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Haslett's Imagine Me Gone is one of the best novels about mental illness in recent decades. It is intellectually ambitious, compassionate but showing the complexities of the life of a family living with serious disorders, and ranging over many other ideas. It is in two parts. The first part is about the older generation. Margaret is engaged to John. She is American, he is English. Before they marry, in the 1960s, he has a hospitalization and he is totally non-responsive. But the episode passes, and they go on to have three children. The story is told from the perspective of Margaret and their three children. We see the strains in the marriage due to John's emotional distance. As a father, he is engaged but he creates trials for his children which make their lives so much harder. He plays a sort of game with Celia and her younger brother Alec when they are on the ocean in a small boat in Maine. He tells them to "imagine me gone" and they have to work out what to do while he lies on the bottom of the boat. He refuses to help them. They panic but he stays lying down, unresponsive. It seems like a cruel exercise, but then, it also becomes clear that he is planning for the time when he will indeed be gone.
Their mother Margaret is more concerned about her son Michael, who has always been very different. When he is very young, he will not be soothed by being held by her, while the other two are automatically comforted by her touch. Michael is really the central figure of the book, as we follow from his childhood to his adult life, and his eventual death, which is indicated right at the start of the book. He is very sensitive and needy, but also extremely concerned for others, especially African-Americans. He loves modern music, starting with disco, then electronic, dance, and all sorts of other obscure varieties. He becomes a DJ and has a huge record collection. But he also becomes a mental patient, taking medications for every problem, and especially for his anxiety. This leads to his addiction to prescription drugs, and this is life threatening.
Michael's mother supports him financially, because he can't hold down a job. But her own finances are not solid, and so she is placing herself at risk by paying his expenses. Alec and Celia have their own lives and their own struggles. Alec is gay and his dating life is very much based on sex until he meets one man who is different, and they fall in love. Celia, who works with troubled people herself, marries and has a solid professional life, but there are problems in her marriage. Both siblings struggle with how much they owe their brother Michael, torn between their love for him their exasperation at his apparently inexhaustible needs, and his terrible fragility.
This exploration of sibling concern is subtle and moving. It's a remarkable portrayal in his breadth and its articulation of all the main characters' voices. It includes class, politics, gender, race, as well as family life. Often it is self-consciously brainy and may alienate some readers, but it will also endear other readers. Michael's theorizing of the role of music is likewise going to mean little to many readers while it will have others who know the tracks he discusses excited by his ideas.
Michael's foretold death casts a dark shadow over this story, and one might complain that Haslett paints an unduly pessimistic view of mental illness. This complaint is made all the more reasonable because Imagine Me Gone has been taken by many readers and reviewers to be a portrayal of mental illness in the modern world, a story to teach us rather than just a story to make us think. The fact is that most people with severe chronic mental illness still survive and there is at least a plausible case to be made that psychiatry does more good than harm. However, it's overly restrictive to require authors to serve an immediate public good rather than explore some of the more tragic aspects of life, and there's no denying that the tragic figure of Michael makes this novel especially memorable.
The unabridged audiobook is performed by Ellen Archer doing the female roles and Robert Fass doing the male ones. They capture the WASPy nature of the family well, and they come across as tightly wrapped. This works well, although it leaves one wondering occasionally if there might have been other ways to approach the performance.
© 2016 Christian Perring
Christian Perring is teaching part time as an adjunct professor of philosophy in NYC in Fall 2016.