At the bitter end of the 1960s, after surviving multiple assassination attempts, President John F. Kennedy is entering his third term in office. The Vietnam War rages on, and the president has created a vast federal agency, the Psych Corps, dedicated to maintaining the nation’s mental hygiene by any means necessary. This destabilized version of American history is the vision of twenty-two-year old Eugene Allen, who has returned from Vietnam to write the book-within-a-book at the center of Hystopia.
Early on, Means resorts to some clunky exposition — an officer lecturing Singleton on recent history and the basic principles of the treatment — to situate us in his fictive universe. But Hystopia quickly gains momentum and plausibility thanks to its richness of detail. Means is a writer of dazzling gifts: a challenging stylist and a keen observer whose senses seem, at times, pitched to a state of hyperawareness.
...supremely gonzo and supremely good...Hystopia often reads, strange as it sounds, like a Jamesian investigation of knowledge, albeit one fueled by amphetamines. To live in American history, Means suggests, is to negotiate continuously between knowing and not knowing, unfolding and enfolding.
As a work of fiction that is set in the turbulent 1960s and '70s that makes repeated reference to the monumental events of the era, specifically the assassination of John F. Kennedy (who, in this narrative, is killed in 1970 after many attempts on his life) and the horrors of the Vietnam War, Means' novel could have easily fallen prey to these pitfalls. That it does not speaks to Means' talent as a writer of imagination and vision, someone for whom history is not ossified but still very much alive, and rich with possibilities for reinvention...[T]here is a lot to unpack in this novel whose central themes include, but are hardly limited to, trauma, memory and violence.