What a Trip: ‘Hystopia’ in Review

As I read the book I really, really could not put it down. I know I say this for almost every book I review here but given the fact I’ve had two assignments and an exam in the last two weeks, this statement is far too true.

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Title: Hystopia
Author: David Means
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Available: Now
Rating: 5/5
Review-in-Brief: A truly inspired use of form from Means that blew me away. I would almost indulge in the amnesiac drug, Tripizoid, to go on this trip again.


“Did you see what Geraldine Costner wrote?” Erm, no. “Well she said in her latest article that she reckons Teresa May should step down…well she didn’t say it but she meant it…” Controversial political statements aside, we often read into what people “really mean” when they’re writing. Whether it be an article for a respectable publication or a novel of radical ideas, we tend to look for the hidden intentions and political leanings of the writer.

David Means tapped into this perceptive ability of each human being out there and wrote a book in which you do not, in fact, read directly about the main character. Instead, you read the novel,the main character has written, preceded by the editor’s notes and some interviews with other peripheral characters. Therein you have to guess what’s really going on behind this fictitious fiction presented in Hystopia

I must admit, this sounded so far-fetched to me when I read the description but trusting Faber and Faber as a publisher I decided it had to be worth a look. Adding this to the fact that Means has been regarded as one of the best short story writers there is.

The book itself is entirely set in an alternative history of 1970s USA, in which JFK hasn’t been fatally shot and has instead continued waging war on Vietnam. The main character Eugene Allen returns to the destabilised USA and writes a manuscript. This manuscript in turn features and insidious government agency set up to wipe the memories of the veterans returning from the jungles. Which anyone who has studied Freud knows is probably not a good idea, unless you find yourself already praying for the death of your father in order to woo your mother, in which case go ahead, repress that trauma post haste.

If you’re thinking “Moz, that sounds a bit too new-fangled for me, I’m not for this ‘meta’ nonsense”, then I’ve probably already lost you (if I haven’t then keep reading). As I read the book I really, really could not put it down. I know I say this for almost every book I review here but given the fact I’ve had two assignments and an exam in the last two weeks, this statement is far too true. The idea that what I was reading wasn’t the whole story set my imagination ablaze with images of what exactly the implications of the story were coming as it supposedly did from a 22 year old war vet.

Allen is clearly incensed with rage at returning to be shoved into an attic and essentially told that his experience no longer matters in his world as he’s not a soldier any more, this is demonstrated bitingly as the vets are obliged to take Tripizoid to ‘enfold’ their trauma.  Each memory surfacing in the manuscript revealed not only the characters of Eugene Allen’s novel but also the trauma Allen himself faced in Vietnam. The bomb-blast nature of the revelations show the lasting impact the war has had on all characters involved and indeed on American society, not only in the book but in our own history too.

Speaking of the echoes in our own world, this book very much could be set in our world from a layperson’s (read from Moz’s ill-informed) point of view. The pervasive feeling of dissatisfaction, hopelessness, despair and eventually resignation to the state of affairs which literally explodes from every page of this novel is seen today in all aspects of society. At once we are at war outside, between, and within our borders on every continent, and yet there’s no middle ground. No going back to what was. There is no such pill to erase the collective consciousness, and if there were, we wouldn’t choose peace.

All in all, the politics of the novel combined with the mind-bending effects of the structure really left me in no doubt as to why the book was on this year’s Man Booker Longlist. I loved it.

-Moz

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