Hystopia is one of those books that’s hard for me to rate, because I appreciate it more than I actually enjoyed reading it. It’s a complex, mindfuck of a novel that pays homage to some of the most memorable works of postmodernist fiction from the late 20th century.
Here’s where I try to tell you what it’s about. Okay, so it’s the late 1960s, the Vietnam War is raging on, and Kennedy is about to enter his third term in office. In this revisionist history, the U.S. government has created a federal agency called Psych Corps tasked with addressing the mental health crisis that plagues returning veterans. This treatment is pretty much Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for war veterans: they administer a drug combined with immersive therapy that, when successful, erases their memories.
Hystopia follows two separate by related plot lines, destined to converge: In one plot line, Rake, a disturbed veteran who resisted treatment, kidnaps a mentally ill woman named Meg and takes her along with him on a deranged killing spree. Meanwhile, two Psych Corps agents — one of whom underwent the treatment himself — fall in love and find themselves on a mission to track down Rake.
But the strangest thing is that the story might not actually be about what we think it’s about — because, as we find out right up front, Hystopia is actually a story within a story, written by a veteran named Eugene trying to process his own grief.
Sound weird yet? It definitely is. As I was reading it, I kept thinking to myself, “I really hope this all comes together in a satisfying way.” It’s a very challenging book, so as a reader, you kind of need that satisfaction to justify the effort. Luckily, it delivered.
I can’t say that I fully understand what I just read, but I can tell you that it evoked all sorts of deep emotions in me anyway. When it comes down to it, it’s a sad story that confronts heavy, important themes — from war trauma and mental illness to grief and love — leaving us to question the depths of our own resilience.