Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

Imagine Me Gone

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It’s crazy when the book you didn’t really want to read becomes the book you can’t stop talking about.  Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone may be one of the most beautiful, wrenching novels about a family you’ll read this year, right up there with Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth.  If Commonwealth asks “What is a family,” Imagine Me Gone asks “What are the limits of love?”

The story begins with Margaret and John, living in London in the 1960s.  Margaret is a young American expat working in a library when she meets John.  He is everything she ever dreamed of – clever, dashing, hard-working, well liked by his friends, loved by his family.  (And that accent!)  They fall in love and become engaged.  Shortly before they are to be married, he has an “episode” and requires hospitalization for several months.  Margaret has a choice: will she still marry him now that she knows about his periodic and paralyzing depression?  I’m not giving anything away to reveal that she does, as their background is preliminary to the main action of the novel, which takes place in America.

Three children later, and an ocean away, it has slowly become clear that their oldest son, Michael – bright, peculiar, intensely loving – also suffers from a version of his father’s mental illness.  Haslett shows how each member of the family is affected by Michael’s anxiety and depression, each of them stretched to the limits of what they can give him.

Margaret, we learn, is a strong and capable mother.  She’s also a penny pincher and can be passive aggressive with her children, considering herself the best authority on all of them (and most everything else, for that matter).  As she reflects:  “Most all of who they are now was there then.  They trace themselves no further back than adolescence because that’s when they began getting their ideas.  But so much of them has nothing to do with all that.  They are their natures.  Which they’d shout me down for saying.”

Celia, the middle child and only daughter, tries to escape her painful family situation by moving to California.  She can never truly get away, as her love and sense of obligation always pulls her back.  “This street – this whole town – was so familiar that I looked straight through it, as if it were no longer a place unto itself but merely an opening onto the past,” she thinks.

Alec, the baby, is the most financially successful and the greatest risk-taker.  He is also possibly the most selfish.  Still, he can’t bear to tell his brother, Michael, that he’s in a relationship:  “Being single was something he and I had long had in common.  Something to commiserate about.  Celia was the one who’s been in relationships.  Michael and I didn’t want each other to be alone, but the fact that we were had developed over the years in to a kind of solidarity.  It gave us a means to be close.  And to remain loyal, somehow, to the past.  Part of me knew that this was a racket, that it fed on gloom.  But I didn’t know how to give it up.”

And Michael, the one around whom they all orbit:  the Michael in these pages is so tortured, so dear, so full of longing and yearning that you ache.  “I don’t know what most people mean when they use the word love,” he thinks.  “If they haven’t contorted their lives around a hope sharp enough to bleed them empty, then I think they’re just kidding.  A hope that undoes what tiny pride you have, and makes you thankful for the undoing, so long as it promises another hour with the person who is now the world.  Maybe people mean attractiveness, or affection, or pleasantness, or security.  Like the unbelievers in church who enjoy the hymns or go for the sense of community, but avert their eyes from the cross.  I feel sorry for them.  They are dead before their time.”  What does a family do with a boy – then a man – who only knows how to love like this?  And who has trouble keeping a job.

Imagine Me Gone presents the hardest of truths:  that some problems cannot be solved, no matter how much love and compassion is brought to bear.  Some people simply cannot be “fixed.”  It gives no easy answers about how to love such a person when he is your son, your brother, or your friend.  But it does not look away.

Why didn’t I want to read it?  This is embarrassing but the truth:  the stark cover, which now strikes me as honest and true and beautiful in its way.

 *     *     *
Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

For more on Adam Haslett, visit his website.  Adam has written three works of fiction: the short story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here, which was a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist; the novel Union Atlantic, winner of the Lambda Literary Award and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize; and Imagine Me Gone. His books have been translated into eighteen languages, and his journalism and fiction have appeared in The Financial Times, Esquire, New York Magazine, The New Yorker, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, and Best American Short Stories.  Adam recently visited Nashville for the first time, coming to town to participate in the Southern Festival of Books.

Imagine Me Gone was longlisted for the National Book Award. It was not selected for the shortlist in a grievous error in judgment. Note: National Book Award winners will be announced at 6:40 pm Central on Wednesday night, November 16th. You can watch the ceremony streamed live on Facebook or at nationalbook.org.

20 Comments

  1. A work of fiction that has made it onto my must read list – you know that’s rare for me!

  2. This one sounds like a must read. And I understand about the cover. The title itself is unsettling.

  3. Wow!! Can not,wait to read this because if you say all these great things about it, it must be wonderful!!

  4. Your honesty made me smile.

    You can’t judge a book by its cover. Or so they say. But that’s what we do every time we browse the stacks. We can’t help it, and you are not alone, Jen!

    As a former bookseller/ merchandiser, I love to see a book cover set the tone for its contents and draw us in. A.A. Knopf’s Peter Mendelsund is a master at this. Check out his books, COVER and WHAT WE SEE WHEN WE READ.

    Here’s another perspective. In “The 10 Best Book Cover Designs,” someone in the book printing industry said this about IMAGINE ME GONE:
    “This book cover goes against the grain by incorporating the design on both the front and back cover, and we love it for that. Designed by Keith Hayes, Imagine Me Gone builds suspense before the readers even turn the pages.”
    http://alexanders.com/10-best-book-cover-designs-20161024

    Fascinating stuff.

    • Miriam, this is all so great! Thank you for these fantastic references. I am thrilled to see you at Bacon today! Thank you for being in touch on this. I’m checking out those books asap, as book covers are such a unique, distinctive art but I’ve never thought to look into a BOOK on that!! xo

  5. Beautiful review of an extraordinary book. As for the cover – my son looked at it and said, “wow. the omitted letters are ‘N’ and ‘O.’ Imagine Me Gone … NO.” Perhaps off-putting, the cover is unapologetically, relentlessly true – like the story. I actually loved how spare, even elegant, it was.

  6. Thanks for a terrific review! Stunning cover.

  7. Beautiful review, Jennifer! I found myself thinking while reading this book about the lack of a safety net for Michael and his family. They had to try to weave it for themselves, maybe all the while knowing that they couldn’t save the person they loved best. They would only deplete themselves trying, but they chose that path because there never was another choice.

    On a side note, if you want to round out what I think might be the 2016 Family Novel Trifecta (including Imagine Me Gone and Commonwealth), I just finished “Here I Am” by Jonathan Safran Foer, and it was extraordinary. Thanks for a beautiful post!

    • Hi Mary! You are so right about the lack of a safety net… this family was on its own. Much to be thought about in that regard, and in many different situations. I appreciate you mentioning the Foer! I will add it to my must-read list for December! Thank you so much. xo

  8. Nice! Did you also go to his and Ann Patchett’s talk at Southern Festival of Books? It’s the only thing I went to this year. Have started the book but for some reason got sidetracked, probably because a library loan took the top spot on my list. Am reading Big lIttle Lies right now and it’s awesome. Have you read that?

    • Hi Sine! I was very sorry to miss his conversation with Ann. I’d love to hear your impression! Also – I’m glad to know that Big Little Lies is so terrific! Thank you for being in touch. xo

  9. I love your blog and was captivated by this book review. I finished the book in two days barely able to put it down. The characterization was beautiful- a tribute to the love of family!

    • Thank you so much for being in touch, Jane! I am so glad that you loved Imagine Me Gone too! Sometimes when I write a glowing review, I feel a little fearful that others will read it and think – “Why did she like this so much?” Of course people are going to have different opinions, but I never want to oversell something or led people astray. Anyhow – I’m so delighted to hear from you. Warmest wishes for a wonderful Thanksgiving! xo

  10. I’m delighted to just find your blog- looking forward to more posts! Have to say i read this book a few weeks ago and it still haunts me. Reading about depression when it’s taken up residence can be difficult, but Haslett’s descriptions were sometimes so spot on that it was strangely cathartic- like only the best writing can be.

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