Battling mental illness in ‘Imagine Me Gone’

Imagine Me Gone. Adam Haslett. Little, Brown. 368 pages. $26.
Imagine Me Gone. Adam Haslett. Little, Brown. 368 pages. $26.

Late in Imagine Me Gone, Margaret, the mother at the center of this devastating family drama, refers to a waiter at a restaurant as “conventionally handsome.”

That’s a good way to describe this book. Adam Haslett’s second novel has a traditional structure that we’ve seen before: a mother and father and their three children navigate a series of domestic crises, from job losses and abortions to mental illness. But Haslett’s considerable skills as a writer turn domestic conflicts into something more profound. Therein lies the allure of the handsome: it may not differ much from its predecessors, but it commands your attention.

The novel begins in the present day on a December morning in Maine. Alec, the youngest of the siblings, dashes out into the snow-covered landscape to seek help for a mysterious emergency involving his older brother, Michael. The novel then moves back and forth in time, with each section told from the perspective of one of the five family members, including John, Margaret’s English-born venture capitalist husband, and daughter Celia.

John and Margaret met in England in the early ’60s, where Margaret had moved to escape “my own world of coming-out balls and the matrons of Smith College.” Oxford-educated John learned so well his mother’s lesson that “there are proper and improper ways of going about things”: In one of the novel’s many perfect details, when fire trucks show up at the flat where John is throwing a party, he puts on his suit jacket so that he’ll be presentable if the press shows up.

Shortly after their 1963 engagement, John is suddenly less gregarious than normal. Soon, he is admitted to a psychiatric hospital. A doctor on the ward explains to Margaret that John’s mind has a tendency to shut down without warning. It has happened before, the doctor tells her. And it will happen again.

Margaret and John marry and settle in the U.S.. Over the next 15 years, his condition doesn’t resurface until, after moving the family to England, the partners of his firm fire him because they “couldn’t afford my debilitation.” Everyone but Michael, who stays in England to finish his schooling, relocates to tiny Walcott, Massachusetts, where a friend hires John, only to fire him 18 months later.

John’s troubles most affect his elder son Michael, the most interesting character in the book. From an early age, he is such a fan of music that he can relate from memory not only the label that released Donna Summer’s Love to Love You Baby but also the release date and name of the studio. Large sections of the novel are devoted to Michael’s grimly witty writings, including an elaborate letter to his Aunt Penny, Margaret’s sister, in which he states that the boat taking his family to England is a white slave ship that plans to sell all the male passengers for their blubber.

But his wit conceals a darker side. He has inherited his father’s “monster,” the mental illness that requires increasingly heavy doses of Klonopin and other drugs.

In one beautifully rendered scene after another, Haslett shows the family dealing with John’s illness and Michael’s descent while also managing their own conflicts: openly-gay journalist Alec’s search for the ideal mate; therapist Celia’s frustrations with her boyfriend Paul, who quits a full-time job to write screenplays; Margaret’s struggles to keep her family together, especially after Michael’s health becomes fragile.

Imagine Me Gone is a handsome work, but handsome doesn’t mean flawless. The book would have been stronger if Michael’s slide had been more gradual. But there are many gorgeous touches here, as when Margaret says that, of her three babies, Michael was the only one who wouldn’t stop crying when she picked him up. It was as if he knew “that if you were picked up you would be put down, that the comfort came but also went.” John consoles himself in the psychiatric ward by remembering poems he learned in school. “They became the way I measured time. By bringing back that earlier world, assuring me it had existed, and thus that when more time passed things might be different still.” That’s the sort of writing that is guaranteed to turn heads.

Michael Magras is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.