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‘Hystopia’ a tough, demanding novel about bringing the war back home


By David Means

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

336 pages, $26

By Michael D. Langan

“Hystopia” is a book about trying to recover from personal and national trauma. In either case, it isn’t easy. The title is odd, but referential. Think of a novel about historical dystopia; hence the title, “Hystopia.”

In this novel, a twenty-two-year-old vet, Eugene Allen, returns from the Vietnam War and begins to write a history of that war. He wants to bring honor to Vietnam vets, derogated by much of the public in America at the time. That war was 20 years in duration – beginning in 1955 – but America’s heaviest involvement with troops was between 1965 and 1973.

In “Hystopia”, Vietnam War vets return and have their disturbing war memories “enfolded” by drugs and therapy by a federal agency created by the president, and are thereby effectively forgotten. 

Some American vets, Means writes, are too screwed up to be enfolded and they “roam at will in Michigan, evading the government and re-enacting atrocities on civilians.”

An example from the book, a scene of battle described at night, sets the scene: “Phantom gooks … could pass through trees. Amid all of it Frank crab-walked and then did belly crawl back to us, and, while we yelled at him to get f- - king moving, he curled up, still in the fire zone, and buried his hands in his face and did that snort-gag-cry – the one a guy does when his buddy is killed, the one I’d do in the morning, at dawn light, when I lost Kingston, my buddy…”

These errant war veterans signify what happens when warriors experience extreme physical, mental and political revulsions on the battle field. When some return home, they continue the mayhem. Too hard to believe? Perhaps, except when you watch the nightly news with increasingly numerous stories that feature similar events. 

David Means, an excellent American short story writer, brings his exceptional talent to the fore in his first novel that touches upon that trauma, “both national and personal” in such a way that asks us whether our traumas can ever be overcome. At the beginning of this story Means relates that traumatic memory is not narrative. 

I disagree with that. Sometimes it can be.

Think of the 1962 film, “The Manchurian Candidate,” featuring Frank Sinatra and based on Richard Condon’s novel. It’s about an American soldier brainwashed by the Chinese at the height of the Korean War. He comes back to assassinate a political candidate running for president.

I suppose it comes to what one means by “narrative.” But the film is a case of it in my eyes: brain-washed through trauma and acting on subconscious direction drilled into the candidate by way of torture and mind-altering drugs. Of course narrative in a film is different than narrative in a novel.

Critics may argue that “The Manchurian Candidate” is fiction and a specious example. But in fact, “Hystopia” itself refers to wars from the “Iliad’ to the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” according to one critic. It is hardly different.

Let’s begin then with the heavy lift that this novel imposes. Prospective readers have to know the history of the fifties through the early seventies before recognizing that the novelist is imposing an alternate history upon it. A quick example of the fake from the real: 

In “Hystopia,” President John F. Kennedy is assassinated on the seventh attempt. If you know your history, this is clearly not true. As far as we know, Kennedy was assassinated on a first attempt. It took place while the president was driving in a motorcade through Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963. Lee Harvey Oswald was the killer.

If you didn’t know these specific details, the reader risks becoming serially confused about what actually happened – as against what is said to have happened – presented as fact. For some, this distinction is nominal. They don’t care. “It’s historical fiction,” is the refrain.

For me, it’s supremely important to know fact from fiction. You have to know the facts. From there, you can hypothesize to your heart’s content. New Yorker critic James Woods refers to these works as becoming “entangled in the simulation of historical authenticity.”

Scores of historical fiction books deal with this issue and not always successfully. At its worst, the writer imposes a supposed traumatic memory, beautifully written but bogus. The uninformed reader is then put into a quandary. Should one just read on, give up, or what?

As Shoshana Olidort, who has written for the “Times Literary Supplement,” puts it, “There is a lot to unpack in this novel whose central themes include, but are hardly limited to, trauma, memory and violence.”

This is a tough novel to read, but it could be a warning sign to what returning veterans waiting for months for an appointment with the Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities face now. 

When we think about America’s last sixty years of history, it’s hard not to reflect that our country has had a history of repetitive political trauma; what I would call a “case of the yips.” Here is what I mean by that strange term: A case of the yips usually refers to a professional athlete who’s performed expertly in the past but has unexpectedly lost control of his fine motor skills. 

Extrapolating this condition, one might say that our country has lost control of its fine political skills. As a result, our national and community leaders, our citizens at home with our neighbors – some of whose names we don’t know anymore – are unable to mediate our controversies. 

Thus, we’re in a period of stasis with a case of the yips. The point is that we’re in deep trouble as a barely functioning democracy.  Those suffering in the rest of the world, reliant upon us, are losing hope.

Anti-rational forces touched upon in “Hystopia” are back – they’ve been lurking in the shadows since the beginning of time – with a vengeance.

In at least one sense, this is a profoundly important book. It demonstrates the futility of war for all who have taken part.

Don’t wait, however, for new world leaders who have never been in the military to stop sending off hundreds of thousands of young people into conflicts announced and unannounced, many never to return.

Bombs drop, things fall apart, burn, and some innocents end up as ash and cinders, the cremains of the day.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent reviewer of books for The Buffalo News.