forgetfulness).” —Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
“Hystopia quickly gains momentum and plausibility thanks to its richness of detail. Means is a writer of dazzling gifts: a challenging stylist and a keen observer whose senses seem, at times, pitched to a state of hyperawareness.” —Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review
"Hystopia is a thrilling novel daring, immensely readable, and also unexpectedly funny. David Means is that lucky (and brilliant) writer: a man in full possession of a vision." —Richard Ford