Alternate History Lite: Thoughts on David Means’s "Hystopia"

David Means’s new novel, Hystopia, has been on my must-read list for some time now, so I was eager to plunge into it while out of town last week.   I’m happy to report that it met many – thought not all -- of my expectations.  I particularly liked its metafictional elements (it’s a novel within a novel, replete with fake introductory author’s and editor’s notes, as well as other lit crit marginalia).  The novel also features powerfully drawn characters (mostly traumatized Vietnam Veterans who struggle with various forms of PTSD). That said, the novel was less interesting from a counterfactual perspective.

In a sense, Hystopia can be seen as a quasi-alternate history.  To be sure, its premise is firmly rooted in a key point of divergence: President John F. Kennedy escaping assassination by Lee Harvey Oswald in November of 1963.  Means furthermore adds other counterfactual events pertaining to the President’s life, imagining him avoiding death five more times until finally succumbing to a seventh successful assassination attempt during his third term in the fall of 1970.

Means does not exploit the full potential of this point of divergence, however.  JFK’s survival hovers mostly in the background of the novel, whose plot is mostly taken up with the psychological struggles of its central characters.  Ostensibly, Kennedy’s policy decisions worsen the characters’ difficulties coping with their war experiences.   The novel imagines JFK continuing the U. S.’s involvement in Vietnam, despite its many obvious costs to the nation; in the process, his policies worsen domestic social tensions, especially among ex-soldiers, white blue-collar workers, and urban African Americans.  Worse still, JFK’s poor leadership contributes to the eruption of violent race riots in the late 1960s and the early 1970s -- in metropolises like New York, L. A., and Detroit, as well as in smaller cities like Flint, Michigan.  Indeed, entire parts of the state of Michigan (from which Means hails) seem to be cordoned off into Mad-Max-like wastelands. 

Means never really explains the causal links between Kennedy’s continuation of the war and America’s dystopian turn, however.  He does not show, for instance, why the continuation of the war in alternate history ends up having worse consequences than President Lyndon Johnson’s continuation of the war in real history.  We also don’t really learn much concrete about why Oswald’s assassination failed and why so many subsequent murder attempts failed as well.  We also don’t really find out why the last one succeeds. 

Literary works of alternate history, to be sure, can present their points of divergence in subtle, allusive form and do not have to spell every detail out for readers.  In fact, the primary flaw of most alternate history novels is clunky and excessive exposition.  On this count, Means avoids a major mistake made by other novelists.  At the same time, however, he fails to connect his novel’s allohistorical context to its broader plot.  He thus misses an opportunity to create a more integrated work of counterfactual fiction.

On this count, I thought of a few literary “what ifs.” Couldn’t Means have arguably set his story in the real historical context of LBJ’s America and explored the psychological turmoil of his novel’s characters in the same way as he did?   Alternatively, couldn’t he have set the tale in a dystopian future (switching the Vietnam war for some other conflict) and pretty much kept his plot as is (at least in terms of his character’s dysfunctional relationships)?  I would hazard to say the answer to both questions is yes.  The fact that Means sets his story in a counterfactual historical context but fails to extract more from its dramatic possibilities ends up being something of a let-down – at least to this reader.      

These quibbles notwithstanding, Means’s embrace of alternate history – however faint -- can nevertheless be welcomed as another sign of the genre’s increasing popularity and legitimacy.