When the National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists for Fiction were announced, I’d read only one of the books: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/11/17/commonwealth-by-ann-patchett-✎✎✎✎/, and loved it. Since then, I’m through Moonglow by Michael Chabon, https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2017/01/21/moonglow-by-michael-chabon-✎✎✎/, and Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett. I have Zadie Smith’s Swing Time and Louis Erdrich’s LaRose in my near future.
On a idyllic day on the Maine water, Imagine Me Gone finds British venture capitalist John takes two of his three children boating. Celia is the second-oldest of the three; ultra-responsible and caring, if a bit of a bore. Alec, the youngest, is a whiny, clingy child wanting always to be held. Once they are on the water, John leans back into the boat, closes his eyes and pronounces to his children: “Imagine me gone, imagine it’s just the two of you. What do you do?” Celia wishes for her stronger older brother, or to be stronger, or at the very least for her father to quit play-acting and help them get to shore.
But John doesn’t help. Arguably, John has never helped his wife Margaret or their three children. His career, which brought them back to America from Margaret’s preferred life across the pond, has tanked. His relationship with Michael is ineffectual. He and Margaret fight loudly every night, frightening Alec into hiccups.
John has chronic, clinical depression. It is a condition that materially affects every member of his family, each of whom has a compelling authorial voice in Imagine Me Gone.
“I’m the only one who doesn’t always want answers. John may never articulate his questions, but they are with him, a way of being. And the children want answers to everything all the time. What’s for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner? Where’s Kelsey? Where’s Dad? Why do we have to come in? Why do we have to go to bed? Some days the only words I speak to them are answers, and reasons I can’t answer, and instructions in place of the answers they want.”
“This is the thing: He isn’t calling about his exam. I don’t want to know that, but I do. He’s calling to be reassured about something he can’t put into words yet. I glimpsed it in him when he was young, but told myself, No, don’t imagine that. Children have stages; he’ll change. Then the words started running out of him in a torrent, and I knew they were being chased out by a force he couldn’t see. What was I supposed to say to Margaret? That I see it in him?”
“When Paul drank more than a diabetic should or we argued about petty domestic things, I would employ a kind of preemptive nostalgia, filing the episodes away under the heading A Couple’s Early Years. This general retrospective of the present leaped ahead to forgive our moments of anger and doubt, and the occasional day when the frustration and recriminations between us became grinding. It helped alleviate my sense of having been duped into believing Paul would be the person to deliver me from my family, rather than imitate it. And really it was okay, and most often better than that, being the object of his desire, sensing he would never leave me. That we were safe.”
As I stepped out of the cabin, whiteness blinded me. The snow-covered yard glistened under the full sun. Icicles lining the roof of the shed dripped with meltwater. The fir trees, which had stood motionless and black against the gray sky, appeared alive again, green and moist in the fresh light. The footprints that Michael and I had made on the snowy path were dissolving, fading into ovals on the flagstone. Beneath our tracks in the driveway I could see gravel for the first time since we’d arrived. For weeks it had been frigid cold, but now had come this December thaw. I wasn’t certain what day it was, or what time, only that it had to be well after noon already.
But perhaps it is Michael the reader hears most clearly, learns most deeply even through the mental illness that drives and disturbs him. We know of the path of devastation his love creates, his musical knowledge and reverence for Donna Summer, his humor, his lack of self-control. Even as he is annoying us with an exhaustive list, we are amused by him and wish him well. He’s trying to beat the beast, much more, we think, than his father ever did.
“I remember my first dose of Klonopin the way I imagine the elect recall their high school summer romances, bathed in the golden light of a perfect carelessness, untouched and untouchable by time’s predations or the foulness of any present pain. As Cat Stevens wrote, The first cut is the deepest, though I’ve always preferred Norma Fraser’s cover to the original (the legendary Studio One, Kingston, Jamaica, 1967). Stevens sings it like a pop song, but Fraser knows the line is true, that she’ll never love like that again. Her voice soars over the reverb like a bird in final flight. The first cut is the deepest. I’ve since learned all about GABA receptors and molecular binding, benzos and the dangers of tolerance, but back then I knew only that I had received an invisible and highly effective surgery to the mind, administered by a pale yellow tablet scored down the middle and no larger than an aspirin. There is so much drivel about psychoactive meds, so much corruptions, bad faith over- and underprescription, vagueness, profiteering, ignorance, and hope, that it’s easy to forget they sometimes work, alleviating real suffering, at least for a time. This was such a time.”
Imagine Me Gone was, for me, a strange book. Each of the five narrators is to a certain extent unreliable and the family picture comes together only when viewing all of the pieces together, like a work of pointillism. The writing is lovely as you can see from the pieces I’ve included here and the reviewers agree it’s a compelling work of fiction dealing sensitively with mental illness.
A review I read before I read the novel said this is a book about how far a family will go to help a family member with mental illness; how much of one’s own life is a person willing to cede to maintain some normalcy for another who could have little on his or her own. I suppose that’s true, but I thought it was more about family and expectations and loss and ultimately love.
I can’t cite a menu from the book because I listened to it on Audible. I do remember Alec and Michael eating doughnuts every morning and Margaret’s frustration at going out for an overly-expensive dinner when she would have rather cooked at home. Perhaps if you want to replicate a menu from the book, you can look for that scene, somewhere around 2/3 of the way through.
I would focus on the environment of Maine and serve a blueberry dessert; maybe pie or cobbler. I would also pull in Michael’s life in London and serve a shepherd’s pie or maybe roast beef with potatoes so that I could have leftovers for the week.
This is the easy part. Just play Donna Summer all night.
John Jude Law/Ewan McGregor
Margaret This is a total Grace Kelly role. I can see Gwyneth Paltrow maybe.
Michael Andrew Garfield
Celia Blake Lively
Alec John Gallagher, Jr.