"They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / and add some extra, just for you.” So goes the famous first stanza of Philip Larkin’s famous poem “This Be the Verse”—one of many literary forebears forbearing Adam Haslett’s second novel, Imagine Me Gone. Haslett’s short-story collection, You Are Not a Stranger Here, earned a National Book Award nomination and a Pulitzer Prize nomination, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this effort did just as well.
The novel begins with a flashy, cinematic prologue that’s at once a distraction and a giveaway, but I was sold 20 pages in, when Haslett drops into the mind of Margaret, a mother of three who’s trying to keep a house, her marriage, and her own psyche together, despite the financial and emotional hardships generated by her husband’s clinical depression. What does clinical depression look like for John? He can function at a high level for long periods of time, but every once in a while he’s bedridden for weeks and can’t really move.
Margaret is very quietly on the verge of collapse. With great precision and insight she introduces us to her children—Alec, Michael, and Celia—each precocious and funny. As time passes and the story moves along, we jump in and out of each of their POVs and watch the family endure the thousand little cuts of mental illness, which they all inherit or otherwise absorb in their own way.
The perspective shifts keep the novel moving right along. You grow attached to each of the characters, and then right when you start loving one the most, you get yanked out of their head and plunked down into a new view of the same world. The underlying emotional engine of the book (besides Haslett’s masterful control of language, allusions, and scene construction) is the eeny-meeny-miny-moe dread of wondering how much destructive depression the father has passed down to his kids.
Like William Styron in Darkness Visible and David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest, Haslett imagines depression as an all-consuming shadow monster of the self, a being more alive than the body that cast it. But Haslett’s shadow monster takes the further step of boring into a person’s veins, wrapping itself in the DNA, and recurring at all levels of the family tree.
You know that friend who’s a little smarter than you and a lot funnier, the guy you’d love to travel with or have lunch with forever if it weren’t for the fact that he was totally emotionally exhausting due to mental illness? That’s Michael, one of the children you watch grow up in the book and one of the most interesting literary characters I’ve come across in a long while.
He’s a Klonopin-popping white guy dedicated to African American studies who advocates for sensible reparations policies as he works on his theory that black music is a vehicle for the inherited trauma of slavery. (His descriptions and defenses of disco and electronic music/dub are A+.) He exclusively loves and sleeps with black women, but he’s desperate to keep the tools, as it were, of white supremacy and patriarchy out of the bedroom, a goal he finds difficult to achieve.
Michael acquires the shadow-monster version of depression, which comes along with the unfortunate character trait of being able to achieve natural bodily joy only by engaging with abstractions. Like some kind of giant panda, Michael spends his days chewing through music and language, trying to extract the trace amounts of dopamine buried in them, seemingly the only things that remind him he has a body.
Everyone in the novel portrays him as the “crazy” one, but in a way, he seems the most sane, or a least the most valiant and honest in his awareness of his privilege. With the exception of the father, who spends his working life investing in businesses run by people of color, the other characters don’t address the subject of race and privilege at all, and when they do, they seem like the “crazy” ones. When Michael is young, he tells Margaret that he thinks the next-door neighbor is sad, in part, because he’s black, to which she replies, “Don’t say that, Michael… There’s no reason someone should be sad because of what race they are… People aren’t lonely because of the color of their skin.”
The other children cope with their father’s psychological legacy, as their father says, using adult techniques: “discipline, drinking, and searching for someone else to love [them].” Alec cruises for dudes on Amtrak and keeps busy as a journalist. Celia is a social worker and a serial monogamist who keeps dating different versions of her father. Both of those characters are richly drawn and delightfully complex, but you’re rooting for Michael. There are about 44 sentences in this book that you’re going to try to pass off as your own in casual conversation, and 30 of them come from him.
The quality of Haslett’s character portrayals, his language, and his scene construction in Imagine Me Gone are apparent enough, but the way you know this book is going to stick around for a while is that—with the possible exception of the prologue—not one word is wasted. The kids don’t just inherit their father’s mental health, they inherit his metaphors, his ideas, his linguistic markers. Any reader who hasn’t put down their New Critical reading glasses will be richly rewarded, as will any reader who never had them in the first place.