Dystopia of shifting and unreliable realities
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.