Imagine Me Gone, Adam Haslett’s second novel, achieves something difficult: it manages to dramatize depression and mental illness without being tiresome, fatuous, or boring.
The novel opens in the mind of John, an Englishman who suffers from the something he calls the “monster.” When John had been hospitalized for depression, Margaret, his American girlfriend at the time, decided to stay with him. They married, and had three children: Celia, Michael and Alec. While the kids’ interweaving life stories—dealing with their father’s eventual suicide—make up the bulk of Imagine Me Gone, the true focus is on Michael, who replays his father’s tragic illness in a different key.
The only one of the kids afflicted with serious depression, Michael’s precociousness morphs into aimlessness and obsession, “the perfect kill switch,” in the words of his sister. Despite his difficulty, when Haslett enters Michael’s mind, the strongest writing in the novel emerges. Unlike his phone calls with his family, these sections are not long, dolorous nighttime dirges, but erudite and swift, featuring fictions within the fiction, made-up stories in Michael’s voice that indirectly address his illness. Meanwhile, Alec confronts his homosexuality and inability to commit, and Celia works to maintain her counseling career and (inevitable) role keeping the family together.
Each character, especially the matriarch Margaret, is handled deftly and realistically. As the gaps between Michael and his siblings grow, he wonders how anyone in his family “managed to live anywhere but on the lip of his grave, eyes pinned open, trying to look away…” Assuming responsibility, Alec sequesters himself in Maine with Michael to wean his brother off antidepressants. Although the conclusion here is a bit drawn out, it feels earned an inevitable.
Of course, nobody would expect a book about depression to be a happy beach read. Yet Haslett—who has a vaunted short story collection and another novel, Union Atlantic, to his name—has produced a profound novel that finds beauty and richness in the internecine conflicts of the mind.