David Means’ Man Booker Prize longlist finalist – Hystopia – begins with twenty-three pages of a fictional editor’s notes, and I was tempted to skip over them to get right to the story of John F. Kennedy’s fictional third term as President of the United States. Yet, without these pages and those ending the book, which I read too – interviews explaining the imagined new order created to deal with Vietnam veterans – the story does not make sense, but maybe it was never meant to make sense anyway.
Hystopia is a novel within a novel. The fictional editor introduces and ends fictional author Eugene Allen’s story of John F. Kennedy’s continued presidency, until his assassination in 1970. Allen, a veteran of the Vietnam War participated in a treatment called “enfolding,” involving the re-enactment of past events used with a drug called Tripizoid to repress traumatic war memories. As a result, he eventually commits suicide, leaving behind his novel, “Hystopia.”
The dystopian landscape is sometimes hard to travel, with Kennedy’s Psych Squad, based in Michigan, hot on the trail of veterans not cured by the enfolding. The character profiles offer no relief: Rake, a psychopath who has kidnapped a young girl, Meg, the girlfriend of a soldier who served with Rake and was killed in Vietnam; Wendy , once in love with a veteran who lost his legs in the war and an agent in the Pysch Squad; and Singleton, a soldier who has been successfully enfolded, and cannot remember his trauma.
The book is a wild ride through the United States involvement in the Vietnam War, reliving the anger and its consequences. This was a ride I couldn’t finish, and the idea of therapeutic forgetfulness is already working – the story and Michigan’s alternative universe are already fading in my memory.
Maybe I don’t need to read all the long listed books for the Man Booker this year, after all. Have you read this one?