Shared pain of in­her­ited dark paths

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Pa­trick Flan­nery The Spec­ta­tor

If it was not yet The Age of Anx­i­ety in 1947, when WH Au­den pub­lished his long poem of the same name, now it most cer­tainly is, given the man­i­fold global un­cer­tain­ties that keep any sane per­son awake with worry. Nearly 20 per cent of adult Amer­i­cans have been di­ag­nosed with a gen­eral anx­i­ety dis­or­der, while the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try has pro­duced a le­gion of drugs that prom­ise to com­bat the ef­fects of such con­di­tions. In Adam Haslett’s beau­ti­ful new novel, Im

agine Me Gone, men­tal ill­ness rips through one New Eng­land fam­ily over the course of four decades. Told in al­ter­nat­ing first-per­son chap­ters by the par­ents and their three chil­dren, it is a cap­ti­vat­ing por­trait of the ways de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety mark both the af­flicted and ev­ery­one who loves them.

Mar­garet , mother and li­brar­ian, is anx­ious about the in­sta­bil­ity of life with her Bri­tish hus­band John, a down­wardly mo­bile ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist who is pro­foundly de­pressed. When John com­mits suicide af­ter a se­ries of job losses, the fam­ily’s col­lec­tive anx­i­ety shifts to el­dest son Michael.

A pre­co­cious teen given to wild fab­ri­ca­tions, he is the in­her­i­tor of his fa­ther’s ill­ness. In Michael this man­i­fests as an anx­i­ety dis­or­der that con­demns him to a tra­jec­tory of fail­ures, mir­ror­ing John’s de­cline. Un­der the care of his fa­ther’s psy­chi­a­trist, Michael falls into a cy­cle of pre­scrip­tion-drug de­pen­dence while his younger and more ca­pa­ble sib­lings, Celia and Alec, spend much of their adult lives strug­gling to keep him on track. They are anx­ious in their own ways: Celia about her re­la­tion­ship with Paul, a screen­writer, and Alec about many things, in­clud­ing his mother’s dwin­dling fi­nances, and the way his de­vo­tion to Michael im­per­ils the emo­tional in­ti­macy he has dis­cov­ered with Seth, a graphic de­signer.

Haslett has a tal­ent for shift­ing be­tween the voices of his char­ac­ters. It is with Michael, how­ever, that his gifts are most in ev­i­dence. These chap­ters, some­times in the form of let­ters, oth­ers as cod med­i­cal or mil­i­tary re­ports, are by turns mor­dantly funny and heart­break­ing. Michael con­fesses near the end:

As Michael’s health de­te­ri­o­rates, the forces of love and loy­alty that bind the sib­lings res­cue Imag­ine Me Gone from all-con­sum­ing sad­ness. Haslett un­der­stands the power of sen­ti­ment to move without ever be­com­ing maudlin or arch, lead­ing us down a dark path at the end of which a light of hope still burns.

I could say my lungs never filled with enough air … or that my thoughts moved too quickly to com­plete, sev­ered by the rush of vig­i­lance. But even to say this would abet the lie that ter­ror can be de­scribed, when any­one who’s ever known it knows that it has no com­po­nents but is in­stead ev­ery­where in­side you all the time, un­til you can recog­nise your­self only by the ten­sions that string one minute to the next.

Imag­ine Me Gone By Adam Haslett Hamish Hamil­ton, 368pp, $32.99

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