Quickly gets lost in its own self-awareness, scribbling curlicues of style that mix numerous layers of Vietnam cliché into a formal exercise.
Of all the wars to constantly be recycled for artistic allegories about current conflicts, Vietnam will perhaps always loom largest from a dramatic standpoint. Its status as the first conflict that was beamed directly into every American household every evening marks it as the dawn of postmodern warfare, war as entertainment without the middleman of dramatization. That notion figures heavily into David Means’s debut novel, Hystopia, a Pynchon-esque novel-within-a-novel that explores a vision of the Vietnam era even more confused and nihilistic than the real thing. Diving headlong into its alternative history, the book quickly gets lost in its own self-awareness, scribbling curlicues of style that mix numerous layers of Vietnam cliché into a formal exercise.
The hip disconnect of the language is aided by a clumsy framing device that posits the bulk of the book as the discovered manuscript of a troubled Vietnam veteran, Eugene Allen, who returned home and penned his book amid hosts of suicide notes. The pre- and post-script to Allen’s “novel” are largely testimonials from friends and medical specialists, resulting in a lugubrious fake oral history of burnouts and clinicians that add no particular insight and lack any compelling wit. The overriding thrust of these passages is to put over the disturbed mind that wrote the story within, but that only offers thin cover for Means himself for a narrative that explores wanton, shell-shocked violence with a curious, dispassionate cover.
Hystopia itself concerns an experimental program for traumatized American GIs called “enfolding,” a process that involves memory modification and copious drugs to sedate and compartmentalize the overwhelming psychological impact of the war. The only issue is that if a soldier’s re-programming should fail, the shock can create even worse trauma than before. This happens to a veteran named Rake, who breaks bad and kidnaps Meg, a civilian woman undergoing the same treatment, and proceeds to tear through the countryside killing anyone he comes across and writing mandalas in their blood. He does the latter partly out of disturbed compulsion, but also as a signifier, something for the special detectives of the Psych Corps, the agency responsible for maintaining the security of the conditioning program, to attempt to decipher. The hollowness of the action, an obscene gesture done less out of genuine madness than the belief that this is a thing a man this addled should be doing, renders it nothing more than a metatextual provocation. It is an act of nihilism divorced from actual despair and rejection, instead just an unorthodox character marker.
Contrasting Rake’s grisly spree with the captive and drugged Meg is Singleton, an agent of Psych Corps and an enfolded veteran himself. In direct violation of the agency’s rules, Singleton strikes up a relationship with a fellow agent, Wendy, and their relationship brings him such ecstatic emotions that he threatens to “unfold.” As that couple carefully navigates the intense scrutiny of a seemingly omniscient bureaucracy, Rake’s sojourn with Meg becomes more and more disturbing, with the veteran becoming more and more an agent of some imagined narrative of moral comeuppance and Meg appeasing him while searching for escape. Yet despite the concrete narrative ties that bind Singleton and Rake not only as cop and criminal but as figures with a shared past, these stories never truly intersect, instead exploring two threads of Vietnam fiction in the coming-home horror and the paranoid government thriller.
Means chases each thread down with perfunctory diligence, gamely replicating the knotty attributes of both but never sinking into the realms of the truly demented. Given that the author frames the text as the outpourings of an unstable man on the verge of self-destruction, the careful exercise of the text’s assembly becomes even more flat and jarring. It’s like reading the script for Max Fischer’s Vietnam movie mash-up play at the end of Rushmore, with Nam having become so self-sufficient as a cultural touchstone that generations not even alive for it can project its collected symbols without end. If books could have a soundtrack, this would play Buffalo Springfield when you opened it, and just enough of the Nugget compilation to suggest danger.
Occasionally, Means stumbles across a winning idea. One of Rake’s nominal cohorts, Hank, turns out to be a successfully treated vet who works behind Rake’s back to make peace, even if he must use violence to do so. There’s also the undercurrent of the novel’s largest work of historical fantasy, that of JFK surviving his assassination attempt. In Means’s world, however, this leaves Kennedy himself troubled, instilled with a death drive that he transfers to the entire country via increased commitment in Vietnam. It’s the most genuinely troubling idea in a book supposedly all about the mental strain of war. Means ultimately attempts to work past the violence and toward a vision of longing and frustrated human connection, but his characters are such empty chess pieces that this, too, becomes another in his line of oversimplified clichés, immaculately ordered but kept behind glass.