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Michigan Bookmark: “Hystopia” reimagines dark Michigan past to reflect veteran trauma

Hystopia, the first novel of acclaimed Michigan short story writer David Means, is a complex book built around a simple question: what can we do about the trauma that war inflicts on our veterans?  

The novel explores this question by posing an alternative history:

Kennedy has survived multiple assassination attempts and, now in his third term, wages war in Vietnam.

On the home front, pollution, rioting, and the economy are far worse than in the real late 60’s. Interestingly, the novel doesn’t blame Kennedy or some other alternative-historical development for these conditions. Instead, it suggests that “Nam was seeping home.” In other words, this dystopian America reflects the trauma the vets have experienced.

Sensitized to mental health issues by his sister Rose, Kennedy has created the Psych Corps to address the emotional wounds of returning service-people. Headquartered in Michigan, which becomes a magnet for vets, the Psych Corps administers a process that “enfolds,” or suppresses, the memories of trauma through a combination of battle re-enactments and drugs.

This is a fantasy answer: make the bad memories inaccessible.

The plot is driven by a vet for whom this treatment backfired, amplifying his trauma. Rake, deranged even before he went to Vietnam, is now on a murderous rampage throughout Michigan. He’s taken Meg, the widow of a veteran, as a hostage, and between his killing sprees, he stays with Hank, a vet with a love of Michigan forests. Hank knows that the only way to stop Rake is to kill him. But he worries if he does it himself, he’ll relapse into a life of violence. Meanwhile, two rogue Psych Corps agents, Wendy and Singleton, also pursue Rake.

These characters have a lot of shared history, but they don’t know it because each has been through the treatment. However, through cold water immersion in Lake Superior and intense sex, they partially re-access their memories and share their stories.

Which implies another possible answer: the storytelling cure. And this book’s story is framed in a complex way.

The bulk of Hystopia is a novel written by a fictional Vietnam vet, Eugene Allen. This text is sandwiched between interview excerpts and other writings that comment on Allen’s life and his novel. In this secondary material we learn that things do not end well for Allen or for his “real-life” sister on whom the character of Meg is based. The book as a whole thus suggests that Allen has used storytelling to make his own experience more bearable, yet this is complicated by the knowledge that Allen has committed suicide. But while storytelling ironically fails the novelist, it helps his characters bond with each other.    

What works best for dealing with trauma? Love, of course, as Meg and Hank, and Singleton and Wendy, develop intimate relationships. And a sense of honor is also useful in troubled times. Means’ good-hearted couples ultimately light up the novel’s bleak landscape.

The book makes explicit references to Hemingway, another vet who sought solace in Michigan’s woods. But the novel’s formal complexity, its rich language, and sometimes stream-of-consciousness style more strongly recall Faulkner, who famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Means’ brilliant novel suggests that wars never end and they’re not even foreign. They always seep home as our veterans struggle to reenter a society that sadly doesn’t always know how to acknowledge, or help them with, their experiences. This thrilling adventure novel is also a powerful critique of our own ongoing attempts to “enfold” our wars elsewhere.

Andy Mozina is the author of two short fiction collections and  Contrary Motion, a new novel. His first collection, The Women Were Leaving the Men, won the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award in 2008.

Michigan Bookmark is a series that features Michigan authors reviewing Michigan books. Find more reviews here.

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