Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett

Imagine Me GoneAn early scene in Adam Haslett’s searing second novel describes a father adrift in a small motorboat off the coast of Maine with the youngest two of his three children. As his kids — Alec, 7, and Celia, 10 — fuss with the lobsters they bought for dinner back at the vacation cabin, Dad turns off the motor and pockets the key, lies down on the floor, closes his eyes, and says: “Imagine me gone, imagine it’s just the two of you. What do you do?”

At the time, Alec and Celia are too young to recognize the significance of what their father, John, is asking. But the question is one that will haunt them and influence their behavior for the rest of their lives. It also hints at the crux of Haslett’s book-length query to his readers: What will you do when the reality you knew and trusted is suddenly turned on its head? How will you cope with emptiness, disappointment and loss?

Haslett’s devastating and gorgeously written Imagine Me Gone begins with a prologue. Alec, in his 30s, has returned to the Maine cottage of his youth with his older brother, Michael. The circumstances of their return are kept intentionally blurry until the end of the novel. But as the short chapter concludes, one thing becomes undoubtedly clear: Something has just gone terribly wrong.

The chapters that follow unspool over the course of half a century, beginning in 1963 when the boys’ mother, Margaret, first learns of her fiance’s crippling mental illness. Despite the vertigo that the news instills in her and John’s monthlong stint in a psychiatric hospital, Margaret marries him anyway. A few years later, she gives birth to Michael, then Celia, after which they move from London to the Boston area and assume the trappings and responsibilities of any normal suburban family.

Except that for Margaret and John, conditions are far from normal. After 15 years of the usual business — John struggling to make ends meet as an entrepreneur, Margaret fussing over the three kids — John’s flattening depression resurfaces.

“Against the monster, I’ve always wanted meaning … But that won’t do when the monster has its funnel driven into the back of your head and is sucking the light coming through your eyes straight out of you into the mouth of oblivion,” he thinks in one of the most unflinching moments in the book. “There is nothing deep about this. It’s merely endless. … There is no killing the beast.”

As Michael ages not so gracefully into adulthood, he, too, exhibits patterns of unsettling behavior. His obsessiveness jumps from nattering on about a dizzying array of 1980s house music to ranting about the African diaspora and the threat of white privilege. When a second failed love affair with an unstable lesbian along with his Klonopin dosage’s increasing ineffectiveness threaten to derail him, it becomes all too clear that Michael is on a path to end up just like his father.

Without giving away too many more particulars, it’s safe to say that Haslett hits the nail on the head when it comes to describing just how anguishing and time-consuming psychiatric disorders can be, not only for the afflicted but also for the flailing loved ones trying their damnedest — and failing — to find a suitable fix. As demonstrated in his first book, You Are Not a Stranger Here — a collection of short stories that earned him a Pulitzer nomination and a spot on the 2002 National Book Award shortlist — Haslett writes with his eyes wide open about the pitfalls of piled-on medication, the panicked late-night phone calls, the cycles of fear, frustration and guarded hope.

And herein lies the kicker: Because these chapters are told from the alternating perspective of each of the five family members, we believe every word in them and bear witness to just how complex and multi-angled the issue of mental illness can be. Michael’s letters to his aunt detailing the dubious deeds of a child prostitution ring aboard the ship the family’s taking back to England are batty, for sure. But his feverish musings on his own well-being via a psychiatric intake form are also pure genius: half clearheaded, half delusional, yet undeniably brilliant, vibrant, and, dare I say it, funny.

While Michael is busy going bonkers, it comes as a relief to read about Celia and Alec’s sorting of goals and their conflicted feelings about love, family and careers — in other words, topics at least partially unrelated to their brother’s steady decline. In another nod to themes explored in Stranger, Haslett’s portrayal of Alec’s first brush with real love with a man after years of steamy yet anonymous Grinder hookups might make your heart catch in your throat (mine certainly did).

So, too, Margaret’s chapters, while arguably a smidge underdeveloped, lay bare the intricacies of what it means to be an unconditional caregiver — to put your entire life on hold in a last-ditch hope that your actions might somehow be capable of changing a loved one’s fate.

For what it’s worth, Imagine Me Gone is indeed a huge downer. To filch an expression from Michael’s phrasebook, reading some passages might make your head feel “compressed to the density of an anvil strapped to a potting wheel left on high speed in a sun-drenched meadow … or like getting root-canal work while vacationing in the tropics.”

But to harp on its depressive qualities is missing the true beauty of the work. By signing on with Haslett and his characters we are given the chance to look beyond our minutiae and daily distractions in order to notice the passage of time as experienced by others. We are reminded of what it is like to be truly, if fleetingly, alive.

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (April 29, 2016)

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