Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘Imagine Me Gone’

by Andrew Travers


‘Imagine Me Gone’

Adam Haslett

356 pages, hardcover: $26

Little, Brown and Company, 2016

Aspen should be proud of its small role in the creation of Adam Haslett’s new novel, on which he was working during his September 2013 Aspen Writers’ Foundation residency in Woody Creek. “Imagine Me Gone,” published in early May, is a triumphant and transcendent novel of family and the things we pass down through the generations, for better or for worse. Haslett fearlessly puts depression and mental illness in an unblinking spotlight.

The novel chronicles the life of a British-American family from the mid-1960s to the aughts. All five members — John, Margaret and their three children — get their say in the book, narrating in alternating chapters. Margaret writes early on about marrying John despite the surprise revelation of his deep history with depression. Their daughter Celia tells of a foreboding day boating on a New England lake, as John cuts the motor and tells his children, “Imagine me gone,” forcing them to devise a way to get to shore without him. Alec writes of falling in love, at 31, for the first time. And in Michael, from childhood through his adult years, we witness the emergence of his inherited psychic pain and the shadow it casts over this eldest son’s hyper-intelligent mind.

With his extraordinarily economical and observant prose, Haslett fully inhabits each of these characters. By the time the children are grown, you feel as if you’ve matured beside them — as familiar with their tics and emotional intricacies as your own kin. The book is tender, often beautiful, sometimes emotionally searing and, at times, surprisingly funny.

Michael’s chapters can be particularly hilarious. He writes much of the time in parody, in a style that would be at home in McSweeney’s or on the “Shouts and Murmurs” page of the New Yorker. On a family sea trip to England, he writes an aunt outlandish letters about passengers being sold into sexual slavery, later he fills out a psychiatrist’s questionnaire with a brilliant, long-form history of his heavily medicated history and various obsessions (it’s funny, I swear) and pens an “after-action” report following a family counseling session. But these sections are more than comic relief. These endearing sections of “Imagine Me Gone,” beside chapters detailing his siblings’ and parents’ difficulties of dealing with his mental illness, mirror the inevitable ups and downs of love and family.