Book Review: Hystopia by David Means


Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and with a cover like that how could I resist this book?  David Means is best known for his short stories and this is his first novel which was hotly anticipated.

Hystopia is a story within a story.  We first read accounts of people who knew the fictional author of the imbedded story and learn that he, Eugene Allen, was a war veteran returning from Vietnam.  Allen’s story is set in an alternate world where Kennedy was not assassinated in 1963 but rather there were multiple attempts at his life (although he does end up assassinated).  In this world, Kennedy’s government seeks to improve the lives of “vets” returning from Vietnam by a process of “enfolding” – “mental health is [their] business. Or, rather, mental freedom is [their] business“.

This process involves a drug called Tripizoid (horse tranquilizer) and a series of reenactments of the traumatic events causing the particular subject anxiety.  These reenactments are then “enfolded” within each other to create a sort of “fuzzball” of a memory – or rather a “neurological dust bunny” – which can then be forgotten and/or easily controlled.

The trouble is, human beings are naturally curious.  With enfolding the traumatic memory one must enfold the ancillary memories (i.e. the domino effect).  Think about it – if you wanted to forget an experience at say work, you would have to forget what led up to that experience and the people you work with.  It leaves the subject in a state of semi-ignorance – they are aware of the fuzzball and the gaps in memory but are too afraid of “unfolding” the “enfolded” memories.  The ways in which the subject could  intentionally – or unintentionally -“unfold” were either dipping into cold water, having great sex or discussing traumatic events with another who may be linked to or suffered the same trauma.

Whilst I enjoyed the premise I felt that the actual story (hunting down a failed enfolded vet turned serial killer) wrapped up far too neatly.  There was no real climax.  No real crescendo.  I was hoping for one final twist at the end which would make sense of this alternate world however, it seems, the story within the novel is to be taken at face value.  I felt that Means could have explored the enfolding process and the questions around losing memory far more deeply.

That being said, Means has a fantastic way of writing.  There are so many dog-eared pages of this book as each page had a poignant note.  Overall, I enjoyed Means’ play with memory.  The big question for me reading this novel was: is ignorance really bliss?  Are humans capable of compartmentalising traumatic events and the ancillary memories in order to ‘move on’?  We are taught that our experiences mould us.  What would happen to us, our personalities, if such experiences were wiped from our memories?

Recommended for: dystopian book lovers

Rating: 3/5

Favourite quote:If there is a God, he thought, I’ll speak directly to him when the time comes, and if there isn’t a God I’ll have to invent one, and I’ll find a way to thank him for the way I feel when I watch her move.

Thanks for reading – I hope you enjoyed it!

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