The following reviews initially appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society.
HYSTOPIA, David Means, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
The conceit of Hystopia, author David Means’ first novel, is that the novel it contains was written by a Vietnam vet, Eugene Allen, who leaves the completed manuscript and a set of notes behind when he commits suicide. Eugene’s novel is bracketed by a series of editor’s notes and snippets of interviews with Eugene’s friends, family, and acquaintances, through which we come to understand how much of his novel is autobiographical.
Means makes it clear from the start that all of this is alternative history. The book opens with an editor’s note mentioning, “Details of the seventh assassination attempt made on John F. Kennedy, now known as the Genuine Assassination, have been changed slightly in Allen’s narrative . . . ”
As the novel inside the novel describes, Kennedy’s administration has developed a therapy called enfolding, which attempts to heal returning veterans’ psychological trauma. Vets take a drug called Tripizoid, re-enact the scene of their trauma, and thereby cancel the event out of their conscious and unconscious memory. It doesn’t work on everyone, and a failed treatment deepens the damage.
The story alternates primarily between Singleton and Wendy, agents of Kennedy’s Psych Corps, and a variety of characters roaming the wastelands of Michigan, burned to the waterline by rampaging gangs and failed enfoldees. The worst of these is psychopathic Rake, who has kidnapped a young woman and is holding her at his buddy’s cabin. All of these characters are damaged, some irretrievably, but as the story lines eventually converge, Means allows Eugene to give his characters a measure of light at the end of their dark tunnel. For us, Means has woven an ingenious, compelling, brutal story of the ravages that war exacts on the society that wages it.
WEST OF EDEN: AN AMERICAN PLACE, Jean Stein, Random House
This is the book for anyone who needs to be reminded that money does not buy happiness. In fact, the lesson taught by West of Eden is that having lots of money simply opens the door to buying unhappiness on a truly breathtaking scale.
Author Jean Stein is the daughter of Jules Stein, founder of MCA and one of the most powerful men in entertainment for many years. Each of five sections focuses on a selected family, such as that of Jack Warner of Warner Bros. fame; Jennifer Jones, among whose husbands was hugely powerful producer David O. Selznick; and Stein’s own. It’s fitting that sections are subtitled with the addresses of the houses these people lived in, since each is a character in its own right.
The book is made up of interwoven interviews with friends, family, business associates, and other witnesses to the goings-on of the rich, powerful, and famous. It’s compulsively readable but often disturbing, in particular as readers understand the frequency with which stunningly self-absorbed parents utterly ignore or discard their children. Rarely are stepfamilies blended; the old family is merely left behind somewhere to make room for the new one. It’s a sobering portrait.
THE BATTLE OF AGINCOURT, Edited by Anne Curry and Malcolm Mercer, Yale University Press
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers . . .” One of Shakespeare’s most rousing speeches is declaimed by King Henry V in advance of the Battle of Agincourt, which took place October 25, 1415, and in which the far-outnumbered English army emerged victorious against the French. That battle is the subject of this gorgeous, richly illustrated, and scholarly coffee table book, a project developed under the auspices of Britain’s Royal Armouries to commemorate the 600-year anniversary of a battle that its predecessor, the Office of Armoury, actually outfitted. The book features a collection of essays that discuss various aspects of Agincourt, from the English and French commanders, to the weapons and armaments, to the precipitating factors and aftermath, to Shakespeare’s Henry V, and even to the 1944 Laurence Olivier film of the play, which was filmed in Technicolor and released at the height of World War II as a huge boost to national morale. Though Agincourt was not a decisive battle in the Hundred Years War, the editors credit Shakespeare’s play with making the battle a cultural touchstone in the English historical narrative.