Hystopia, the Man Booker longlisted novel of 2016, fuses together fact and fiction in a dense dystopian novel that re-imagines the United States of America of the 1960s. In this world, Kennedy has survived several assassination attempts and is now in his third term, and the Vietnam War is still raging, resulting in a massive influx of mentally traumatised soldiers.
JFK has established Psych Corps, a mental-health initiative to alleviate the suffering of vets and ensure general mental hygiene of the nation. This particular plot point might be the derivative of Kennedy’s actual psychological ventures, which were directed towards facilitating and treating children with intellectual disabilities. He had a personal motive for these endeavours, as Kennedy’s sister, Rosemary, was born with such disabilities.
Psych Corps follows a treatment regime which includes a process called ‘enfolding’ which basically asks the trauma-inflicted individuals, mostly veterans, to re-enact the exact traumatic event. In the process of reliving or re-telling of the harrowing event, the actual event gets wiped from the memory. This process is aided by a powerful drug, Tripizoid, which induces fuller amnesia.
The story is bookended by editor’s notes and we are told that the posthumous author of ‘Hystopia’, Eugene Allen, was a young Vietnam veteran who committed suicide after his sister’s death. These notes, rather than providing context to the actual plot, were quite pointless and only ended up drawing out this already over-long novel. There is a lot of gritty violence in the book, mostly by the hands of what are called ‘failed enfolds’.
My main niggle with this book was the extremely disjointed prose. There are some brilliant, contemplative passages that reflect on what it means to be human among such violent times. However, they are few and far in between and the book trudges on with no cohesive plot line, jumping back and forth between intersecting narrative threads. It’s not only confusing, but also exhausting to maintain track of all that is happening.
David Means’ notion of the ramifications of a government institutionalising amnesia is very interesting, but suffers due to poor execution. Because of my interest in psychology, I was really intrigued by the original idea but I have to admit, I plodded through this book. Hystopia is a metafiction that seeks to comment on the convoluted link between our memories and personality, and what happens when that link is broken. It’s just a shame this theme wasn’t explored in a more consistent way.
Hystopia was published by Faber & Faber on 26 May 2016