Tuesday, June 28, 2016

What We're Reading: New Fiction

Imagine Me Gone, by Adam Haslett

Adam Haslett is the author of a previous novel, Union Atlantic, and also a much praised short story collection, You Are Not a Stranger Here, which was a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist. This is a literary novel, and readers who liked Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections or Anne Enright’s fine novel of last year, The Green Road, will find Imagine Me Gone a similarly sophisticated portrait of a family. The difference is that Haslett has written a novel in which mental illness, its psychological and genetic legacy, is at the center of this portrait of a family living in a state of impending crisis. The novel begins by hinting that some tragic event has just taken place. At the end of the novel, after a history of the family and its travails, we are brought back to the scene with which the book began, and we learn what has happened. It is a device used less to create any sense of suspense than to soften the blow. We get a sense, not too far in, of where things are heading.

We are introduced to Margaret, an American who, while in England, meets John, a man she plans to marry. Shortly after their engagement, he disappears into a mental hospital for an extended hospitalization. She learns that he suffers from recurring pathological depths of depression. The discovery shocks her, but she is in love, and decides to marry him. They have three children: Michael, Celia, and Alec. The family members have to deal not only with a parent’s tragic illness and its impact, but the lingering threat and complications posed by Michael’s apparent inheritance of his father’s mental problems, which in his case manifest in a state of torturous and unremitting anxiety. The novel follows the family over a period of four decades, recounting a history that illustrates, as Celia expresses, that “We’re not individuals. We’re haunted by the living as well as the dead.”

The story is told in alternating chapters in the voices of Margaret, John, Michael, Celia, and Alec, but it is around the powerful and pathological character of Michael that this story is centered. Michael is a troubled but emotionally engaging character. His self-parodies, his imaginative flights, his obsessions, and his remarkably narrow and detailed intellectual interests, we come to understand, are all a palisade, the defensive constructs that allow him--in tandem with his ever-growing cabinet of pharmacological stop-gaps--to barely cope with his feelings of mental distress. The extreme nature of these constructs, our sense of them all being over the top and rising to a precariousness height, adumbrate the hidden monster that has given them rise. We feel the the debilitating terror they seek to hold at bay. The power of this novel depends on this, on what Haslett is able to make us understand and feel for Michael. As Bret Anthony Johnston in his fine New York Times Book Review, has written, “By putting the readers in the same position as Michael’s family members, Haslett has pulled off something of a brilliant trick: We feel precisely what they feel—the frustration, the protectiveness, the hope and the fear and, yes, the obligation.”

Michael’s sister, Celia, works as a therapist in San Francisco. During a period of grief she tells us that in her sessions with clients:
An old impatience returned, the kind I had experienced when I started as a therapist: the urge to search for the moments in their past that contained the key to liberating them in the present. That’s what I used to do, press for more and more family history, excusing it to myself as interest and attention, when really it was a distraction from the suffering in front of me, a desire to find the passage of experience that would explain their pain away. What good plot didn’t offer that? A meaning sufficient to account for the events. But as time went on, I realized that my client’s lives weren’t works of art. They told themselves stories all the time, but the stories trailed off, got forgotten, and then repeated--distractions themselves, oftentimes, from the feelings they were somewhere taught would damn them or wreck them.
Celia’s candid reflection is at the heart of this novel, one in which paradoxically the author, the storyteller, wants us to be aware that our lives are not stories, they are not works of art. Thing happen in our lives that are inexplicable, random, without a cure, and frequently without mercy, and we tell ourselves stories to protect us from the terror of that. They are often myths, or at best they are theories of what has happened. But they make the world bearable. Haslett presents mental illness here as one of those inexplicable terrors. In his story it is clear that the origins of John's and Michael’s mental illness are unknown, and that psychiatry has little to offer in the way of cure. But mental illness also functions in the novel as synecdoche. It represents the universe of all we cannot explain and cure. Imagine Me Gone suggests both the limits and the saving grace of stories. It is a story that leads us to understand, in a powerful and moving way, that what is defining about us as human beings is not the fact that we create stories, or even that we believe them, but rather the love that remains for the people in our lives who suffer after all the stories have failed us.

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