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.