Publication date: May 3rd 2016
Imagine Me Gone is a novel of family, characters, beginning with a woman who marries a man she knows has a problem she can’t fix or help him overcome. In 1963 Margaret marries John, despite his having been hospitalized for a severe depressive episode shortly before their marriage. With prose that is wondrously intelligent, funny and painful Adam Haslett traverses one family’s life throughout almost four decades and from the vantage point of each of the family’s members: Margaret, John and their three children: Michael, Celia and Alec. Throughout their lives John’s depression is one that defines where and how they live. While he tries his best to cope, he knows his enemy
There are medicines I can take that flood my mind without discrimination, slowing the monster, moving the struggle underwater, where I then must live in the murk. But there is no killing the beast. Since I was a young man, it has hunted me. And it will hunt me until I am dead. The older I become, the closer it gets.
As any parent wonders what they have passed on to their children so does John and it is Michael, the child most attuned to his father who dominates his fears. From the time he was small, anxiety made him vibrate, so much a part of him that every beat of his heart was a sign that something needed to be done, to happen. Rather than fade with age, it grew with him. As a young adult, armed with doctor with believed pharmaceuticals were the answer, he tries to manage his anxiety with prescribed drugs that feel miraculous at first
For that hour and the three or four that followed, I was lifted down off a hook in the back of my skull that I hadn’t even known I’d been hanging from. Here was a world unfettered by dread. Thoughts came, lasted for whole, uninterrupted moments, then passed away, leaving room for others. The present had somehow ceased to be an emergency. In fact, it seemed uneventful.
but soon cease to help so he supplements his regimen with ‘herbal’ teas and alcohol. Despite an encyclopedic knowledge of funk and disco music and the ability to write about it he cannot keep a job. Soon mounting debts that he has no way to pay mean that, at age 37, he moves home.
Each of the family members speaks in Imagine Me Gone and Haslett gives them all stories that resonate, but it is Michael who stands out with a worldscape that is both a delight and terrifying. When Celia and Alec decide they need to see a counselor to deal with the family’s issues Michael writes of it in terms of a battle report. Of a parking spot being stolen from them he writes
Mom immediately launched a DEFCON 1 verbal barrage, which backfired against the closed windows, causing multiple casualties. Celia was swiftly medevaced to Ramstein Air Base for a laparoscopic frontal-lobe transplant and returned to active duty four minutes later.
He also responds to a hospital questionnaire asking if he has ever been hospitalized for non-psychiatric care or surgery with
On Christmas Eve 1992, I came down with a self-diagnosis of esophageal cancer requiring what amounted to an overnight stay in the decongestant aisle of a twenty-four-hour CVS in Milford.
For the observer, these surreal expansions on life are laugh-out-loud funny, but Haslett ensures that the reality of Michael’s condition is no joke and cannot be ignored. Celia, Margaret and Alec are all recipients of his endless phone calls about everything that bounces around inside his head. For his siblings, the situation becomes burdensome as they have their own lives, but for Margaret it’s not so clear. She knows Michael needs help, but by letting him live with her she is taken back to a place she misses—that of being the caregiver, the source of comfort and knowledge, the center of her child’s life. She has felt marginalized by her adult children so to have one that still needs her so much is a gift rather than a burden.
As I mentioned yesterday I have not found a lot of fiction that realistically portrays the impact of mental health issues. It may only be one novel, but Imagine Me Gone goes a long way to correct that deficit. Within its pages Haslett layers so many textures and hues the novel glows. John, Margaret, Michael, Celia and Alec are reflected back at us with their imperfect love, their hurts, their humor and their desperate attempts to helpeach other, even without knowing what that might mean.
There’s a limit, Alec. You don’t want to think about it, but there’s an ethical limit to what anyone should have to endure. You can’t just negate that with sentimentality. With the idea of some indomitable spirit. That’s a fairy tale. It’s what people say about other people, to avoid the wretchedness. It’s just cruelty by other means. Requiring a person to stay alive. For you.