Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
Among its many burdens, depression shares its name with capitalism’s most dreaded enemy: long-term economic stagnation. Perhaps by association, the disease has a hard time coexisting in a political system that demands self-sufficiency and perservereance — and punishes those who falter.
Imagine Me Gone, Adam Haslett’s recent novel, depicts the toll of depression on a middle-class family with an afflicted father and son. Told in the points of view of both parents and their three children, the story is skillfully restrained, almost slim seeming, for its intent and scope. Divided into three parts, the novel initially confronts the father’s illness and suicide; explores the new family dynamic as Michael, the eldest sibling, demonstrates increasing signs of sickness; and finally charts the family’s declining capacity to care for Michael. Structured in such a way that the reader intuitively understands what awaits, the story’s ending, its inevitability, offers an unyielding burn.
“… holding Michael had always been like holding a little person, who knew that his feeding would end, who knew that if you were picked up you would be put down, that the comfort came but also went,” recounts Margaret, the family’s mother. “Without knowing what it was, I’d felt that tension in his little groping arms and fitful legs, the discomfort of the foreknowledge.”
Foreknowledge and the forces that weaken permeate the pages of Imagine Me Gone, warring openly, and defeatedly, with economic demands. Margaret, burdened with the fallout from her husband’s death coupled with the cost of Michael’s student loans, his prescriptions and therapy, as well as his inability to work steadily, feels uncomfortable ordering an entrée at her own birthday dinner and ultimately sells her home to meet obligations. Such struggles also weigh upon the younger siblings, influencing how they live and love. Celia can never quite gauge how committed she is to her boyfriend, because she never stops preparing herself for an ending, and Alec, obsessed with fiscal control, also grapples with intimacy. When a new boyfriend affectionately caresses him, he reflexively whispers, “I just need to keep it together.”
In The Guardian, Lara Feigel writes in her review, “…my two days of reading the book felt less like a reading experience than a life experience: two days of terror and loss. I was troubled by the question of whether there is something coercive about dragging the reader into the minds of the unhappy in this way. There is a social gain: it becomes easier not to blame the depressed or drug addicted for their states. But the reader, drawn into the depressed state, loses autonomy.”
Fortunately, art is inherently manipulative — its implicit plan is to make you experience what you might generally ignore. Yet in order to succeed, a certain amount of seduction is required, and Haslett offers vibrant prose mixed with humor, soulful music, romantic love, familial love, sexual enticement aboard Amtrak, a neurotic aunt who must be teased, and Sallie Mae forbearance forms bedazzled with Proust and space travel.
Just to exemplify the humor category, here is Michael describing, in the style of a military report, the family’s arrival at a therapist’s office:
“Unit reached the training facility on time. Décor was South by Southwest (Naugahyde couch, Sierra throw). Vaginal imagery detected in wall hangings. I suggested Mom read Field and Stream to kill the additional minute and thirty seconds. Mom non responsive… Training officer’s diplomas were to far away to make out; presumed valid.”
Despite such engaging attractions, capitalism does espouse a certain type of storytelling, a type in which there is rarely excessive unhappiness and the hero, fighting with all his heart, maintains autonomy and achieves. In Imagine Me Gone, Michael remains sick, in a state of need, no matter how hard he tries, despite all the modern therapies and elixirs available to him. While attempting to live on his own and attend graduate school, he very willfully locates his doctor’s home address, begs for more medication, and later finds himself at the house of a teenager he’s befriended, because it feels safe.
In the end, the youngest sibling, Alec, adopts a no-nonsense, no-excuses approach to his brother’s illness, insisting Michael is dependent on his medications, condemns Michael’s assertion that his situation is so severe he could qualify for disability, and encourages him to try harder. Essentially Alec becomes a capitalist. As part of this intervention, Alec takes Michael to a cabin and dumps his prescriptions. They go for long cold walks, watch high-speed action films, and work out at a local gym. As the days progress, Alec convinces himself that Michael’s pallor has improved, his wit restored, his spirit is steadily returning even though Michael routinely admits he feels awful and shaky and afraid.
Still, Alec is no villain. He is an energetic character, coping with tragedy, trying to care for his mother’s faltering finances, attempting to control outcomes the way Americans are often taught to: with willpower, masculine resolve, and strength.
Part of Alec’s intense likability is his rage by book’s end. The last scene in his point of view offers one of the most winning Go-Fuck-Yourself moments I’ve ever read. Holding a bourbon, standing by a grill with his boyfriend’s father, who epitomizes capitalistic brawn — his sturdy physicality, his fireside gab of housing markets, his very gold watch — Alec makes the vulnerable, potentially cutting statement, “I want to thank you for having me here. I love your son very much,” reminding the man in question that he and his son are not merely bros. They are bound by something far more fated and potent.