Hystopia by David Means

Hystopia: A Novel BY David Means. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 352 pages. $26.
The cover of Hystopia: A Novel

In 1939, wondering how Russia would react to the expanding war, Winston Churchill memorably stated: It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. This is an apt description of Hystopia, David Means’s long-awaited novel about Vietnam. Means focuses not on the war but its irresolvable aftermath—specifically, on the psychic damage visited on veterans years after the fall of Saigon. The opening pages introduce us to a twenty-two-year-old vet who commits suicide, the concluding pages present a series of suicide notes, and the pages that come between attempt to answer a grave and persistent question: Why did he do it?

Means, the author of four short-story collections, has posed this question before. A Vietnam vet’s suicide is the subject of one of his first published stories, “Close Your Eyes,” which appeared in the 1991 collection A Quick Kiss of Redemption. “Nobody really knew Stan Needman,” we are told. Needman died a hero—this, at any rate, is what the patriotic churchgoers in his provincial Michigan hometown believe, or more precisely, what they want to believe. The story pivots on the revelation—unknown to all but a sympathetic former neighbor—that Needman was a closeted gay man. This early story suggests Means’s faith in fiction’s ability to tether cause to effect. It’s a snug bond, one that doesn’t permit gaps or incongruities. The story provides a cogent psychological explanation for the young man’s death wish: Needman’s very name trumpets his central dilemma.

In Hystopia, Means portrays his hero’s suicide as a puzzle of baffling complexity. He does not place his faith in linear narrative to explain it. Instead, he uses a metafictional framing device: a novel-within-a-novel, bookended by Editor’s Notes and Author’s Notes. The “Editor” is nameless; the “Author” is Eugene Allen. The Editor’s Notes are a meticulous exegesis of the novel-within-a-novel (its title, too, is Hystopia), and include transcripts of interviews, journal entries, letters, and other artifacts having to do with Eugene before and after his suicide. The interviewees are his friends and family members, some of whom are forthcoming with their opinions (“That guy was wacko. I’m sorry he killed himself, but after trying to read this I’d say it was all for the best.”), some of whom aren’t (“No comment. I’d appreciate if you’d stay away from me. My son is dead.”). We hear an echo of Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods in this chorus of conflicting voices, but the world these characters inhabit is zanier. Here’s an excerpt from a postmortem examination conducted at the Michigan State Mental Facility, which posits a connection between Eugene’s psychological affliction and his suicide:

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…. 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.

The report goes on to observe that the connection between Stiller’s disease and suicide is nevertheless “indeterminate and open to speculation.”

Just when these inconclusive prefatory pages begin to register as an elaborate avoidance strategy, a seemingly ceaseless deferral of narrative (there are nine Editor’s Notes which, together with the Author’s Notes, extend over twenty pages), Eugene’s book-within-a-book begins. The plot is simple—good guy chases bad guy—and it offers all the conventional narrative satisfactions denied us in the prefatory pages. The good guy is Singleton, an agent in the Psych Corps, a government-run outfit that aims to manage a population of Vietnam vets by erasing their memories of trauma—“enfolding,” in Psych Corps parlance, a process that yields inconsistent results among its subjects, called “enfolds.” Singleton is a success story, an enfold who remembers almost nothing of his tour of duty. He drives across the state of Michigan in pursuit of the psychopath Rake, a failed enfold who remembers far more than he should and is consequently bent on killing nearly everyone he encounters. Both men are paired up with women: Singleton with Wendy, a fellow Psych Corps agent, and Rake with Meg, a spacey waif he kidnaps. The connections among these four characters, and a few more they encounter along the way, are deeper than they first appear, and there is a happy ending of sorts. Rake meets justice, Meg escapes with a kindly woodsman, and Singleton and Wendy fall in love.

It’s worth noting that the components of this dystopian world (the “Zone of Anarchy,” the “Year of Hate”) are decidedly DeLillo-esque, as is the atmosphere of paranoia that gives way to paradox (“the implausibility of the conspiracy is precisely what makes it plausible,” one character anxiously observes). This is not to say that Means is derivative. The impulse here is homage, a nod to the master, not imitation. Indeed, one of the enduring satisfactions of reading Means is to sense his singular generosity, which is another way of saying that he has more heart than many of his contemporaries. He does not view his characters’ suffering with ironic detachment. He imbues raw grief (“Did I imagine your face a couple of hundred times, pained, twisted in front of your loss, blooming like a flower?”) and nihilism (“Forget heaven. Forget eternity.”) with deeply felt anguish. He is benevolent enough to give the good guys a happy ending, or at least the chance at one.

In the pages that follow the book-within-a-book, Means swerves gently away from false certainties. An Author’s Note provides fresh insight into Eugene’s suicide while slyly subverting our assumptions about the metafictional framing device. The plot pivots yet again, and we arrive someplace entirely unexpected. Hystopia is an intricately structured novel that never loses focus on Eugene’s question: Why did I die? It’s a bewildered cry in the dark, and Means demands we listen.

Rebecca Donner is the author of a novel, Sunset Terrace, and a graphic novel, Burnout.