"We reach out to stories and can't help but make them our own."
I don't know if I've quite made the story of Vietnam my own, but I have definitely been drawn to the era after studying it all year. I added this book to my Amazon wish list (which is quite long at the moment, gearing up for summer reading!!) because of Vulture.com's 8 Books You Need to Read this April. Well, I'm only 2 months late, but David Means' Hystopia was an enrapturing alternate history story within-a-story, and a book I definitely needed to read. I found Means very in the tradition of Phillip K. Dick's The Man in High Castle. The core of Hystopia is presented as a novel written by a Vietnam veteran, Eugene Allen, before he committed suicide.
But Hystopia is not just Allen's narration. Means also adds surrounding notes and interviews with people who knew Allen, causing you to distrust Allen's narrative but also search for the Truth of the story within the narrative of an unreliable narrator. Means imagines a world in the early 1970s where President John F. Kennedy was not assassinated, the Vietnam war continues, and Kennedy created something called the "Psych Corps" (deliberately playing on Kennedy's dedication to the Peace Corps). The Psych Corps are employed to maintain the mental health of the nation. The gist of it is that they develop a drug called Tripizoid that "enfolds" PTSD-suffering vets (basically, suppresses the memories of Vietnam in veterans, the idea of "therapeutic amnesia" (term thanks to this review) that The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro also addressed). The effectiveness of this is debated -- is not remembering anything better than remembering something? I won't get into it too much, but Means creates a vivid (really, the best word to describe his novel) alternate history of a destabilized America that is violent and wild because of continued involvement in Vietnam and the "enfolded" vets. The violence was a bit unnerving, to me, at times, and felt a bit gratuitous... But as Vulture wrote, which made me want to read the book to begin with, Means "brings rigorous interiority to the characters enmeshed in a violent, careening plot." It was hard to get into at first, locating oneself within an alternate reality (history, whatever you would like to call it) is always challenging, especially in Means' "dark acid trip of a novel." Here's a review that does a much better job of summarizing the complex premise, and I will shamelessly quote it for you:
It’s a meditation on war (not just Vietnam, Mr. Means suggests, but the continuum of combat that links veterans throughout history) and the toll it takes on soldiers and families and loved ones. It’s also a portrait of a troubled America in the late 1960s and early ’70s — an America reeling from unemployment and lost dreams, and seething with anger, and uncannily familiar, in many ways, to America today. Perhaps most insistently, it’s an exploration of how storytelling — the causal narratives we manufacture in our heads — shapes our identities and provides a hedge against the chaos of real life.
As Eugene Allen's protagonist says, and the quote I started this review with, "We reach out to stories and can't help but make them our own." Once the plot gets going, you definitely cannot help but place yourself in Means' wild world.