An Amer­i­can night­mare

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - David Means Faber & Faber, £8.99 Re­view by Alas­tair Mab­bott

AL­TER­NA­TIVE his­to­ries are back in vogue, with SS-GB de­but­ing on BBC1 and The Man In The High Cas­tle now on its sec­ond sea­son. David Means’ Hystopia adds an ex­tra metafic­tional layer, the bulk of the novel be­ing a work of spec­u­la­tive fic­tion writ­ten within an al­ter­na­tive time­line.

To try to tidy that up a lit­tle: the premise of Hystopia is that it’s a man­u­script writ­ten in 1974 by Viet­nam vet­eran Eu­gene Allen, who com­mit­ted sui­cide after fin­ish­ing it, book­ended with editor’s notes and in­ter­views with peo­ple who knew him. Allen’s work of fic­tion is set in an Amer­ica where Kennedy car­ried on to an un­prece­dented third term after sev­eral as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempts. The editor’s in­tro­duc­tion. agrees with this ver­sion of events, so the al­ter­nate time­line is not Allen’s in­ven­tion but the con­text in which his man­u­script was writ­ten. Clear?

In Allen’s novel, sol­diers re­turn­ing from Viet­nam with PTSD are be­ing treated with a process called “en­fold­ing”, in which the in­ci­dent that caused their trauma is reen­acted un­der the in­flu­ence of the drug Trip­i­zoid, which wipes the mem­ory and its neg­a­tive ef­fects. (The causal chain of events can mean that sub­jects lose vast chunks of their mem­ory go­ing back to child­hood.) This is ad­min­is­tered by the or­gan­i­sa­tion Psych Corps, based in Michi­gan. How­ever, im­mer­sion in cold wa­ter and or­gas­mic sex are both known to re­verse the pro­ce­dure, bring­ing back the trau­matic mem­o­ries along with their associated be­havioural ef­fects.

A failed en­fold, Rake has turned se­rial killer, leav­ing a trail of bod­ies across Michi­gan after break­ing a young woman, Meg, out of a men­tal hos­pi­tal. Rake takes her to the se­cluded house of his for­mer part­ner-in-crime, Hank, where they can hide out. Se­cretly, Hank, who has been self-ad­min­is­ter­ing Trip­i­zoid, tries to help Meg break through to her old mem­o­ries with­out Rake know­ing. In­tent on track­ing Rake down is Sin­gle­ton, an en­folded vet­eran turned Psych Corps re­cruit, who em­barks on a for­bid­den af­fair with col­league Wendy, half­sus­pect­ing that he has a con­nec­tion with Rake which is be­ing ex­ploited by his bosses.

Michi­gan is be­set with for­est fires, ri­ots and mo­tor­cy­cle gangs, with worse ex­pected if one of Kennedy’s would-be as­sas­sins suc­ceeds. But de­spite all that, plus the drugs, the guns, the threat of an un­sta­ble killer and the Stooges con­stantly on the ra­dio, a dour­ness hangs over Hystopia. The pac­ing is lan­guid and there’s a no­tice­able lack of ten­sion and ex­cite­ment. Means is a distinguished short story writer, with four col­lec­tions to his name, but per­haps he hasn’t adapted to the longer form in the way he’d hoped.

His style is a bet­ter fit for the ma­te­rial when he’s em­pha­sis­ing the tragedy of pol­lu­tion and for­est fires with some rich de­scrip­tions of the Michi­gan land­scape, or when Hank shares his en­cy­clopaedic knowl­edge and deep un­der­stand­ing of trees.

So Hystopia isn’t en­tirely suc­cess­ful, but it hits a lot of the right notes. De­spite the Viet­nam-era set­ting, it has a time­less res­o­nance, both in its ru­mi­na­tions on war and on the sto­ries we tell our­selves be­cause real life re­fuses to pro­vide the happy end­ings we crave.

Hystopia fol­lows the al­ter­na­tive his­tory path of TV series The Man In The High Cas­tle

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