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Halfway through David Means’s brilliant new novel, HYSTOPIA (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26) — a careening metafiction that hallucinates a post-Vietnam America governed by a third-term JFK in which gangs of Black Flag bikers rove the state of Michigan — a young woman named Meg, who has been sprung from psychiatric care by a deranged killer named Rake, submerges herself in cold water. She’s trying to reverse the effects of “enfolding,” an extreme form of therapy popular with returning soldiers that annihilates traumatic memories. (Other than this secular baptism, the only means of “unfolding” is sex — really, really good sex.) While underwater, Meg has a vision in which her boyfriend, Billy-T, who died in Hue, appears to her: “I wonder who’s going to tell the story, Meg?” he says.

Nothing else to say. You see, you had to be here and you weren’t. You know the one that goes: How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a lightbulb? How many? You fucking don’t know because you weren’t there, man! You weren’t fucking there!

Billy-T’s joke is on the novel itself, in which those who were fucking there don’t know any more than those who weren’t. Or rather, the nature of what precisely they can be said to know is obscure. Having been there without having been there: that’s the predicament. Hystopia’s other enfoldees include Hank, a veteran, tree whisperer, and old buddy of Rake’s who takes in the fugitives; and Singleton, a veteran and a Psych Corps agent, who can’t trade war stories with his girlfriend’s dad, who saw action at the Battle of the Bulge. (Wendy, the girlfriend, is also an agent. Such fraternizing is strictly against the rules, but Singleton and Wendy’s supervisors are oddly encouraging of the romance, leading them to suspect that the higher-ups want them together for a reason.) But even if Singleton could remember what he did in the jungle, he wouldn’t be able to say what he had lived through. “There was nothing but lies, Singleton thought, when a man began talking about combat. The truth of what had really happened was beyond words.”

Bamboo Trees, 1958, by Nguyen Van Binh © akg-images

Bamboo Trees, 1958, by Nguyen Van Binh © akg-images

Hystopia is presented as the work of a young vet named Eugene Allen, an Iggy Pop fanatic who killed himself in the early 1970s. Eugene’s text is cleverly surrounded by a smattering of editor’s notes, author’s notes, and interviews with friends and family — testimony from a “standard postmortem psychological examination” that is “already considered a classic of the genre.” (The editor explains that although “certain historical facts have been twisted to fit Eugene Allen’s fictive universe” — for example, the real location of JFK’s assassination was Springfield, not Galva, Illinois — he got the basics right.) As for Meg, she is supposedly based on Eugene’s real-life schizophrenic sister, who was derided by the neighborhood boys for being a slut. This taunt seems to have driven Eugene out of his mind, making Hystopia the rare war novel whose foundational trauma is not the author’s tour of duty but his hot mess of a sister.

Thus the 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.

Enfolding is a sinister twist on prolonged-exposure therapy, a standard PTSD treatment for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A well-documented characteristic of trauma is its intrusiveness; triggered by a sensation or environment, sufferers regain lost time and experience the past as present. (Some psychologists describe this intense physiological response by saying that trauma is “stored” in the body rather than in the mind. It’s interesting to note that in Hystopia, amputees are not able to undergo enfolding; Singleton conjectures that this is because their war memories are located in their lost limbs.) In P.E., the patient tells and retells her traumatic experience to a therapist. Rather than erasing the memory, talking turns it into something that can be recounted rather than merely felt — that is, into a story.

But how does this story end? What does Means mean? A postscript that Eugene left attached to the manuscript of Hystopia considers the difference between two cops. The rookie wants the pieces of a case to fit together, but “the older, wiser cop, or the retired officer, understood that the terminal result — a dead body — was often of dispirited, random, windblown, senseless events.” Such cynical incoherence is hardly descriptive of Hystopia, a novel that concludes with something resembling a double wedding. Even if the pieces fit, however, the picture is patchy, incomplete. Our heroes exit in a swirl of rumor, “the kind of rumor that was necessary in an age when everything else seemed to be spinning deeper and deeper into despair. It was the kind of rumor that tried to speak of love without saying the word love.

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