This novel is not for the casual beach reader. David Means’ “Hystopia” features an inventive plot, nuanced characters, and an unsettling tone of writing. While the novel is primarily a novel within a novel, both the fictionalized story and the overarching framework itself take place in a revised post-Vietnam War America: in President John F. Kennedy’s third term, soldiers returning home from the war have the opportunity to have their traumatic experiences enfolded within their brains so that they can return to normal lives.
However, as expected, there’s a catch, for those who do not “enfold” successfully have to live with a doubled-down version of their traumas, as is the case with one of the interior novel’s characters, Rake. Following Rake and the parallel narrative of the enfolded soldier who is managing his veteran case, the story aims to analyze how trauma is nuanced and personal, yet blanketed and simplified in society. At the same time, readers know the story they are reading was written by Eugene Allen, a former Vietnam soldier who may or may not have been enfolded himself, for he exists within the same reality of his novel. The only thing readers know for fact is that the novel within the novel is believable in this alternative, revisioned history. Simply put, the story takes too many turns and flips too many established facts for a simple review or summary.
The appeal of the story comes when the reader puts everything they hold to be true about post-War American history on the shelf and accept both Means’s and Allen’s revised history. Revisionist histories are not uncommon, per se: when you think about it, the most infamous revisionist histories oddly happen to be large scale conspiracy theories (think: Bush Did 9/11, Holocaust Denial). As we all remember, I am a born again conspiracy theorist. But, more importantly, I’m also a history major and hold facts to the highest standard, which places me at odds with everything a conspiracy theory is.
To me, this begs the question: is fact or perception more important? Is an instance more or less true based on how an individual believes it unfolded or how a history textbook records it? In the instances like the Holocaust when there is real, undeniable proof, why is narrative denial still relevant?
Maybe, for the same reason that “Hystopia” is fascinating to readers despite being convoluted and confusing, we are invested or at least attracted to the concept of a conspiracy theory as fact: for the same reason we crave escapism in media, or to watch the aftermath of a car crash on the side of the highway, we want to be entertained by something traumatic or at least a little scarring in which we walk away unscathed.
The root of the conspiracy theories, of revisionist histories, and the basis of its appeal to the American population (smartly represented by the federal Psych Corps in the novel) is in the desire to witness other people's trauma so that we never have to face our own.