An American nightmare
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