Surviving JFK’s Fifth Assassination Attempt with David Means
Every war has its literature, its classic novels. There’s WWI and Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, the Spanish Civil War and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, WWII and Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and for better or worse many, many, many more. Such seminal works have provided us with stark windows into the violence on which human civilization invariably rests, but according to David Means and his debut novel, Hystopia, they aren’t simply about confronting the horrors of war, but also about concealing them, hiding them under a layer of rationalizations and wishful thinking that often simplifies their lawless anarchy and finds sense, meaning and purpose where there’s little. In Hystopia, he focuses on people affected in various ways by the Vietnam War, but in a bold move for a débutant novelist, he presents both an alternative history and a novel-within-a-novel, transforming his tale into a comment on how art and literature are very often used to twist reality into a comforting yet ultimately false shape.
It all begins with context, with a series of fictive editor and author notes that underline how the main body of the book — the novel-within-the-novel — is in fact the work of a Eugene Allen, a returning Vietnam veteran who by various lights was at once a “wacko,” “a good boy,” and “freaked out about being drafted.” As these notes would have it, President Kennedy has (apparently) survived numerous assassination attempts, yet such a beacon of hope wasn’t enough to stop Allen from killing himself shortly after the completion of Hystopia, leaving many of the interviewees to suppose that it’s the work of a damaged mind.
And in many ways they’re right, because Hystopia is primarily about damaged minds and the historical uncertainty that results from such damage. It follows Rake, a deeply wounded vet whose rage has sent him on a killing spree around Michigan, as well as Singleton, a government agent who’s tasked with bringing Rake to justice. Singleton works for the Psych Corps, a secret agency whose job it is to administer disturbed individuals with an experimental treatment known as “enfolding.” Explained by Singleton himself, enfolding involves using a drug called “tripizoid” and dramatic reenactments to rewrite a traumatized patient’s sense of biography, such that “all of the memories related to [his or her] trauma repress themselves.” It’s primarily around such a metaphorical figure that the novel subsequently revolves, becoming a warped, psychedelic allegory for how literature and history are themselves a form of enfolding, a mechanism that “turns (enfolds) the drama/trauma inward.”
Yet even if such characters as Singleton and his colleague Wendy have been deceived by enfolding as to the precise nature of their lives and the US they inhabit, Means’ assured prose furnishes a gnarled counterpoint that emphasizes just how deluded they really are. Already a veteran himself of numerous short-story collections, the novelist employs a richly contoured yet unsentimental palette to depict an America that’s being “left to sit and smolder as a monument to the riots” currently upbraiding its former peace. Torn apart by an interminable war effort in Vietnam and worsening social unrest, he paints the country as a wasteland of marauding biker gangs and equally marauding officials, seemingly held together only by the improbable survival of Kennedy and an all-but nationwide course of enfolding.
As the third-person narrator ominously notes at one point, “a shit-storm was coming,” a shit-storm Hystopia’s principal characters spend the best part of the novel’s duration trying to avoid. In the hunt for Rake, Singleton and Wendy come to suspect that the best way to do this is by uncovering the connection they believe the serial murderer has to their respective pasts, both of which have been submerged by the enfolding they underwent prior to becoming agents with the Psych Corps.
Consequently, both characters start trying to “unfold,” which can be done only by “Immersion in cold water” or “Fantastic, beautiful, orgasmic sex.” Via activities of mainly the latter variety, Singleton learns that he was indeed in Vietnam, and that perhaps the healthiest thing for him and the country as a whole to do is to confront even more of this history, rather than leave it obscured and allow the violence of the war to persist in contaminating the country. He also encourages Wendy to follow suit with regards to her former life with an infantryman known affectionately as “The Zomboid,” telling her, “You love the Zomboid and can’t say it and it’s my duty to get you to say it.”
It’s precisely this ‘saying it,’ this openness and honesty that provides the crux of Hystopia, the desired endpoint towards which most of its personae move. This is particularly true for the character based on Eugene Allen’s sister, Meg, who has been abducted by Rake as he makes his way across Michigan indulging in “statutory rape to begin with; murder, narcotics, dealing and using, robbery, burglary.” Meeting the noticeably less violent Hank in one of Rake’s hideaways, she also begins to take steps to unfold, dredging up her buried past in the hope that broaching it will improve her unstable, unhappy condition. With Hank she goes to a nearby lake, where “Down under the water she [hears] a voice speak and the voice” belongs to none other than her boyfriend who was killed in Vietnam, reminding her that what they shared before he marched to his death was “just pure dreaminess.”
Such momentary slides into lovelorn romance aside, the monologue in which Meg envisions her dead ex-boyfriend speaking is key to understanding Hystopia and its enfolding-related metaphors. Beyond simply exhibiting Means’ swift virtuosity as a writer and storyteller, this monologue includes the declaration, “That was how you got around the truth of your situation. You started to imagine the life you (if you survived) might have.” Revealingly, this description of how people coped with existence on the frontline applies to most of the soldiers in the novel, except for Rake, who “drew a blank in the dream department. He could only conjure nightmares.”
That the serial murdering Rake “had very little to go back to” after the war and therefore couldn’t dream of the future explains why he counts as one of the novel’s many “failed enfolds.” Such enfolds are individuals who, because of the poverty of their existences previous to landing in Vietnam, aren’t at all responsive to the enfolding treatment, and in fact become even more volatile when dosed up and subjected to violent reconstructions. That they exist at all is testament to Hystopia’s belief that merely attempting to alter people’s conceptions of history and reality isn’t enough when all they can possibly conceive is hardship, and that consequently the only viable solution to the socio-economic problems surrounding Vietnam or any other war is to address them directly, at the source.
What’s interesting about this view is that it seems to negate the very book that propagates it. Hystopia is itself an ostensible attempt to alter our conceptions of a historical era, but at the same time it affirms that we really have to change the course of history to experience any genuine benefits. This comes out most noticeably in the suicide of its supposed author, who despite his rewriting of events involving people he personally knew, wasn’t placated or palliated enough to actually prevent himself from taking his own life. Clearly, he’d tried to ‘enfold’ himself by writing his own personalized version of the past, but this wasn’t enough to stay his demons.
Ultimately, in writing a fictitious author into his debut novel like this, its real author has produced one of those rare, self-conscious books that operates on multiple levels, alluding to its own insufficiency while paradoxically becoming sufficient as a result. It works as a stylized reimagining of the Vietnam era, it works as an indirect revelation of the emotional truth of this same era, and it works as a subtle critique of the inability of stories and narratives to truly compensate when more than stories and narratives are needed. While the very fact that most of its characters have had their biographies erased means that they might seem a little too superficial at times, the novel as a multi-layered whole is far from it. In presenting itself as the work of a fictitious author rewriting history to better suit his personal needs, it alerts us to how historians in general rewrite the past to better suit the needs of the present in which they operate. As this fictitious author declares in the notes which conclude the novel, “History is avoidance of thought,” but what’s ironic is that, in explicitly avoiding the thought of some of the ugliest, nastiest features of the Vietnam era, his book — and David Means’ — will make its readers do more than their fair share of thinking.