A family torn apart by mental illness
SHORTLISTED for the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Imagine Me Gone seems to have been otherwise overlooked in the awards stakes; unjustly so, because it’s a substantial and serious novel that explores to powerful effect the dynamic of a dysfunctional family.
In the early 1960s, John, from a repressed middle class English family, marries Margaret, an American woman who is far more in touch with her feelings than he has been raised to believe is decent. But John’s problems run far deeper than simply repressing his emotions. He is periodically laid low by depression, which sometimes results in hospitalisation and makes it hard to hold down a job. While raising three kids, John and Margaret cross the Atlantic three times chasing jobs that never last. They’ve settled, finally, near Boston.
So thorough is Haslett’s groundwork in establishing his characters in the first quarter of the book that it could almost work as a stand-alone novella by itself. A series of first-person chapters not only sets up the family members and their relationships to each other but reflects the subtle shifting perspectives of children growing into young adulthood. Haslett keeps us waiting a long time before we at last hear from John himself, just before he checks out forever, his struggle with the “monster” inside him coming to a bleak and tragic end.
And even if the first 100 pages do a lot of heavy lifting, Haslett doesn’t coast from there on in. With John’s passing, the family’s focus falls on his eldest child, Michael, first seen as a precocious young boy with a wicked and funny imagination and a vocabulary to match. In adulthood, though, he’s crippled by anxiety, constantly experimenting with medications and surviving on handouts from his mother, Margaret. He dominates the narrative the way his situation dominates the family. A disco and funk obsessive, he feels his true calling is to read African-American Studies at grad school. As a keen reader of feminist literature, he’s attracted to black women but feels guilty about having sex with them. Some of the novel’s finest passages come when we see Michael’s hyperactive brain in action, obsessively expounding on his favourite topics while his life deteriorates around him.
With their shared guilt over what happened to his father, the rest of the family rally around him, but their decades-long obligation to protect him is fraying them all round the edges.
His brother, Alec, a political journalist, falls in love but feels guilty about it because Michael is on his own. Sister Celia, whose day job is to counsel society’s unfortunate left-behinds, can’t bring herself to treat Michael like one of her clients and lashes out at Alec’s expressions of concern.
In an intense study of a family who have been made “foreign” to each other by mental illness, Haslett has the ability to make their hard-won lessons feel like his own.
Imagine Me Gone is the kind of book that can only come into being when keen and perceptive observation of one’s fellow human beings is allied with deep compassion.
Imagine Me Gone, by Adam Haslett, is a substantial and serious novel that explores to powerful effect the dynamic of a dysfunctional family