“Hystopia” is the name Eugene Allen gives to his war novel, an attempt to work through the trauma he experienced during the Vietnam War. But before we even begin “Hystopia”, the reader is provided with a lengthy note from an editor that puts Allen’s book into historical context. In fact the editor, in the opening paragraph of their introduction, is at pains to tell us that Eugene Allen’s account of the seventh assassination attempt on President Kennedy isn’t entirely accurate. Specifically, in Allen’s narrative JFK was shot in August when in actual fact (as we all know) this seventh attempt on Kennedy’s life took place a month later in the September of 1969.
In other words David Means’ Hystopia is the account of two alternative histories. The alternative history of the editor, pointing out factual errors in Eugene Allen’s narrative and the alternative history presented by Allen himself in his novel “Hystopia” where he imagines an America very similar to the one he lives in – the Vietnam War is ongoing, JFK is dodging assassination attempts – but where a treatment has been devised to deal with those veterans that come back from the war. Allen calls the treatment enfolding and it essentially involves the patient reliving – as in acting out – a version of their greatest trauma from the war while under the influence of a newly discovered narcotic that has the ability to wipe that trauma from the patients mind.
Confused? You don’t need to be. As James Bradley says in his excellent review of the novel in The Australian, the book is very grounded. The alternative histories, while central to the novel, are essentially a framing device so that Allen (and Means) can tackle the difficult issue of trauma. What’s striking about the novel is how for a book that features both the Vietnam War and a psychopath who kills for the sheer pleasure this isn’t an overly graphic novel. Violence occurs, but often off stage or through a hazy, opaque lens. The actual descriptions of death and violence, the blood and the gore, are muted. Just as it would be for those who are enfolded. And yet this is an unsettling novel. The tone fluctuates – jagged and spiky, punctuated with these prolonged bursts of intense, burning hot prose. If the concept of enfoldment reminded me of Philip K. Dick, the prose often gave me flashbacks to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
Having said all that, the plot of Eugene Allen’s (or David Mean’s) novel is straightforward. Two agents of an organisation much like the FBI set up to deal with people whose enfoldment hasn’t stuck are on the hunt for a serial killer named Rake. One of the agents, Singleton, is also enfolded and somehow his back-history, which he doesn’t remember (though orgasmic sex can unfold a person…) is connected to Rake. The novel progresses much as you expect it to, and the interest stems not from the search for Rake but how each character deals with their trauma. Because that’s what this book is – a profound exploration of trauma, of grief, of memory and identity. In a sense it’s an attack on trigger warnings, a book that certainly settles on the view that facing trauma is far better than avoidance. But even here, there’s an acknowledgment that facing your pain provides no easy solutions, as Eugene Allen discovers. If “Hystopia” is his way of working through his own demons then it doesn’t entirely succeed.
While I do think the book is a tad too long and loses puff toward the end – which is deliberately anti-climactic – this is still the sort of bold, confronting literature that’s stimulating to read.