Early on, Means resorts to some clunky exposition — an officer lecturing Singleton on recent history and the basic principles of the treatment — to situate us in his fictive universe. But Hystopia quickly gains momentum and plausibility thanks to its richness of detail. Means is a writer of dazzling gifts: a challenging stylist and a keen observer whose senses seem, at times, pitched to a state of hyperawareness.
...supremely gonzo and supremely good...Hystopia often reads, strange as it sounds, like a Jamesian investigation of knowledge, albeit one fueled by amphetamines. To live in American history, Means suggests, is to negotiate continuously between knowing and not knowing, unfolding and enfolding.
As a work of fiction that is set in the turbulent 1960s and '70s that makes repeated reference to the monumental events of the era, specifically the assassination of John F. Kennedy (who, in this narrative, is killed in 1970 after many attempts on his life) and the horrors of the Vietnam War, Means' novel could have easily fallen prey to these pitfalls. That it does not speaks to Means' talent as a writer of imagination and vision, someone for whom history is not ossified but still very much alive, and rich with possibilities for reinvention...[T]here is a lot to unpack in this novel whose central themes include, but are hardly limited to, trauma, memory and violence.
These more cerebral aspects of Hystopia — the much anticipated first novel by a veteran short-story writer — can weigh the book down, like too-heavy ornaments and garlands on a spindly Christmas tree. At the same time, the reader cannot help but admire its ambitions, and Mr. Means’s potent language helps power the story over its more lugubrious sections...Hystopia is at its most haunting not when it’s trying to fulfill its big, visionary aspirations but when it’s focusing on singular moments in its characters’ lives when hope and disappointment and loss converge...
[T]he fallout from Vietnam is imagined in terms lifted from a captivity narrative. One wishes Meg had a little more to do. Otherwise, for all its revisionist history, the spirit of Hystopia is familiar, with paranoia, heavy drug use, and the seduction of conspiracy pulling against a centrifugal incoherence. Still, the writing is beautiful and exuberant, moving and funny, and always one step ahead. The descriptions of getting stoned are as vivid as the landscapes. Means’s characters live in a state of constant sensory attention that keeps them always attuned to the texture of tar, the smell of lakes and trees, the taste of carbon.
[A] wild, multi-layered and deeply affecting novel ... Means controls a thrilling narrative, full of pacy dialogue and dramatic setpieces ... The speculative aspects of the complex premise are ingenious, but, as in Orwell’s 1984 or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (novels that also treat state interference with citizens’ minds and bodies), it’s his sensitive unravelling of the situation’s psychological effects that gives Hystopia its considerable bite ... This rich novel takes us far beyond Vietnam-era America; it is a potent examination of what makes, and keeps, us human.
Hystopia's tale-swallowing metafiction ingeniously embodies the self-replicating mental prisons of war trauma (in Allen’s telling, even enfolded veterans feel caged inside their forgetfulness). But it also negates the writing’s emotional energy. Allen fantasizes about a 'reunification' with the past that would free victims from trauma’s grip, but the framing sections focusing on Allen’s suicide expose this dream as a sad delusion. Mr. Means’s novel is, in the end, a superbly stylized embellishment on emptiness and despair, a book that revives the narrative excitements of postmodernism at its peak while drifting into the moral vacuum so often at its core.
Hystopia by David Means is a fascinating novel within a novel...Complex without being confusing, the novel weaves Eugene’s own battle with mental illness and his sister’s disappearance into a beautiful, haunting tale of loss.
Means’ style pays close attention to the physical world without being thickly materialist. It registers thoughts and feelings without becoming burdened with sentimentality. And it’s formally maximalist. There are subjunctive moments recorded in italics. There is much free indirection. A character’s impressions could be externalized without being quoted. Dialogue is sometimes quoted; other times it isn’t. The quality of the writing is undeniably accomplished, yet it is as much the prose of a suicidal young war veteran is it Means’ own. By this I mean it retains an invented lunacy: the fragmented minds of its characters reside on different planes of memory, and so the way they are presented changes in turn...Yet Hystopia’s inventiveness has its limits. It is buffered by too many other novels.
...not every virtuoso of one form excels equally at the other, and Hystopia shows the strain of an author pushing to adapt to a form in which he is not at home ... For the first two thirds of the book, these characters seem mired in a drug-fuelled state of gluey semi-stasis, while all around them the novel sizzles and hisses with proliferating what-is-real palaver reminiscent of the fiction of Don DeLillo or David Foster Wallace ... When he turns, instead, to another character’s beautifully precise observations of the natural world, the book settles into itself, but to keep things moving forward it must revert to its frantic efforts to wrestle with 'big ideas'.
Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that, though the first attempt on Kennedy’s life is supposed to have failed in Hystopia, its fictional world keeps the assassination attempts coming. Some stories, Means suggests, are so explosive that they invite countless retelling, shedding new light—and darkness, too. As one acquaintance comments on Allen’s novel, 'How he got it right in his book is a wonder to me, man, except to say he did.' Means’s ambitious novel may occasionally swerve into overwrought dystopian territory, but by the time it has reached its haunting conclusion, it deserves the same praise.
It’s worth noting that the components of this dystopian world (the 'Zone of Anarchy,' the 'Year of Hate') are decidedly DeLillo-esque, as is the atmosphere of paranoia that gives way to paradox ('the implausibility of the conspiracy is precisely what makes it plausible,' one character anxiously observes). This is not to say that Means is derivative. The impulse here is homage, a nod to the master, not imitation. Indeed, one of the enduring satisfactions of reading Means is to sense his singular generosity, which is another way of saying that he has more heart than many of his contemporaries. He does not view his characters’ suffering with ironic detachment. He imbues raw grief ('Did I imagine your face a couple of hundred times, pained, twisted in front of your loss, blooming like a flower?') and nihilism ('Forget heaven. Forget eternity.') with deeply felt anguish. He is benevolent enough to give the good guys a happy ending, or at least the chance at one.
David Means is an outstanding short-story writer. His works have appeared in top-tier publications, and his four story collections have earned him near-universal praise, with some critics comparing him to Raymond Carver, Alice Munro and Eudora Welty, just to name a few. Hystopia marks his first novel-length publication, an attempt at a longer piece of fiction that falls far short of its promise...Means has earned the right to be experimental but that doesn’t excuse his publisher from producing a work that feels like a vanity project. Explore Means’ previous works — or wait for his next novel — to enjoy his talents.
Despite its funhouse-mirror version of 1970, Hystopia is a straightforward chase yarn — will Singleton and company catch up with Rake, and what will they find when they do? What the novel’s length allows him to do is to explore the multitude of ways memory worms into our consciousness, despite our best efforts to suppress it. Tripizoid’s effects can be undone by good sex, or cold water, or thinking too hard, or talking to another enfold too much, or pressing hard on your temples, or just being mean-spirited enough — Rake was an early enfolding experimentee. That’s the grand joke that emerges over time: The simple business of living is going to force our trauma to the surface. Whether we’re capable of responding to it well is another matter.
While Means throws the kitchen sink at disorienting the reader, Hystopia eventually boils down to a tricked-out chase narrative. Even the odder elements of his scenario have pretty familiar effects ... The slow trickle of revelations, punctuated by sex and bloodletting, leads in the end to an explanation of why Hystopia was written in the first place; as a character study in which the lead character never appears, it’s certainly clever.
It’s easy to think of Oliver Stone on a psychedelic sci-fi bender, but Means, up to now a short-story writer, brings rigorous interiority to the characters enmeshed in a violent, careening plot, along with weird digressions and meta-textual flourishes reminiscent of Pynchon at his righteous angriest.
Most of the novel takes place in a bleak vision of Michigan, but despite the constant state of loss, cynicism, drug abuse and violence, Means really gets to evidence his talent for description. Even when evoking tedium, Means does so elegantly ... The novel tackles broad subjects; even if such issues cannot ever be fully resolved, it does not fall into pretentiousness. It is simultaneously heartbreaking, bitingly funny, realistic and satirical; the hoops it asks readers to jump through regarding structure and authorial intent are a joy, not a burden. It successfully finds a fresh approach to war fiction.
Means has created a mythical world that scholars will be chewing over for years. In the meantime, everyday readers can exult in suspenseful storytelling, spot-on dialogue and the rush of take-no-prisoners prose that veers from the lyrical to the horrific. It’s no exaggeration to say that Means writes some of the most inventive sentences since Don DeLillo. Characterization, however, is not Means’ strong suit. For each of his major players, I wanted more backstory, more layers.
'Enfolding' is a fascinating and horrifying invention. With a drug called Tripizoid, patients are plunged into reenactments that modify their traumatic events to nullification. But this otherwise promising notion obscures, rather than illuminates, key characters' pasts and trajectories. Rake calcifies into a one-dimensional character, and Singleton elicits only moderate sympathy. These drawbacks mar Hystopia from beginning to end. Undeniably ambitious and frequently inventive, Hystopia too often sacrifices story for satire. Means has created a novel that is smart, edgy, and funny, but that also lacks cohesion and sometimes coherence.
[Means] 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 ... 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.
I like to think of Hystopia as a Poetic Pharmaceutical Apocalypse. For while the psychotropic plot device of Tripizoid propels the characters forward in this retelling of history, Means never lets things devolve into hallucinogenic parody. The prose is beautifully rendered ... African-Americans seem absent from Means’ Hystopia hellscape. At first I found this a little odd. Then it dawned on me that it sort of makes sense: the Vietnam War hit African Americans especially hard. In Hystopia’s protracted aftermath of ‘Nam it is easy to envision that segment of the population has been vaporized by the Southeast Asian holocaust ... The Michigan of David Means’ brilliant debut novel is actually modern America.
Means’ prose is hard-cutting, incisive and occasionally lush. Long, winding sentences encapsulate chaotic moments — or in the case of Hystopia, beleaguered rants from head cases — and linger with imagistic, musical prose. But these strengths eschew showiness, even with the metafictional framing ... Situated somewhere between Denis Johnson’s searing and sad Tree of Smoke and the rambunctiously peopled Catch-22, Hystopia makes old wounds seem not so old ... here, where love, conspiracy, war and drugs contend in cataclysmic head trips and bleached landscapes, Means deploys impressive psychological insight in impeccably rendered increments.