Dystopia of shift­ing and un­re­li­able re­al­i­ties

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Bradley’s

In one of the sto­ries in David Means’s sec­ond col­lec­tion, As­sorted Fire Events (2000), a girl play­ing in her back­yard sud­denly dis­ap­pears, swal­lowed up by the sub­si­dence of a care­lessly as­sem­bled struc­ture of con­crete and rub­ble built to hide from prospec­tive buy­ers a stream cut­ting through the prop­erty.

It’s a deeply shock­ing mo­ment in a book boast­ing more than its fair share of them, not least be­cause Means’s spare, al­most blunt prose lends it a wrench­ing im­me­di­acy. But it also un­der­scores the bril­liantly cal­i­brated aware­ness of the un­pre­dictable ways grief and loss can dis­fig­ure and de­rail lives that makes this Amer­i­can writer’s fiction so pow­er­ful.

This pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the ca­pac­ity of the past to de­form the present is made ex­plicit in Means’s much-an­tic­i­pated debut novel, Hystopia, which was this week longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The novel ex­plores the ef­fects of trauma on in­di­vid­u­als and so­ci­eties. Yet where the hor­ror that in­heres in much of Means’s short fiction has tended to be bal­anced by a care­ful fi­delity to the real, Hystopia is in­stead an ex­cur­sion into a pe­cu­liarly un­set­tling brand of dystopia, in which noth­ing — not even the novel it­self — can be re­lied on.

It’s set in an al­ter­na­tive 1969 in which John F. Kennedy has re­cently en­tered a his­toric third term as US pres­i­dent and where Viet­nam drags on, blood­ier and more in­tractable than ever. The mem­o­ries of the grow­ing tide of shell­shocked and traumatised vet­er­ans are re­pressed by a fed­eral Psych Corps us­ing drugs and ex­per­i­men­tal ther­apy.

The book pur­ports to be the work of Eu­gene Allen, a now-de­ceased 22-year-old Viet­nam vet­eran who sought to cre­ate a fic­tive world “bent dou­ble upon it­self, as vi­o­lent and desta­bilised as our own times, as preg­nant and non­sen­si­cal”.

Framed within a series of editorial notes and ex­cerpts from in­ter­views with Eu­gene’s friends and fam­ily, this novel within a novel is set in a re­al­ity twisted a half turn fur­ther from Eu­gene’s world, and con­cerns Wendy and Sin­gle­ton, a pair of Psych Corps of­fi­cers who defy or­ders and set off in pur­suit of a vet­eran who has gone on a mur­der­ous ram­page through the back­blocks of Illi­nois and Michi­gan.

The vet­eran is one of a grow­ing group of pa­tients whose Psych Corps re­pro­gram­ming has be­gun to un­ravel.

Their treat­ment, known as en­fold­ing, is es­sen­tially a form of ther­a­peu­tic am­ne­sia in which mem­o­ries of trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence are com­part­men­talised and locked away by be­ing reen­acted un­der the in­flu­ence of a drug known as Trip­i­zoid.

In this process what hap­pened and what is re-en­acted blur into one an­other un­til the real mem­ory and the fic­tional mem­ory can no longer be dis­tin­guished and both recede, drawn back in a “mnemonic rip-tide”.

Al­though ef­fec­tive at re­press­ing trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence, en­fold­ment is not with­out cost. Mem­o­ries are not gone but re­pressed, and en­folded sub­jects live with a con­stant aware­ness not only that their mem­o­ries can be un­locked by im­mer­sion in cold wa­ter or es­pe­cially pow­er­ful or­gasms, but what Sin­gle­ton — him­self an en­folded vet­eran — de­scribes as “the tex­ture of not know­ing but want­ing to know”.

With its ex­ten­sive and cu­ri­ously per­sonal editorial notes Hystopia re­calls Pale Fire, yet its evo­ca­tion of the dis­lo­ca­tion en­gen­dered by the busi­ness of en­fold­ing owes more to Philip K. Dick than Vladimir Nabokov.

It’s a qual­ity that per­vades the book, lend­ing it a dis­tinctly queasy power. Like the maimed JFK, who in­sists on plac­ing him­self in re­peated danger through con­stant public ap­pear­ances, the in­creas­ingly vi­o­lent and un­hinged so­ci­ety Eu­gene’s novel de­picts is it­self de­ranged by the on­go­ing act of un­know­ing that al­lows the war to con­tinue de­spite its hu­man cost.

This sense of dis­lo­ca­tion and a re­al­ity de­formed by the half-for­got­ten is height­ened fur­ther by the way in which the novel’s metafic­tional con­ceits fold back into them­selves. Eu­gene’s novel, it­self an at­tempt to re­write re­al­ity into more man­age­able form, grad­u­ally sup­plants the re­al­ity evoked by the editorial ap­pa­ra­tus in which it is em­bed­ded, only to un­ravel in the fi­nal pages when the reader is re­minded that what they have read is not “real” but a fiction em­bed­ded within a fiction.

There is lit­tle doubt Hystopia loses some of its ur­gency in its fi­nal third, yet de­spite its com­plex­ity it never feels tricksy, or un­grounded. Partly this is be­cause Means lends the strug­gles of his char­ac­ters gen­uine depth, and be­cause the de­sen­si­tised sur­faces of his fic­tional America (or Amer­i­cas) are coun­ter­pointed by a deeply felt aware­ness of the phys­i­cal land­scape (his de­scrip­tions of the beaches of Lake Michi­gan are par­tic­u­larly won­der­ful).

But it is also be­cause Means cap­tures some­thing rarely ar­tic­u­lated about the era­sures buried within this world, and the re­al­ity in which we, just like his char­ac­ters, are en­folded. most re­cent novel is Clade.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.