Hystopia: An Ambitious, Dystopian Retelling of the Vietnam War

David Means’s debut novel examines the psychological implications of a world where trauma can be erased.

Max Means / Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

In 2010, the short-story writer David Means told The Paris Review that while he was occasionally tempted to write a novel, he was content, for the time being, “to be working hard at stories.” By then he had been publishing his fiction for almost two decades, and it wasn’t bad reviews he was afraid of. Instead, he described “a fear of wasting time—and in doing so not being able to tell the stories that want to be told.” The stakes, Means explained, were high. “If a story wants to be told and you don’t tell it, you’d better stand back because something’s going to explode.”

The very structure of Hystopia, his first novel, is a testament to Means’s belief in the power of stories that demand to be told. The book opens with a series of “editor’s notes” that frame its main text as the work of Eugene Allen. Allen’s mother, it’s revealed, found the manuscript in his bedroom after her son’s suicide. Back from Vietnam and “bored with the mystery of life,” Allen had set to work creating a “fictive universe” only a few degrees off from his reality—a reality that readers quickly realize is only a few degrees off from history as we know it.

Hystopia, set in Michigan around 1970, is a book with a volatile dystopian veneer. The Vietnam War continues to rage on in Means’s fictional world (and in Allen’s fictional world) as, at that time, it did in the actual world. But in Hystopia, the American troops remain under the leadership of a third-term President Kennedy who’s survived multiple assassination attempts. Determined to somehow alleviate returning soldiers’ psychological suffering, his administration has launched a major mental-health initiative. Meanwhile, young men keep dying, and more keep being sent to replace them; those who do return come back changed. “Where is the grace in all this?” Allen wonders.

Allen’s novel, also called Hystopia, is his attempt to impose a measure of grace on the chaos of the recent past, both public and personal. In Allen’s imaginary 1970, Kennedy’s initiative, the “Psych Corps,” is a thriving, robust organization. Part of Allen’s invention is the special mission he assigns it: The Corps conducts a treatment process called “enfolding” that is itself based on the primacy of stories—on the notion that retelling events can serve as an antidote to explosion.

Traumatized patients, most of them veterans, must first reenact, and thus relive, the “causal events” of their particular traumatic experiences. In the process, they become so immersed in the reenactment that they begin to forget the actual harrowing catalysts. A second crucial element is a drug, Tripizoid, which facilitates fuller amnesia. Enfolded patients forget the trauma completely; they know it has occurred, but their memories are limited to experiences before and after the traumatic period. (They recall enlisting in the army, for example, and finishing treatment, but not how it felt to be in the midst of war.) When the treatment is successful, the story becomes the cure, and then the story vanishes. The patient is left happier and more whole than before. Crucially, enfolding can be reversed through immersion in cold water or orgasmic sex, which means Allen’s characters must give up a key pleasure to avoid pain.

You could think of this process as remembering in order to forget—and you might wonder how well it works in practice. (Scientists, it turns out, have been wondering the same thing lately, as psychiatrists continue to debate the efficacy of exposure therapy and the ethics of diminishing the impact of trauma before it becomes PTSD.) 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. Wendy and Singleton (an enfolded vet) are both employed by the Psych Corps. They meet at work and fall for each other (against the rules). They eventually decide to go AWOL and head north in pursuit of Rake, a failed enfold who is keeping the enfolded, defenseless Meg (a fictionalized version of Allen’s mentally ill sister) drugged and submissive, an unwilling accomplice to his serial violence. Rake’s old friend Hank has been enfolded, too, and is attempting to rescue Meg, a feat he realizes he’ll be able to pull off only if she’s unfolded.

Showing that there’s no straightforward answer to Allen’s question, and that asking it yields mostly confusion, seems to be Means’s goal. That makes for a novel, and a novel within a novel, in which narrative momentum and meaning start to feel elusive. Characters constantly spouting Psych Corps jargon can grow tiresome. But as readers get  bogged down in the protagonists’ convoluted layers of consciousness, a strain of bracing, dark mockery of the Corps emerges. On balance, the enfolding treatment seems to have done these people more harm than good. Each must, at some point, reach back into enfolded memories to move forward. As the characters’ ordeals play out, Means (with help from Allen) deftly exposes the contradictions at the heart of the Corps’ “Credo,” which begets its share of absurd bureaucratic jargon. A larger implication looms over Allen’s novel: The more successful the treatment is in blurring painful memories, the less reason there is for a country still at war ever to withdraw.

But Means isn’t merely peddling a self-conscious renovation of Santayana’s truism that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. He’s expressed disdain for “postmodern tricks” and “game playing for the sake of game playing,” and has a more important satiric project up his sleeve: He’s simultaneously challenging the notion that remembering the past is much of a guide either. The Corps’ hybrid treatment reveals the futility of any clear-cut formula for dealing with trauma, on the individual or the national level. The Corps, as one higher-up there admits, is really only “a repository for irony,” a project born of the country’s unwillingness to write off Vietnam as “the Little Fuck-up” it is and move on.

In the real world, as in Means’s novel, America has, of course, remained trapped in war. Means has a profound respect for the nation’s actual explosive history; his plot gleefully alters details, but not the basic themes of the story, or their violent outcomes. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that, though the first attempt on Kennedy’s life is supposed to have failed in Hystopia, its fictional world keeps the assassination attempts coming. Some stories, Means suggests, are so explosive that they invite countless retelling, shedding new light—and darkness, too. As one acquaintance comments on Allen’s novel, “How he got it right in his book is a wonder to me, man, except to say he did.” Means’s ambitious novel may occasionally swerve into overwrought dystopian territory, but by the time it has reached its haunting conclusion, it deserves the same praise.