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.

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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.

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