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Booker Prize for Fiction > 2016 Longlist: Hystopia

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message 1: by Trevor (last edited Jul 27, 2016 04:59AM) (new)

Trevor (mookse) | 1858 comments Mod
Hystopia, by David Means


UK Publication Date: May 26, 2016
US Publication Date: April 19, 2016
352 pp

At the bitter end of the 1960s, after surviving multiple assassination attempts, President John F. Kennedy has created a vast federal agency, the Psych Corps, dedicated to maintaining the nation's mental hygiene by any means necessary. Soldiers returning from Vietnam have their battlefield traumas "enfolded"-wiped from their memories through drugs and therapy-while veterans too damaged to be enfolded roam at will in Michigan, evading the Psych Corps and reenacting atrocities on civilians.

This destabilized, alternate version of American history is the vision of the twenty-two-year-old veteran Eugene Allen, who has returned from Vietnam to write the book at the center of Hystopia, the long-awaited first novel by David Means. In Hystopia, Means brings his full talent to bear on the crazy reality of trauma, both national and personal. Outlandish and tender, funny and violent, timely and historical, Hystopia invites us to consider whether our traumas can ever be truly overcome. The answers it offers are wildly inventive, deeply rooted in its characters, and wrung from the author's own heart.

message 2: by MisterHobgoblin (last edited Jul 27, 2016 04:47AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

MisterHobgoblin Hystopia is a little puzzle box of a book.

The bulk of the text is a conspiracy theory story in an alternative history of the United States (clearly grounded in alternative reality by the survival of President Kennedy and his election to a third term in office) where Vietnam veterans are given medication to forget the horrors they have seen. This process – enfolding – does not always work and rogue veterans who resist the drug or start to unfold end up in Michigan, dodging the authorities and re-enacting the atrocities of war. Very specifically, we follow the pursuit of Rake, an unfolded vet who has hooked up with Meg Allen, Hank and Haze, by Singleton and Wendy, two officers in the Psych Corps. Singleton and Rake share a common history in Vietnam, but represent the different paths that veterans can follow, depending on whether they enfold or remain unfolded.

The whole thing is quite trippy, quite violent and quite pointless. Neither side seems to have any strategic objective. Both seem to be driven by powers they don’t control. And it’s certainly not a good versus evil thing – whilst the Psych Corps clearly represent “The Man” and Rake clearly represents The Individual, Rake is a violent and abusive man who is a danger to everyone he meets. Overall, I suppose it just represents an unhappy state of affairs – how do you resolve the dilemma of society and the self – answer: don’t start here.

It is very well told, switching narrative perspectives between both sides – albeit both sides told by the same strong unseen narrative voice. This allows a balance to be struck between action and editorial comment; there is a dose of philosophy coming through the narrator without having to put inauthentic expository dialogue into the mouths of the characters.

But here’s the rub. The narrator, Eugene Allen, is a character himself in the bookending opening and closing sections. These portray the core as a fiction written by Eugene to reconcile himself to the fate of his sister Meg and the grief she experienced at the death of her lover, Billy, in Vietnam. We have snippets of letters, interviews with friends and neighbours, authorial notes and editorial notes. The alternative history is set clearly as fiction, with the bookended sections presented as reality. This turns the gigantic conspiracy of the novel with its titanic characters into nothing more than a personal fantasy created to spite Eugene’s sister’s unsuitable friends.

Then again, the wise reader will realise that just as Rake is a character created by Eugene, so Eugene is a character created by David Means. In which case, perhaps Eugene was created just to tell the core story that might carry some greater truth…

And it would be great if we could have a little blue pill that would make us forget all our troubles. Wouldn’t it?


message 3: by Lee (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lee I'm a huge fan of Means' stories so have high hopes for this. Certainly glad his name is on there - definitely one of my favourite contemporary writers.

message 4: by Lascosas (new)

Lascosas | 456 comments I agree with MisterHobgoblin that the book and its set-up are "quite trippy, quite violent and quite pointless." Particularly, pointless. The book meanders, and it has all of the weaknesses of a short story writer with his first novel. The whole concept, and this is a high concept book, could have easy been presented as a novella, not a 350 page novel. And all of the stuff before and after the novel I found annoying. Comments from people who knew the 'author' of the novel. The fictional person called the author, with a back-story developed in these comments.

I found the language fairly deadened, flat. Not a particularly involving read. No idea why one of the judges found this a deserving book. It certainly feels like a book someone pushed on the other judges. Quite sure this won't be shortlisted. I finished it just yesterday, but the details are rapidly slipping from my mind.

message 5: by Lee (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lee The prospect of reading Hystopia becomes less and less intriguing - although I will at least have dwindling expectations of this when the time comes. That's two reliable dismissals of this I've now read.

juliemcl | 2 comments Anya, I'm really sorry to say that it doesn't get any better. Rather, more frustrating. Lascasas put it really well in the above comment.

message 7: by Dan (new)

Dan Mack Brown's July 27th Guardian article, "Man Booker prize judges reveal 2016 longlist," includes some reflections by Amanda Foreman:

"Foreman said the key issue was that the two cultures [referring to 'the relative strengths of British and American fiction'] were distinct. “What we have to avoid is homogeneity; that would be terrible,” she said. “These two cultures are alive but they are not the same. They have a different literary and historical heritage which informs them and it is really important that we don’t make literary soup out of them.”

Perhaps this explains the judges' inclusion of "Hystopia" on the longlist, a choice otherwise mysterious to me. Like Anya, I tend to be a completist: I've read all but one or two of the Booker winners and most of the shortlists since the Booker's inception. I rarely abandon well-reviewed fiction, and I can't recall abandoning a shortlisted novel. But I'm finding it almost impossible to read Hystopia. Even if the rationale for its inclusion was an unfortunate quest for "balance" between British and American fiction, there were many other eligible novels by American authors that could have been worthy inclusions on the longlist.

message 8: by Jibran (new)

Jibran (marbles5) | 289 comments Dan wrote: "Mack Brown's July 27th Guardian article, "Man Booker prize judges reveal 2016 longlist," includes some reflections by Amanda Foreman:

"Foreman said the key issue was that the two cultures [referri..."

Seeing the judges speak of balance it seems as if Booker is entering into a stage in which it would be reduced to a contest between American and British fictions alone. I think lack of novels from elsewhere hints at the judges' preoccupation with managing the balancing act this year.

message 9: by Dan (new)

Dan Jibran wrote: "Dan wrote: "Mack Brown's July 27th Guardian article, "Man Booker prize judges reveal 2016 longlist," includes some reflections by Amanda Foreman:

"Foreman said the key issue was that the two cultu..."

Jibran: Foreman's formulation also strikes me as quite odd. Under its former rules, the Booker was not a prize for "British fiction", unless one makes the ridiculous assumption that all Commonwealth, Republic of Ireland, and Zimbabwean Anglophone novelists write "British" fiction.

message 10: by peg (new)

peg | 151 comments I too had a difficult time getting through HYSTOPIA. Only by taking notes could I keep track of the different characters and their developing relationships.

The things I liked:
1 Gradual way the true relationship of the characters was revealed

2 References to other literary works (Hemingway, Twain and Dickens)

3 references to sense of smell, in particular the way Hank could tell what was happening all over the state by smelling the trees. I noted in my last review how I have noticed authors using the sense of smell to give realism to their fictional world and am wondering if it is a new trend or if I just haven't noticed it before.

My rating scale: writing quality 2/4. Character development 2/4 plot complexity 3/4
Atmosphere 3/4 enjoyment 1/4. For a total of 11/20

message 11: by Doug (new) - rated it 1 star

Doug My one star review:

"Fuck plot and fuck story and fuck the way one thing fits to another and fuck cause and effect, because there wasn't none and if there was we didn't see much of it." p. 159

Kind of Means to provide his own review within the pages of his novel. I am not so much shocked at this being nominated for a Booker as I am flabbergasted that the damn thing ever got published in the first place! I mean, just WHO is the intended audience for this? Drug-addled illiterate Nam-era vets, which comprises the majority of the characters, don't read. It isn't weird enough for fans of alternative/speculative fiction (e.g., China Mieville). It's TOO weird for psychologists and government wonks, who are the other main characters. Means apparently has a small rabid coterie of fans for his short fiction, but even they will be turned off by the extended length of this tome. I can only speculate someone at FS&G thought there was a market for ersatz Robert Stone - but even the REAL Stone isn't getting read much these days!!!

To call the characters one-dimensional is to afford them a depth and complexity they don't deserve. And I hate it when an author is just plain sloppy - for instance: within the last 50 pages, Singleton informs Hank there are only 4 blue pills left, and Hank says that leaves one for each of them (including Meg and Wendy). A few pages later, Singleton and Wendy each take two of the pills, so there AREN'T any more. And a few pages later (p. 306) we get: "Then they'd stay a few days together, take the final four pills, see what transpired...." Who the fuck edited this mess?

I can only hope this is the worst of the Booker longlist, because if there is anything less worthy, I may not make it through all thirteen.

message 12: by Lee (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lee Funny you should mention Robert Stone, Doug, as that's who this reminded me of. I can't match your one-star dismissal of the book, though...I found it strange and impressive. I'm one of those rabid dudes you mention, love the short stuff, but really liked this as well.

message 13: by Doug (last edited Aug 13, 2016 12:22PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Doug Lee: No worries. mate - differing opinions is what makes groups like this so fun & interesting. If it's any consolation, my least liked books have won for the past two years - so I am confident in saying Hystopia will at LEAST make the shortlist, if not take home the prize! ;-)

message 14: by Lee (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lee Although, Doug, it has to be said: during a quick re-read of this I was reminded of the fact that a very late chapter, 'Duluth', is the worst single piece of writing I've yet encountered on the longlist. Should've been omitted.

I've slightly cooled on Hystopia during the second look at it - I still maintain it's very interesting and odd - but it's highly flawed.

Jonathan Pool Given that Hystopia is listed on the Booker long list I'm moderately surprised that it hasn't garnered more extensive comment. It seems to be the book that got read last, if at all, by this Goodreads group.
I liked it. I got more from Hystopia than about half of the other Booker contenders, while acknowledging that it is not a five star memorable read.

That the book draws its inspiration from the horrors of Vietnam is evident from the publicity. It felt derivative rather than trail blazing to me. Think 'Apocalypse Now' (or Heart of Darkness) and stories of rogue elements, turning native. Then there's 'A Clockwork Orange' and the effects of human programming via government management. Of more recent, contemporary books, there's 'The Heart Goes Last' and the concept of a ring fenced, controlled, depository of life's losers and the damaged.

The book is also described as an alternative history had Kennedy survived. I found this literary device unnecessary, and it would not have changed the core of the book message had Kennedy not been mentioned. Likewise, the additional insights offered via a third party narrator struck me as an author's artifice that did not add enough.

What I did engage with was the different expressions, and the intensity of the personal battles by the key characters as they reflected on their recent experience. The stream of consciousness was well delivered, and the protagonists all gave us a markedly different perspective on the effects of their exposure to hand-to-hand combat in a war zone.
A book to recommend for those looking to examine the frailty of the human life experience in more starkly harsh circumstances than those more frequently described in domestic family or dynastic narratives.

message 16: by Ang (new)

Ang | 1685 comments This is the only one of the longlist that I abandoned very early on (I abandoned The North Water after listening to a third of the audiobook).

I was intrigued by the opening, with various people commenting on the author of the book within a book, but when that part started, I lost interest.

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