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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.

We all learn to live with our memories, even if the way we live is by forgetting them. What exactly we learn can be difficult to say. Experience is a teacher, but what it teaches can be useless, or worse. “Rape is knowledge,” writes the historian Raymond M. Douglas in ON BEING RAPED (Beacon Press, $20), “but not the sort that does you, or anybody else, any good. When I was raped, I learned things about myself and the world I live in that it would have been far better never to know. And for most of my adult life, the knowledge has been killing me.” This short and devastating memoir is at once intimate and analytical. The book is the first time he has publicly spoken of his rape, which occurred in Ireland in the 1980s, when he was eighteen years old.

Douglas and his friends had been invited to a small party at the home of a local priest, who became sloppily drunk. The boys, concerned for the priest’s welfare, drew straws to determine who would stick around and put him to bed. Douglas drew short. Around four in the morning, the priest attacked. His pleasures were sadistic; they included beating and berating the young man. (One of Douglas’s “profoundly-true-but-thoroughly-useless” pieces of knowledge: “There are few things on this planet more dangerous than an angry rapist who is having difficulty sustaining an erection.”) Douglas — who had always assumed that, as a man, he would be able to fight off any threat, and was shocked to discover that whether he lived or died was not in his control — believed that he was going to be killed. But suddenly, after an ordeal that lasted four hours, the priest released him.

On Being Raped is eloquent about the nonexistent resources available to male rape victims, a situation that mirrors what female victims faced half a century ago. (According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, between 1995 and 2010, 9 percent of the reported victims of sexual assault in America were men.) But male rape is joked about when it is not outright ignored; only 3 percent of the more than 4,000 NGOs that work on war rape and sexual abuse mention men and boys in their literature. For men who are raped, there is often quite literally nowhere to go; when Douglas was seeking help, things were even worse. He reported his attack to a local Capuchin friar, who offered him absolution. Douglas is still a professing Catholic, but his anger at the Church authorities is righteous, and his faith does not make him unduly merciful. Forgiveness, he writes, is contingent on his attacker’s repentance; it is not his duty to offer pardon unprompted. “Quite the contrary: the debt is owed by the perpetrator to the victim.”

“Expectations have always been high for rape victims,” he notes, “much more so than for those who have attacked them.” Victims are expected to prove that they did not in any way consent, abet, or make their attack easier; to report the rape; to take justice into their own hands when thwarted by the system; to either kill themselves or emerge from the experience healed, healthy, and resilient. They are expected, in other words, to be survivors. That is a burden Douglas refuses. About ten years ago the priest pled guilty to a different rape, but the sentence was suspended because of his frail health. Douglas remains afflicted. “Rape is loss,” he writes. “At present we lack an adequate vocabulary for speaking about loss. . . . We are intensely ill at ease in the presence of anguish that cannot be relieved, and mourning that cannot be assuaged.”

What would an adequate vocabulary for speaking about loss look like? Answers — or, at any rate, more questions — are to be found in MELANCHOLY (Margellos World Republic of Letters, $35), a collection of essays by László Földényi, a Hungarian intellectual. “A collection of essays” — perhaps better to call it a collection of riddles. Földényi is a formidable, if at times oracular, writer, who is at home in paradox. (“Melancholia is, among other things, a consequence of the inadequacy of concepts; that inadequacy, however, is . . . the sort of thing without which concept formation is unimaginable” is a typical sentence.) His book is a wide-ranging history of the Western discourse on melancholy, beginning with Aristotle, who asked, “Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholic?”

Saturn Like a Setting Sun, circa 1920, artist unknown © Look and Learn/Bridgeman Images

Saturn Like a Setting Sun, circa 1920, artist unknown © Look and Learn/Bridgeman Images

In ancient Greece, melancholy was connected to secret rites. Initiates had a special kind of knowledge whose price was solitude. As Földényi puts it, “A person who possesses knowledge is isolated from people who do not.” In the Middle Ages, melancholics were considered sick and sinful; rather than trusting in God, they had gone to the devil. The rise of astrology in the late medieval period led to an evolution in how people wrote about melancholy. Since the planets were believed to affect everyone, melancholics could no longer be classified as ill in the Christian sense, as standing outside grace. Today we think of astrology as a practice of pure description that abdicates personal agency in favor of determinism, but ideas about the saturnine temperament helped people to think of themselves as responsible for their destinies. The power of the planets was ambiguous, and it could either “abolish” or “ennoble” melancholy. Fate could be struggled against, even made.

In medieval paintings, melancholics were usually depicted as sleeping, but from the fifteenth century on they were shown awake and thinking. We still imagine melancholics as people who see more than others while getting lost in rumination. (The idea that melancholics are not disposed to action is, relatively speaking, new; the Greek heroes Heracles, Bellerophon, and Ajax were all cast from the melancholy mold.) Melancholics are isolated, withdrawn from the authority of society and from God, and self-aware, in one sense chosen and in another sense condemned. (Self-determination, Földényi writes, is “a melancholic’s most tormenting problem.”) Throughout history they have been keenly aware of the tension between the infinitude of the soul and the finitude of mortal life:

On the one hand, everyone is a unique, irreplaceable, autonomous personality, but on the other hand, everyone is subject to the same destiny, a fate that pushes the personality toward a common death — do we need another reason for sorrow?

The origin of melancholy is in the self but also in the state of the world, which is broken beyond repair, and the resignation of the melancholic — her unwillingness to be comforted — raises the ire of the can-do, fix-everything bourgeois. Melancholy is political insofar as it expresses dissatisfaction with the status quo, but it has no program or goals. “If the melancholic were able to say what he dreaded . . . he would not be melancholic but ‘merely’ bad tempered.” Twentieth-century mainstream psychiatry demoted melancholy from an existential critique to an illness, but what’s really interesting is how melancholics understand sickness and death — not as external obstacles or interferences but as the fulfillment of life itself. Melancholics live in a kind of time warp. They have no future, only the coming of what will soon be past.


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April 2016