Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
“Imagine me gone,” their father tells them. Alec and his older sister Celia are too young to understand the sadness and desperation in their father John’s request as he lays down on the floor of their boat, expressionless. It’s a test to them, a challenging game to see if they can step up towards adulthood and bring the boat to shore without parental guidance. Alec erupts into a teary panic, and Celia struggles to piece together what she’d seen her father do on previous outings that summer. They eventually row to land, back towards their mother and brother and their picturesque New England holiday.
This portentous scene permeates Adam Haslett’s outstanding novel Imagine Me Gone, which follows three siblings from childhood to adulthood as they grapple with a quiet curse of depression and anxiety that lurks among their family. The novel opens with a short scene of Alec, as an adult, looking for help; something has happened to his brother Michael. A few pages later we see Alec and Celia as children in the boat with their unresponsive father, whose words adopt an ominous clarity in proximity to Michael’s undisclosed accident, decades later: “imagine it’s just the two of you,” he tells them, almost as if he knows that whatever pressure was pulling him apart would get his son Michael as well.
The narrative of Imagine Me Gone alternates between family members, and Haslett imbues each with such richly rendered independence that their section headings hardly feel necessary. It’s quickly apparent whose chapters are whose: flowery, nostalgic prose belongs to the matriarch Margaret, while any forward-momentum and longing for normalcy is seen from Celia’s eyes. Alec is like Celia but without the confidence, staying strong despite lacking a plan for his life. Michael riddles the novel with riveting manipulated prose: in one chapter, his narrative of a family cruise is hijacked into a fantasy about sailing on a ship for white slaves (an early sign of the white guilt he would cultivate into adulthood), in another he pours himself into a medical questionnaire. In the “Family Medical History” section, he writes:
Let’s not pretend either of us has time for a complete answer here. In brief, Dad didn’t make it; Mom’s never taken a pill in her life; Alec had an ulcer, early on, when they were still fashionable…and I’d guestimate Celia’s chronic fatigue peaked out around ‘94 somewhere in the Bay area…. As for my grandparents, all four suffered from Eventual Death Syndrome (EDS).
What makes Imagine Me Gone so outstanding (and certainly one of the best books of 2016) is Haslett’s unwavering commitment to this family and their story. While one could describe this novel being about depression, there’s no angle beyond the fact that Haslett has created a family afflicted by the disease. Other books out there that deal with richly-rendered family dysfunction often aim to tackle some political or cultural statement in their wake, but Imagine Me Gone is such a success because there’s no agenda and no attempt to define a certain era. It’s all family, and exceptionally relatable.
Instead, Haslett focuses on a beautiful, but also quite harrowing concept that we are all the sum of what’s come before us. That children will never not be their parents’ children, that everything that’s been brought into this world can be traced back not just to its creator but generations beyond. And perhaps the importance of these histories can only be seen as time plods forward. Margaret muses on this early in the novel:
If you think of memory not just as looking back but as being aware of time and how it passes and what the passage of it feels like then there is something about being in motion that causes it. Through some sleight of mind, physical forward motion makes time seem visible.
When we see John’s sadness appear in his son Michael, it’s almost as if their lives are genealogically intertwined. “There are parallel worlds,” Margaret thinks. But, “who’s got time for the dead with all this life, all these lives, all jumbled up?”
As the novel progresses, Michael develops a crippling addiction to the daily fistful of medication he’s accrued through various therapy sessions. His family attempts to address this growing concern by way of group counselling, which ultimately leads Michael and his brother Alec back to the family’s old vacation house. Together, for the sake of their family and their family’s memories, they try to face the “backwards ache” of the “utter goneness of that time.” But we tragically know far more than Haslett’s characters: that there’s no cure for that ache, that it’s in the bloodline, and always will be.