By David Means
David Means’s first novel, Hystopia, is sort of an alternative dystopian history, sort of an exploration of secret government programs, sort of a commentary on the treatment of vets, sort of an examination of the brutally of war on soldiers, and sort of a plunge into the heart of darkness to kill a sort of Kurtz, the murderous lose-hinged Rake, a failed recipient of induced amnesia. Unfortunately, Means gets caught up in literary devices that add little to the central story of the mental health consequences of war, not to mention the wrong-headedness of government.
The tale takes place in the early 1970s. JKF has survived several assassination attempts and remains president, a very peripatetic one who constantly exposes himself to gunmen, possibly to assuage his guilt on sending men to war. And, yes, in Means’s version of history, Kennedy pursues the war, contrary to what many believed he would do if he had lived, but curiously supportable by revelations in The Pentagon Papers. He’s also organized the Psych Corps in an effort to render disturbed returning soldiers to a peaceful state by enfolding (inducing permanent amnesia) memories of wartime killing. Michigan, Means’s home state, is where these enfolded folks are corralled. However, while enfolding seemed like a good idea, humanitarian and all that, it resulted in its own form trauma: enfolds tortured by losing whole chunks of their past lives and choosing to unfold themselves, with disastrous consequences. Case in point: the aforementioned Rake, a raging one-man killing machine who has literally set Michigan on fire.
Klein, a commander in the Psych Corps, realizes that Rake must be put down. To accomplish the task, he manipulates a Corps subordinate, enfolded Singleton, into hooking up with Wendy. While the Corps prohibits fraternizing within the ranks, Klein needs a team and in particular Singleton, for reasons revealed deeper into the novel. So the two, like Willard and Marlow before them, head up river to get Rake.
Rake needs getting, too, as he is totally berserk and totally uncontainable. He has kidnapped an enfolded mental patient, Meg, who he ties up constantly and torments, to the consternation of old buddy, once enfolded but secretly unfolded Hank. Hank forms a bond with Meg, helps her regain her memories, which clarify character connections for us readers, and conspires with her to offer up Rake to the Psych Corps, whom he’s certain will come for the lunatic of the north woods. As grim as all this sounds, what with unrestrained killing afoot and characters struggling mightily with their mental gaps, Means resolves things within a wealth of hopefulness at the end.
If all this strikes you as a bit complicated for a tale that, at its heart, is a quest to end evil and a commentary on government secrecy, missteps, and slaughter in an effort to preserve some sense of honor (as revealed in the The Pentagon Papers), Means layers on more complication. For the story of the Corps and the pursuit of Rake and the rescuing of Meg is a novel written by a character, Eugene Allen, whose own tale contains elements within his novel. This all comes in lumps of interview narratives bracketing the novel itself. Naturally, you’re not only trying to follow the thread of the novel, but continually wondering what the heck Eugene is trying to say about his own suicide and the death of his sister. Maybe, rather than finding all this cumbersome and distracting, you’re the type who thrives on this kind of literary enfolding. If so, you’ll enjoy the novel, and if not, you may simply frustrate yourself. w/c