Between the Lines: Erasing Memories

Jun 10, 2016

David Means
Credit Beowulf Sheehan

What if you could erase painful memories forever? But if you did, you lost the good memories as well as the bad? In his long-awaited novel, Hystopia (MacMillan, 2016), David Means creates an alternate history in which veterans returning from war have their trauma “enfolded” to erase painful memories.

But for some veterans, the process doesn't work because their trauma goes too deep. Means, who grew up in Kalamazoo, sets the novel in Michigan although he now lives in New York.

Means, who teaches at Vassar College, is the author of four short story collections: A Quick Kiss of Redemption; The Spot; Assorted Fire Events (which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction); and The Secret Goldfish that was short- listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize. Hystopia is his first novel.

It's written from the point of view of a Vietnam veteran who returns home to Michigan. Means explains: “He’s from Benton Harbor. He imagines a world in which there is a drug that allows you to enfold, or tuck inside your brain, your PTSD, your trauma. That allowed me to create where these characters have a story, but they’re not sure what it is.”

Credit Macmillan

The setting for the novel is in the time of President John F. Kennedy, who in this alternate history is still alive, having survived several assassination attempts. In his third term, Kennedy establishes a federal agency called the Psych Corps to cure the scourge of mental illness.

The book's plot centers on the vet’s loss of his sister.

“It’s actually a very personal story for me,” Means says. “I wanted to write about my own sister. It becomes kind of a pursuit, a chase. Agents from this Corps are trying to rescue this young woman who has been taken hostage.”

Means explores the value of memory in his novel by having the characters reenact the events that traumatized them to help them recover.

“You can’t just forget. I think you need to hear the story behind the pain, and that’s why I have the characters reenact their trauma.”

Means will read from Hystopia at Bookbug in Kalamazoo on Thursday, June 30, at 7 p.m.

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