Author Adam Haslett draws on his own experiences to create a portrait of a family burdened by mental illness in his new novel, “Imagine Me Gone.” Haslett will discuss his book Friday, June 3, at Seattle’s University Book Store.
In a recent issue of Poets & Writers magazine, author Adam Haslett (“Union Atlantic”) acknowledged that the family history portrayed in his new novel is drawn from his own.
“This is not ‘Google mental illness and make it up,’ ” he said. “Mental illness is in my family, and the beasts that I write about are not abstractions to me.”
The result, in “Imagine Me Gone” (Little, Brown, 356 pp., $26), is a study of destructive family dynamics akin to Christina Stead’s “The Man Who Loved Children” or Paul Theroux’s “The Mosquito Coast.” Family here is a trap as filled with love and concern as it is with exasperation and dread.
The author of “Imagine Me Gone” will discuss his book in conversation with Christopher Frizzelle at 7 p.m. Friday, June 3, at the University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or ubookstore.com).
Moving with penetrating wit among the points of view of a father, mother, daughter and two sons, the book traces how the vein of mental illness running through a family affects every member.
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When Margaret, an American from Massachusetts, meets her future husband, John, in London in 1963, they’re powerfully drawn to each other but can’t accurately interpret each other — perhaps because of their different nationalities.
At least that’s how Margaret explains it to herself. But after John suffers a mental collapse, it’s clear that something other than cultural difference is at work. The breakdown isn’t his first, she learns, and she has to decide whether to proceed with their planned marriage. She loves him, so she does.
Over the next 40 years, as they move back and forth between England and Massachusetts, the consequences of her decision play out.
They have three children. Michael, the eldest, is the kind of kid who wields his precocious vocabulary against the grown-ups around him like a weapon (“What are you cogitatingabout?”). His fantastically lurid account of the family’s move from the U.S. to England, in which the ship goes off-course to Africa and his younger brother Alec is ostensibly kidnapped by a child prostitution ring, suggests he may have inherited his father’s mental instability.
After a business failure in London, John moves the family back to Massachusetts where he suffers more career disasters and goes into a full downward spiral, culminating in his suicide. His shocked wife and children cope in different ways.
Alec, a political journalist, seeks out urgent sexual connection: “I loved men. Obviously. But it wasn’t just sex.” The key thing for him is to know a man is paying attention to him.
Daughter Celia’s strategy is to flee to San Francisco and live on guarded terms with a man she hopes will “deliver me from my family, rather than imitate it.”
Margaret sweats the small stuff while avoiding larger issues. She tries to help Michael with his problems by giving him money she can ill afford. But he’s an abyss of neediness, dependent on psychoactive drugs that calm his anxiety for a while but can’t make him functional on a long-term basis.
This sounds like grim stuff, but the book isn’t entirely a downer. Haslett’s sharp take on how minor family foibles become conflated with major family dysfunction introduces some unexpected comedy into the proceedings. He’s also an expert at evoking how family behavioral patterns simply repeat themselves, taxing everyone’s patience, before lapsing into panic-inducing crises.
With its fugue of voices, each contributing a vital slant to the action, “Imagine Me Gone” offers rigorous formal pleasures. Still, Haslett stays keenly aware that, in this family, there’s no explanation “sufficient to account for the events. … Lives weren’t works of art.”
In acknowledging that, “Imagine Me Gone” masterfully respects the mystery of how things happen the way they happen.