'Hystopia' Imagines an America Where JFK Lived and the Vietnam War Never Ended

Jonathan Lethem spoke with the brilliant short story writer David Means about his outlandish first novel, alternate reality, war, and trauma.

by Jonathan Lethem
Apr 22 2016, 4:03pm

David Means. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan/courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Katherine Anne Porter published her first collection of short stories in 1930, and her first novel wasn't published until 1965, 35 years later. David Means, one of our greatest living writers of short fiction, has taken "only" 25 years—but since we all know that 21st-century time is speeding up, I'd say he's Katherine Anne Porter squared.

Anyhow, the arrival of his debut novel Hystopia, for the readers like me who've been pounding the table with our silverware, is that kind of event. The book follows a young veteran's return to the States in an alternate reality where President Kennedy is still alive and the Vietnam War rages on. The novel is both phantasmagorical and dire; the characters are seared onto the pages; the lines glow. We're all lucky Means cares so damn much, and I was lucky to get to talk with him about it for you here.

VICE: I want to know a lot about your take on war and trauma—it seems to me we're living entrenched in a war society that doesn't know it, and that we have been at least since the World War II vets came home.
David Means: When you focus in on acute trauma, the kind of trauma you get in combat, or when you're involved in a shooting incident, or when you have a violently abusive husband, you touch on something that is primal and mythic, rooted in a common narrative of pure survival. That's the current standard take on it, at least by Dr. Jonathan Shay, who wrote two amazing books on Vietnam combat and myth.

The ironic thing is that war is horrific, and yet it often brings those in combat into deeply intimate contact with one another in ways that normal, everyday life simply can't. I have all kinds of crazy ideas about the connection between our society—seething in the mythos of violence, consumed by it—and our current war footing, but to put the pieces together, as a fiction writer, away from specific stories, feels ultimately impossible. The WWII vets came home, many of them, somehow able to compartmentalize and simply head into making lives, but they had this huge, national, societal structure to return to, and they did it slowly—on ships, lumbering across an ocean, playing cards, soothing each other, sharing stories, and then parades and VFW hall meetings and a booming post-war economy. Whereas in Vietnam, you were done with your tour, packed up, got on the plane, and were home the next day, unable to go through the ceremonial steps necessary to reenter, to return, and the world you got home to was in cultural upheaval, partly because of the war you just left.

Does that connect with our entrenched war society today?
I'll take a risk and say it has something to do with the nature of violence at some fundamental level: We no longer have a social sense of a common (good) will toward some common (good) goal, and yet we're also surrounded by violence, acute violence, and a mythos of violence. After Vietnam, war was repackaged—using lessons learned—so that it fit into the television screen, and now the computer screen, neatly, but, again, the actual nature of combat itself, the things soldiers go through, is the same.

In a sense yours is an inside-out historical X-ray of the way things really are, very much like Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle.
There's a reason The Man in the High Castle—beyond the fact that it's now a show, a series —is touching a nerve right now; wars always pose a counter-narrative: What would happen if we lost X. Part of that counter-narrative is the question: Are we better because we fought that war? Yes, we're better because we fought in and helped win World War II, but the part of us that was there before the war—and the part of the enemies—has been lost. No matter what, war transforms the culture, bends history.

I'd venture to say—and again it's just a wild guess—that we've created a counter-narrative to our loss in Vietnam, a culture that somehow validates small, pop-in, pop-out wars—drones, incursions—that can be kept to the side, along with school shootings and other outrageous incidences that would, for so many, take away too much if they were to be solved with reasonable social agreements. I guess what I'm saying—in all of this—is that our perpetual war footing is a cultural aftermath of each war we fight somehow, and it's just as cultural as it is military.

We're just in the early stages of trying to find the Iraq War counter-narrative, but we can't find it because the war really isn't over.

It almost sounds as if you're saying the Vietnam War isn't really over either. So, how can we land on a counter-narrative if we don't even know the narrative? Our world consists of political and social taffy; it hasn't so much advanced from the one I knew growing up (I was born in '64) as it has been stretched and distorted and deformed from that point.
I'd be really sorry if I thought I'd just written another alternate history.

I can promise you, you haven't. The problem with most alternate-history stories is their complacency—they presume that we understand a history, so that we can intelligibly and wittily rework it. As opposed to delving into the miasma of our real situation, we're traumatically embedded in a foggy realm where time ostensibly passes, a local outcropping known as "the present," from which we enjoy no privileged grasp or superior purview (cf. Faulkner: "The past isn't dead, it isn't even past"). I think Dick's Man in the High Castle exposes the game. No sooner does he conceive the historical reversal than he begins to use it to peel away the skin of our consensual reality. His treatment of history is rooted in a suspicion that our "victory" in WWII was so traumatic it defeated even any hope that history could resume where it left off, at least in any sort of coherent moral sense. Your use of the traumatic time-stoppage effect of both Vietnam and the Kennedy assassination seems to do the same thing. I think it's the opposite of alternate history; instead, it's an honest assault on the impossible—the impossible being "the historical novel," which conveys an unworkable lie in its fundamental premises.
As I see it, Eugene Allen, the vet who imagines the main hunk of narrative in Hystopia, is trying to understand his particular place in his particular history. We all carry our own personal sense of history and spend most of our time trying to rewrite it, retool it, to meet our sense of where we are, exactly, in the moment—and the bigger, wider historical stuff we tweak as necessary. For years, for example, I went around thinking that my sister—who was mentally ill, and is mentally ill—was devoured by Vietnam, by the late 60s and early 70s. But of course that was just a story—a bending of history—I told myself. We have the technology to really record historical moments—at least to get combat recorded; guys in Iraq could have worn GoPros and recorded everything. So the possibility now is that history could be curated, or at least we have a sense that it could be curated, which means our sense of its malleability is even more acute.

When I was researching—watching news film footage—I saw Morley Safer in the field with grunts taking tokes from a bong made out of a rifle. When I saw hours and hours of footage, I realized that so much of what I had thought was surreal, slightly bullshit reimagining—you know, by Oliver Stone and others—had really happened, at least there are images of it. Early in the war, the troops were crew-cut, spit-shinned, young men, and by the end they looked, a lot of them, like Jim Morrison, complete with love beads.

"Early in the war the troops were crew-cut, spit-shinned, young men, and by the end they looked, a lot of them, like Jim Morrison, complete with love beads."

Your book made me think of Mailer's Why Are We in Vietnam?—an undervalued novel, I think, but then what of Mailer's fiction isn't dismissed, by this point? Mailer turned to the home front even while the war was in progress, and sent his characters into a backwoods that recalls Faulkner's "The Bear"—it's probably rooted in Conrad, too—and forecasts things like Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers and Dickey's Deliverance and your own book. I guess Rambo is in there too, somewhere.
When it came out, I despised Rambo. I took that movie as a personal affront to the truth, to real history. It was just the beginning of a cartooning of history and violence—of making action supersede sense, so one guy could go in and finish out a war. But that was the big national delusion project, to turn back, to find some glorious sense of pure innocence as a nation—first Reagan and then Bush, and then we go and invade another country without full knowledge of its culture and history.

When the Iraq War was starting, my father-in-law got his Navy uniform on and went to a war protest—one of those roadside protests with signs and the pro-war folks on the other side of the street. Some enlisted guy came up to him and raged at him for wearing his uniform against regulations; my father-in-law, almost 80 years old, stood there with a guy screaming at him.

The thing about Mailer was that he was often a sexist, a blowhard of his day, a man who saw himself as going head to head with Hemingway, but he kept shooting at targets, kept struggling with the big contemporary issues—and when he located his exact, true subject, as he did in Why Are We in Vietnam? , or in Executioner's Song, he hit it hard and dead center, and it was a horrific and terrific sight. Like Faulkner's "The Bear," Why Are We in Vietnam? is trying to uncover how a certain primal American drive relates to the nature of raw, physical courage. But it's also—by cartooning out these American types—a political expose of the cultural/political surface texture of America. That texture hasn't changed all that much; the surface appearance of the cartoon types has shifted, but we still have FOX news on one side and MSNBC on the other.

In Hystopia, I wanted to go in there and tap whatever energy I could from my memory of the horrific turmoil of that time, as picked up by my young-man sensors. At the same time, I was also, when I started it, watching CBS News footage of Vietnam in the early days of the Iraq War and talking to vets of Vietnam and WWII vets. I was also trying to find a way into some extremely personal history—mostly having to do with my sister—and to create a story around it.

Sometimes the best way to go into the center of private trauma, familial trauma, is to use it as the quiet center of something larger, more allegorical or phantasmagorical. It grounds the conceit in something urgent and keeps it honest, and at the same time, it allows the personal material to hide in plain sight.
The entire point of writing fiction is to find something that can only be expressed in fiction itself, but of course, the impetus to create is rooted in the personal, and fiction is ultimately a form of self-expression. I went through a phase of blaming history—the Vietnam War, the era—for some trauma I went through as a kid that involved my family and my sister.

It's funny, I always resist the suggestion that my writing might be "therapeutic"—art-for-art's-sake sentiment always rises up at the suggestion. But I know it often is. I suppose the difference is that I don't set out with that purpose.
The root of the word "therapeutic" is "to minster to," or "to tend to," something like that, and the thing about trauma, as it sits in memory, is that it's incredibly intimate, and you spend your life ministering to it one way or another. The urge to confess is huge and necessary and part of the healing process. But as Jonathan Shay points out, you want to confess to those who are listening, truly listening, honestly listening, at meetings where things are safe and communal, or to friends. The United States was never really ready to hear the individual stories of trauma from Vietnam—but they did listen when guys like Tim O'Brien transmuted them into fiction.

Jonathan Lethem is the author of nine novels, seven books of nonfiction, and five story collections. His most recent books are Dissident Gardens and Lucky Alan and Other Stories.

Hystopia by David Means is available in bookstores and online.

vietnam war
philip k dick
Jonathan Lethem
alternate reality
David Means