It’s 1970. The Year of Hate. Kennedy is only a few months into his third presidential term. He’s survived six assassination attempts. He tours around the country daring a seventh attacker to get it right this time. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War rages on, and shellshocked vets gather in Michigan, attracted by its mitten-like shape. The government attempts to cure them of their PTSD by giving them a drug called Tripizoid and making them re-enact traumatic episodes. When it works, it completely erases your memory of those episodes, as well as everything that led up to them–including things like childhood memories of your best friend you went to war with.
Hystopia is a strange bookfellow to carry around, to read on buses and in bed and while walking from A to B. I wouldn’t full-heartedly recommend it to everyone, but if your reaction to the above paragraph was “huh, sounds interesting” then you should give it a shot. And if you do give it a shot, I’d recommend you read like I did–in two or three long stretches, not dwelling too much on the finer details, really just inhabiting the world and hanging out with the characters. Of course in my case it helped that I was dealing with stressful life admin at the time and even a world as dystopic and disturbed as the one in Hystopia was a welcome escape. But I think this reading mode also helps because it blurs the line between fiction and reality, making it easier to empathise with the book’s characters.
It may also help to know that the book does revolve around a central theme–it’s not just a bunch of hallucinatory ramblings and drug-addled capering. It helps to know this because it gives your mind something to grip onto as you wade through all the weirdness. The theme is the natural human impulse to make sense of life, war, and death by making up stories. The villain, Rake, deals with his war trauma and failed Tripizoid treatment by casting himself in his own rebel-without-a-cause fantasy, and the government agent, Singleton, thinks he’s in an epic quest that will end with the righteous killing of Rake, and even when things don’t quite turn out that way, he continues to type, in his mind, an official story that makes sense of all the unpredictable things that happen to him instead. The novel itself is a novel-within-a-novel, written by a fictional vet who needed to make sense of his war experience. And the fact that Kennedy survives–some may find it disappointing that, in the end, Means doesn’t really explore how this might have affected the Sixties, but I think that’s fitting with the theme: even history, the great events that supposedly altered the course of history–even they, sometimes, are just stories, made up to make sense of things.
So I told you how you might want to approach this novel if you choose to read it–but why should you read it? It does sound pretty bleak. And it is, in part, though–spoiler alert–it does not have the cynical, pessimistic ending you might expect. It’s a dystopia with a heart of gold. And, yeah, it’s not a perfect book–the two female characters, for example, are barely sketched out, and, for a book set in Michigan and with loads of vets, it’s pretty white. But Means does have a knack for cool imagery, like “the cyclopean eye of an old dryer” sitting in a forlorn suburban yard, or the Queen Tree, hidden deep in a Canadian forest, “the mother of all mothers”, that one of the characters claims he can smell even though he’s in Michigan–he can even identify it “by the sound of the wind through its needles”, and one day he’ll set out to find it.
Mostly though, I think that strange books deserve a chance.
And, also, I can totally see this being adapted into a trippy film or miniseries, in grays and blues, starring Dan Stevens, my latest actor crush, as both Singleton and Rake–after all, he’s already played a vet who is also a government experiment gone wrong in The Guest, and he’s dealt with all kinds of weird scenarios in Legion. Or perhaps it could be a gender-swapped version, with Dan Stevens as Meg. Or even a one-man show where Dan Stevens plays everyone. So you should read this book for when that does happen!