Some of the best war novels are the weird ones; the ones that try to expose war for just how ridiculous and pointless it truly is. Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22 are prime examples of this – the first easily being one of my favourite books – portraying war in an absurd manner rather than a serious one. David Means’ debut novel Hystopia tries to do this as well – just with much less success than those two books.
It’s hard to know where to start with the plot of this novel. Being presented as the work of a fictitious Vietnam veteran – supported by a lengthy ‘fake’ introduction – Hystopia focuses on a series of veterans who have managed to blank out their traumatic war experiences through a form of treatment known as enfoldment.
However, the treatment does not work on all subjects. A man that goes by the name Rake, one of the failed subjects, kidnaps an innocent woman and goes on a killing rampage across the country, leaving ‘the Corps’ – the group responsible for the enfoldment treatment – to clean up after his mess. Soon two officers of the Corps, Wendy and Singleton, the latter a recipient of the enfoldment treatment himself, are forced to go and capture him.
Really, this is only scratching the surface of Hystopia. There are a lot of ideas going on in this novel, such as it being presented as the work of a fictional author (and having its own fictional history) and it taking place in an alternate history America where Kennedy was not assassinated. And this links to my main issue with the book: it is unnecessarily complicated. I tried to keep my above synopsis brief, but it ended up being pretty much impossible. This book is bursting with ideas – many of them not fitting together well – and at times they cause it to feel like a mess.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of clever stuff in this book and David Means is obviously a talented writer, but it just seems as though he’s overlooked the basic need for a novel to tell a good story in favour of being clever. The alternate timeline the novel takes place in, for example, feels very unnecessary. It doesn’t play into the story nearly enough, and as a result it feels like Means chucked it in there just because. Slaughterhouse-Five had a lot of weirdness and cleverness in it, sure, but it never felt like weirdness and cleverness for the sake of it.
Ultimately Hystopia is best when it goes back to basics. War and war veterans are always going to make great subjects for novels, and when Means just focuses on the effect war has on people, the book is at its best. Despite him leaning a bit too much towards stereotypical psychopath, Means manages to make Rake a fascinating character. Many of the best moments in the novel are just those that give us glimpses into his personality. Other veteran characters are great too, such as tree tracker Hank. The author does a good job of making each character unique – each of them affected by war in a different way.
It’s kind of hard for me to recommend this book. While it features some excellent writing and some great moments, most of the time it just feels like it’s trying too hard – like it’s trying to be the next Slaughterhouse-Five or Catch-22 when it really isn’t.