David Means’ ‘Hystopia’ is the Boldest Alternate History Novel in Years

A debut novel that reinvents a genre.

In American narrative, we’re seeing a renewed craze for alternate histories and speculative fictions, those fraternal twins born to allegory and politics. On TV, both Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and Stephen King’s 11/22/63 were recently adapted for streaming. In major magazines, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America and Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here have been used to light up Donald Trump’s dark candidacy. If things get worse, the craze could become a full-fledged mania.

In an era of political uneasiness, these stories share a provision of comforts. They seem to stalk easy targets: Kennedy’s assassin(s), Nazis, fascists. And in a time of media uncertainty (and virtuality), they offer an uncomplicated friendship with fiction; it isn’t hard to distinguish between real and unreal when an author unambiguously rearranges the past or predicts the future. After all, these aren’t really fictions about the past or future. They’re stories about how we live now.


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But given our predilection for paranoia, conspiracy, and shapeshifting official narrative, what makes us think that we can share plausible stories about the way we live now? Shouldn’t our national haywiring preclude coherent fictions about our national haywiring? This recognition is part of what makes Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon arguably the last great alternate historical novel; it uses its frame narrative, its exaggerated period idiom, and its mass of anachronistic allusion to undermine our naively presentist view of American history.

It’s not so much that Hystopia is difficult to describe; it’s that doing so makes the describer sound hysterical.

But not all critics applauded Pynchon’s novel. Writing for The New Republic in 2000, James Wood used Mason & Dixon as a test case to diagnose a “hardening genre” he called “hysterical realism.” And “diagnose” is the right word; Wood (famously) presented a list of symptoms about the cracked-up nature of American fiction at the turn of the century. He grouped “Rushdie, Pynchon, DeLillo, Foster Wallace, and others” into an “unconvincing” “cult” that revealed its sickness — its hysteria — through its “evasion” of literary realism. His star patient at the time was Zadie Smith, who promptly (and famously) took the cure by swallowing the pill of convention.

Still, when Wood made his diagnosis, he probably didn’t expect an evolution of the strain. And he maybe feared a patient as performatively crazy as David Means, whose new novel, Hystopia, aggravates the illness. Even its title is an insidious pun on hysteria, history, dystopia.

Instead of taking the cure, Means — before now a celebrated short story writer — has donned the physician’s coat himself. In Hystopia, he diagnoses America’s certainty about its own history — its sense of realism — as its own psychological evasion: a kind of sick faith in official narratives. In Means’ novel, realism is just a confluence of competing hysterias. And it reminds us more than once: “All cures are bogus.”

It’s not so much that Hystopia is difficult to describe; it’s that doing so makes the describer sound hysterical. A frame novel (like Mason & Dixon), it is bookended with author and editor notes that both ground the story and destabilize it (like Pale Fire). In these notes, the unnamed editor of the frame explains that Hystopia is a novel written by Eugene Allen, a suicide and Vietnam War veteran; a quiet, contemplative young man who struggled to write his book through war trauma and the death of his schizophrenic sister, Meg. Accompanying these notes are additional notes by Allen himself, as well as posthumous interviews from friends, family members, and enemies. After the frame, the body of Hystopia, the novel written by Means, is given over to Hystopia, the novel written by Allen. And many of the interviewees crop up in fictional guises during the fiction that follows. If this sounds like Wizard of Oz, I think it’s supposed to.

Here is where it gets tricky. Allen’s novel is an alternate history; the story he tells allegorizes his present by changing historical facts. It takes place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during the Vietnam War; and instead of being assassinated in Texas, JFK survives more than six attempts on his life. As per his third-term mandate, Kennedy resolves to launch a new government agency, the Psych Corps, which is meant to rehabilitate traumatized veterans. Meanwhile, the United States has come to resemble contemporary failed state in that it has fallen into a grid of zones (not unlike a recent map proposed in the New York Times). The Great Lakes region, with its disproportionate number of psychologically damaged veterans (and attendant Black Flag biker gangs), has become a hotbed of rioting, violent war reenactment, and forest fires (set by both the gangs and the government).

Having written all of this, I can warn that it gets trickier. The “editor” of the Allen’s novel quibbles only with the number of times Kennedy survived and the merits of the “cure” offered by the Psych Corps. Hystopia is then an alternate historical fiction wrapped in an official narrative that is also an alternate historical fiction.

The plot of Allen’s novel is decidedly not Pychonesque (or hysterical), which is to say that it isn’t exhausting (as Wood would have it), even if its every character is exhausted and traumatized by the war and its domestic aftermath. After the frame, we’re treated to the first of many allusions to Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” and its first order meaning is obvious: we’ve entered into a zone of sterility and death. And the harbinger of death in Hystopia is Rake, a psychopathic veteran who reenacts (or exacts) his trauma in Nam on the vast, fallen Great Lakes territory. In the first chapter, Rake wantonly kills members of the local police (who are hapless). And he repeatedly drugs a woman named Meg, who, shorn of volition, accompanies him on his sprees. (The first chapter resembles Natural Born Killers.) As the novel progresses, Rake’s rage contrives a paradoxically staccato plainsong; it becomes its background music even during moments of rest. His vision of the world is torturous:

You’re probably wondering why I shot that one back there, and I’m inclined to tell you, although I have doubts that you’ll understand what I’m going to say, he said, adjusting the radio dial, holding on to the wheel with his knees while lighting a cigarette, taking a deep draw and then another deeper one and glancing at her. I shot that guy because he reminded me of my uncle Lester, and my uncle Lester used to remind me of my father, and my father used to remind me of my uncle Lester, and Lester was a crazy son of a bitch who did things to kids that he should’ve done to adults because he had what my mother liked to call wandering hands, hands that were cut loose from his mind.

Alternating, more or less, the chapters of violence (in lower Michigan), are chapters devoted to two agents of the Psych Corps (in Flint). Singleton is a veteran who has been “enfolded,” or cured of his trauma by way of a strange immersion procedure, a reenactment of war trauma aided by a drug called Tripizoid. The combination of the drug and the performance wipes away much of the patient’s memory and allows him to live something like a normal life. When we meet Singleton, he has already enfolded; afterward, he decides to work for Kennedy’s new agency under the command of Klein, a philosophically-minded Korean War veteran who likes to quote Auden (the anti-Eliot). And Klein, along with the rest of the agency, is obsessed with stopping Rake, a “failed enfold” — he didn’t take to the treatment — who kidnaps other failed enfolds.

Means’ style pays close attention to the physical world without being thickly materialist. It registers thoughts and feelings without becoming burdened with sentimentality.

In the style of Anthony Burgess, the language of “enfolding” layers much of Hystopia. And the erasure of memory it entails governs its characters’ interactions. Singleton soon romances a nurse at the agency named Wendy, a woman who has not enfolded — she remembers her past. This courting is dangerous, too, and forbidden by the agency, because one way to unfold is to have “visionary” sex — to experience outrageous orgasmic pleasure. Whether this happens I won’t say, but I will tell you that Wendy and Singleton take all manner of drugs — it is, after all, the alternate 1970s. And their budding relationship allows Singleton to meet her “family,” which amounts to a warmly pathetic Korean War veteran father as well as a past lover, a double amputee named Zomboid. But in their hallucinogenic fog the couple also begins to wonder whether their love affair is secretly sanctioned by the Psych Corps. Are they meant to fulfill a mission? Is it part of a new cure? Klein reminds us again that “all cures are bogus.”

Near the story’s midpoint, we meet Hank, a self-enfolded veteran who wants to rescue Meg by killing Rake — only he can’t. Killing anyone would risk his unfolding back into trauma. But as former accomplice, Hank is intimate with the rhythm of Rake’s insane ways and schemes, a fact which allows him to protect Meg. Their scenes together are tender — a reprieve from the drugs and violence — and they demonstrate Means’ prodigious scenic prose:

On the beach—cold stones, small tendrils of black sand—they sat on a tarp and ate cheese and a loaf of bread. Then they lolled and he pulled off his shirt and she pulled hers up, letting the wind blow across their skin, not too cold but cool, counteracted by the sunlight, which came through the thin, late spring clouds. The blackflies that would pester in June stayed hidden in the crux of rocks, and the waves, barely a foot high, came in and carved themselves into the shoreline and receded in long stretches of foam. Along the horizon, almost out of sight, as if a decorative afterthought, another supertanker gave the lake a deeper, more horrific beauty, because during the last few years, ships were sinking (he explained) at an alarming rate: the Hoover, the Drake, the Sam Johnson.

Means’ style pays close attention to the physical world without being thickly materialist. It registers thoughts and feelings without becoming burdened with sentimentality. And it’s formally maximalist. There are subjunctive moments recorded in italics. There is much free indirection. A character’s impressions could be externalized without being quoted. Dialogue is sometimes quoted; other times it isn’t. The quality of the writing is undeniably accomplished, yet it is as much the prose of a suicidal young war veteran is it Means’ own. By this I mean it retains an invented lunacy: the fragmented minds of its characters reside on different planes of memory, and so the way they are presented changes in turn. On top of all of this, Means is writing in the language of a historical novel, but the history of the novel is a deviation. For every new phrase (like “Causal Event Package”) there is another “groovy.”

Yet Hystopia’s inventiveness has its limits. It is buffered by too many other novels. Its violent antagonist, Rake, is a modulation of Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Its fragmentary veteran’s narrative recalls Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. The ideas it puts forward about trauma and repetition appear in Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Even its undermining of official narratives seemed truer in Peter Dimock’s George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time.

But even if these allusions and literary debts rattle in the back of Hystopia like repressed memories, it manages to compress them into an unforeseen form of hysteria. In his fidelity to a peculiarly American brokenness, Means’ debut surpasses nearly all of his recent peers. All cures are bogus, maybe, and genres grow sclerotic. But new illnesses should be met with awe.