After four short story collections, Means delivers his first novel, Hystopia, a wildly original trip through an unhinged 1960s America.
You’ve written about violence, but Hystopia is about its aftermath. Was that a conscious decision?
As I finished a draft, I realized I was really writing about the struggle to heal, about the nature of finding a way to face trauma. In the end, one way or another, I think, all writing is about healing. But I was also writing about those who are affected by the aftermath of combat—the lovers, sisters, fathers, mothers damaged by war. I imagined a drug called Tripizoid that was created to erase, or “enfold,” traumatic memory. That device helped me tell a tragic story in a different way. I did research into PTSD and watched a lot of news footage from the war and read widely and interviewed vets. But a great deal of the material for the book came from my own life, growing up in Michigan during the Vietnam War, years of absorbing. I knew for years I wanted to write a novel that addressed the personal trauma of my older sister, who suffered—and still suffers—from mental illness. For a long time I imagined—and I know it’s absurd—that she was an indirect casualty of the Vietnam War.
A new generation of writers is taking on the Iraq War, but you seem to be saying, “We’re not done with Vietnam.”
I don’t think we’re even close to being done with the ramifications, the trauma of the Vietnam War. The first big war lost. Now we have another war lost. Wars never simply end, not for those in combat and not for the culture, and one way or another they shape-shift from generation to generation. Faulkner, years after the fact, was still writing about the Civil War. There’s brilliant writing coming from Iraq vets; I just read some extremely strong stories by Luke Mogelson. But there’s fiction that comes directly out of experience, like Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and fiction filtered through history later, like Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse-Five, which were published in the ’60s and ended up being as much about Vietnam as WWII. Vietnam and Iraq are part of the same national trauma and delusion; we folded the war up when Reagan became president and unpacked it with Bush.
Americans don’t like talking about trauma. We tend to twist it into heroism and move on.
It seems to me that public celebration of valor is an important part of the healing process, finding a mass catharsis no matter what political impulses sent these men and women off to fight. Anyway, parades are fun. On the other hand, the concept of trauma as it relates to heroism is fantastically complicated, ever shifting, mythic, embedded in storytelling, and the process of healing acute trauma and reentering society after combat is deep and complex. Americans are pragmatic; we want quick, clean, simple solutions to vast problems. The paradox is that we’re a deeply confessional culture, but we’re not often contemplative.