In the alternate universe of Vassar English professor David Means's ambitious debut novel, Hystopia, the setting is late '60s USA, specifically a riot-ravaged Michigan. JFK has survived three assassination attempts and is in the middle of a third term. He's hardly at his best, and his country is a shambles. In constant pain from bullet wounds and his PT-109-damaged back, he ingests many drugs, and escalates the Vietnam War. Plagued by guilt over his lobotomized sister Rosemary (a historical fact), he creates the federal Psych Corps to address a countrywide mental health crisis, aiming to cure veterans of their shell shock and to ease suffering—and placate increasing hordes of violent protestors—from the fallout of the long, inglorious war.
The Psych Corps employs "enfolding," a faulty, blunt procedure in which doctors dose soldiers with the amnesia-inducing drug Tripizoid, and stage reenactments of battle trauma, a process that somehow overwrites the horrors of combat (and often years of additional memory dating back to childhood). Only two things will bring the past back into consciousness: really cold water or really hot sex.
Means places us in several different characters' heads. Most important is veteran Eugene Allen, the "author" of Hystopia, who, upon finishing the book, killed himself. The narrative was Allen's means of coping with his own war trauma, entangled with a difficult homecoming. (Hystopia is bookended with commentary from "actual people," and addenda from Allen, including several suicide notes.)
Allen creates characters based on his own life: Meg, the drug-addled hostage of rampaging, murderous "failed enfold" Rake; Singleton, an enfolded vet/rebellious Psych Corps officer on Rake's trail; and Hank, a relatively well-adjusted vet (or is he?) who hopes to save Meg. In addition to the overarching, somewhat standard plots of damsel-in-distress and damaged-rogue-agent-working-outside-the-law, Means's/Allen's characters encounter their own enfolded stories (yes, through hot sex or cold water), producing tantalizing sub-sub-plots; as they face their traumatic truths, sometimes by degrees, sometimes all at once, they "unfold." How will this reshape their personas, alter their goals?
Crazy as all that may sound, Hystopia resonates as creepily familiar. It's a one-of-a-kind work with traits historical, "future shock," and timely. In modern discourse, we grapple on both personal and societal levels with how we tell our stories, how trauma shapes us, even how medication shapes us. We long to know how mutable we are. Hystopia boldly takes on those sharply relevant ideas. It's a story about storytelling, a traumatic tale about trauma, and how those integral aspects of life interact with one another.
Means's impressive descriptive skill grounds the idea-thick passages in gorgeous language: "On the way over they had passed houses with melted siding, a yard with a cyclopean eye of an old dryer. Dirty and forlorn, a kid stood in the yard, chewing something."
A 2013 Guggenheim fellow, Means has already made his name as a master of short stories artfully encapsulating Big Ideas, and Hystopia extends that reach. The novel is, of course, more of a commitment, but surprisingly, even as Means expands this oft-hallucinatory work beyond conventional boundaries, asking the reader to process shifts in tone and voice, multiple plots, and excessive trippiness, Hystopia retains a brisk pace. In short, it is well worth enfolding, and then unfolding.