Mental illness is one of the most difficult topics to make into fiction, I think, so that Adam Haslett’s new novel, Imagine Me Gone, is that much more exceptional in its complete success in tackling this issue in the first place, and making its ravages on one family intense, realistic, and all-encompassing.  Since the novel covers two generations of one family, we’ll see different types of mental illness occur in the same family (one father, one son), and the novel also clarifies the differences in approaches within one family to dealing with its impact both on those who are mentally ill, and on those family members whose lives are also enormously impacted by the illnesses.

An American woman, Margaret, living abroad right after college years, meets and marries John, usually intellectually robust, engaging, and sophisticated.  His one serious bout with depression, for which he is hospitalized, is mostly kept from Margaret, and/or written off as an aberrant oddity that wouldn’t or couldn’t repeat. Young Margaret is willing to risk the possibility of such a repetition, or so she thinks, and marries John anyway.  John’s professional life doesn’t work well; in spite of some success as a broker, Margaret and John keep moving back and forth between England and Greater Boston, and the underlying lack of stability takes its toll both on their marriage, and on the raising of their three children.  John, too, keeps having longer periods of unemployment, so that money’s tight and more and more of the burden of domesticity falls upon an increasingly beleaguered Margaret.  The three children seem fine, until eldest son Michael, around adolescence, begins to show signs of severe anxiety disorder, which nearly takes over his life; he may well be the brightest of the children.  John virtually fades out altogether, becomes incapable of leaving home, but Haslett’s particularly astute at noting the daily toll his depression takes on the other members of the family, whose lives are that much more tenuous: Margaret will have to work–not that she minds, particularly, but it uproots the entire family, all of whom resent John for slacking/malingering, or so they think as children/adolescents.  It’s clear early in the novel that John will take his own life, which he does; Haslett’s descriptions of John sinking into this final despair is beautifully rendered; he says good-bye to each child in the most mundane of ways, but each child feels he’s interrupted their days; eldest son Michael has escaped back to England to finish school there, but he’s had premonitions of his father’s suicide.

Margaret tries, basically, to take over running Michael’s life as he gets sicker and sicker, but his sister Celia and younger (gay) brother Alec also kick in to help Michael in all sorts of ways, often at the expense of their own evolving lives, so that each family member is partially stalled in finding mates, jobs, futures.  Haslett’s main question remains how much time and energy other family members can, should, will give to keep Michael outside the excesses of the psychiatric system.  When Michael actually gets into graduate school, after years and years of applications (he’s a whiz at minor areas of popular culture, particularly music), brother Alec takes him to Ann Arbor, sets him up in an apartment, and leaves. Michael faces complete and total isolation, and in spite of truly heroic efforts, another “failure” gets heaped on him as he drops out of school.  Family holidays, particularly Christmases back in Boston, are horrendous exercises in anger, recrimination, and guilt, and are brilliantly rendered. Celia and Alec, too, are wounded in their ways, and we readers must determine how much of their own angsts are cultural , and how much may have been caused by living with a mentally ill father and then brother.  (Haslett is particularly strong in writing about Alec’s coming out and inability to connect for more than one night stands with New York men of his generation: gay life amongst urban professional men is superbly drawn).  Margaret is often wildly annoying, but the children have learned to rally round her, too, as best they can under the circumstances: that’s the main point of the novel: what does each member of this family “owe” to the others? When can they turn off their phones, and not have to talk to the increasingly obsessive-compulsive Michael? Where are the limits and the boundaries, and who determines what those are?

The informed reader already knows that suicides often repeat within the same families, so the denouement, where Alec takes Michael to Maine for a couple of weeks to detox him from the drugs which help? harm? Michael, is expected, but its impact is that much greater since we’re aware of the probability of Michael’s suicide, too. The psychiatric profession does not come off well in this novel–there’s a kind of drug ’em and leave ’em mentality to the doctors–and Haslett’s brilliant with those parts of the mental health system, too.

Imagine Me Gone is not an easy read, though it’s compelling, brilliant, and amazingly rendered. Since it often seems that Americans are living on anti-depressants (“mood elevators”), so that issues are drugged rather than discussed, this novel is exceptionally timely, as well as moving and relevant, and, simply, magnificent.

–Daniel Brown

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