British Association for American Studies


Storify of our #bookhour on HYSTOPIA by David Means

51sgTORYDGL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_#Bookhour is an open forum twitter discussion between scholars and the public that takes place the last Tuesday of the month unless otherwise stated. Find out more here.

On Tuesday 2nd August 2016, Dr Dorothy Butchard, Dr Ciarán Dowd, Dr Deirdre Flynn, and Dr Dan King joined #bookhour organiser Dr Diletta De Cristofaro to chat about David Means’ Hystopia, in the longlist for the Man Booker Prize 2016. The discussion focused on the form of the novel, both in its postmodern nested narratives and framing devices, and in its various story arcs; on the relationship between alternate history and trauma, as well as on that between individual agency and state intervention; and, finally, on the text’s use of Baudrillardian tropes and its problematic depiction of women.


About the book 

David Means’ Hystopia opens with a series of editor’s notes, which frame the text as a novel within a novel written by Vietnam veteran Eugene Allen shortly before he commits suicide. Allen inhabits an alternate version of our history: Present Kennedy has survived multiple assassination attempts, the Vietnam War continues to rage on, and the management of war trauma is at the core of the narrative. The Psych Corps treats psychologically traumatized veterans through a drug called Tripizoid and the process of “enfolding”, whereby patients must reenact the trauma to forget it entirely. Of course, the process does not always work and the novel follows a killer who has failed to enfold.

The questions that led the discussion include:

Q1 Means’ authorship is nested – or perhaps enfolded – within that of Eugene Allen, with Allen’s Hystopia providing a happier end for the unstable Meg Allen than Means allows for in his “editor’s notes”. How does Allen’s involvement function in relation to the structure and themes of the text, and how different would the reading experience be if the novel were only comprised of the novel-within-the-novel? Why adopt these framing devices?

Q2 Means is acclaimed as a short story writer, and in 2010 he noted that “big and wide” novels risk “bloat”, adding “I lean towards the souls on the fringes of the corporate/industrial landscape, and some of those folks are mute, silent, close-lipped and don’t say enough to start filling a novel” (Paris Review, “Why David Means is Not a Novelist”). Does Hystopia overcome these concerns?

Several reviewers, including Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, have suggested that the book shows Means’ short story lineage a little too much at times, and is better at small-scale moments than larger narrative ones. Do you agree with these assessments?

Q3 David Means recently stated the following on social media: “I notice again and again that female oriented readers/critics get it, focus on the trauma, the loss first, not the so-called alternative history.” What is the relationship between these two things, between the theme of trauma and the alternative history presented (in fact, doubly presented) in the novel?

Q4 In one of his suicide notes, the author figure Eugene Allen lists “Things I’d Enfold if Tripizoid Really Existed”. Does this suggest that induced amnesia is Allen’s traumatised fantasy? How does Means use “enfolding” to explore tensions between individual agency and state intervention?

Q5 How does Means engage with the ideas of Baudrillard throughout the text?

Q6 There seems to be an absence of mothers, and the mother that is there “MomMom” is also ‘absent’. Is Means representation of women problematic?

Discussion Leaders

Dorothy Butchard (@dkbutchard) is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH), University of Edinburgh. Her work evaluates responses to changing technologies in fiction and poetry of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, exploring the hopes and anxieties of writing in a new “digital age”. She is currently researching the representation of transatlantic communications in contemporary literature.

Diletta De Cristofaro (@tedilta) is a Teaching Fellow at Harlaxton College, having previously taught at the University of Lincoln and at the University of Nottingham. Her research takes place at the intersection of literary studies and philosophy to interrogate the way in which contemporary narratives play a key role in our construction of time and history. She is working on her first monograph on the contemporary post-apocalyptic novel.

Ciarán Dowd (@Ciarandowdy) is a former Government of Ireland Research Scholar who received his PhD from National University of Ireland Galway in 2015. His doctoral research focused on Cormac McCarthy’s later novels, specifically on their stylistic and thematic resonances with a worldview encouraged by the complexity science of the Santa Fe Institute, in which McCarthy spends much of his time. He has published articles in The Cormac McCarthy Journal, in Nicholas Monk’s edited collection Intertextual and Interdisciplinary Approaches to Cormac McCarthy: Borders and Crossings, and will see an essay anthologised in the forthcoming Cormac McCarthy Society casebook on The Road. He also wrote a chapter about McCarthy’s cultural and historical contexts in a Salem Press Critical Insights textbook on the author, aimed at an undergraduate and high school audience. Since completing his doctorate, he has been working as a technical writer while reworking his dissertation into a monograph.

Deirdre Flynn (@deirdre_flynn) is a Lecturer in English and Drama with Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick. Her research focuses on Haruki Murakami, exploring how his work echoes and transforms contemporary notions of postmodernism. A former Newspaper Deputy Editor, her research interests include Postmodernism, Contemporary Literature, the city, feminism and of course, Haruki Murakami. Flynn is also the chair of Sibeal, The Feminist and Gender Studies Network.

Daniel King (@dan_king86) is an associate lecturer at the University of Derby. He has published work on Cormac McCarthy and on Jaime Hernandez. His first book, Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution, will be published in September 2016 by Tennessee University Press.