Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Madness is often said to feed creativity, but the reverse might also be true—that creativity is the fuel that brings madness to fruition. The emotional intensity of that reciprocal relationship is the subject of Adam Haslett’s latest novel, Imagine Me Gone. The ghostly title is given its context a few dozen pages in, when the book’s patriarch, John, takes the two youngest of his three children, Celia and Alec, out on a boat near their family’s borrowed cabin on the coast of Maine. It is Celia who narrates this episode; we will later meet Celia and her brothers as adults, but for now she speaks with a bright child’s barreling lucidity about her father’s notion of make-believe.

All right, then, he said, imagine something happened and I can’t drive the boat and you can’t start the engine. What do you do now? Alec said, Why can’t you start the boat? And Dad said, Imagine me gone, imagine it’s just the two of you. What do you do? . . . I asked him if this was some kind of test. But the way he plays games is to be really serious about it, like it isn’t a game, which makes the games he plays with us more exciting than anything else because everything matters the whole way through and you never know what’s going to happen. It’s never boring.

Imagine Me Gone grapples with some of the same themes that marked Haslett’s celebrated debut collection of short stories, You Are Not a Stranger Here (2002), and his first novel, Union Atlantic (2010). His fiction reveals a fascination with the inner and outward toll of mental illness and instability, the limits of empathy, and the question of how much responsibility one human being can ever assume for another. (In the story “The Good Doctor,” the description of the title figure could stand in for several other Haslett characters: “The fact was he still felt like a sponge, absorbing the pain of the people he listened to. Privately, he considered it the act of a certain kind of faith. Never having been a religious person, empathy had taken up the place in him belief might have in others.”) In Haslett’s new novel, the weaving of these familiar strands at times nudges toward the metafictional. What John effectively asks of his children out on the water—to create and perform in a scene that is both real and conjured—is, in a sense, what a novelist does, too, and what he asks of his readers, and also a kind of madness. The situation on the boat is a fiction: John is still there. And yet the children must pretend he’s gone, and must row the boat themselves. Similarly, these characters are fictions for me, and yet here I am worrying about them: “Alec was crying. He crouched on the floor of the boat next to Dad and shook his limp arm back and forth. He’s not here, I said. Though now that I’d given up I knew the game was almost over.”

View of “Ann Veronica Janssens: Serendipity,” 2009, Wiels Centre for Contemporary Art, Brussels. Philippe De Gobert, Courtesy Galerie Micheline Szwajcer, Brussels, Esther Schipper, Berlin, Galeria Toni Tàpies, Barcelona, and Air De Paris, Paris

Haslett’s aching, psychologically astute novel rotates among the five voices of its Waspy nuclear family, jumping back and forth in time to suggest how this family’s haunted past will creep into its tragic future. John, we learn, survived a devastating episode of depression as a young adult in the ’60s. After becoming a venture capitalist, he slowly succumbs to the return of his illness, what he calls the “monster.” He moves his wife, the increasingly resentful and raging Margaret, and their growing family from England to New England, then back to the UK, then finally—fired by his partners and sunk in professional and financial defeat—to America once more. (“I did what I had told all the entrepreneurs I ever trained not to do: moved my family before I had sufficient commitments,” he says.) When John commits suicide in 1985, it is both a cataclysm and an inevitability, its awfulness compounded by the reader’s knowledge from the book’s earliest pages that his firstborn child, Michael, will meet something of a similar fate as an adult. (Imagine Me Gone has evident autobiographical underpinnings. Haslett’s father, the cofounder of a venture fund who mentored young entrepreneurs, struggled with mental illness and committed suicide in 1985.)

Some of the loveliest and most heartbreaking passages of Imagine Me Gone are Margaret’s evocations of Michael as a baby, when she could already spot his congenital disquiet. 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,” she recalls. “Without knowing what it was, I’d felt that tension in his little groping arms and fitful legs, the discomfort of the foreknowledge.” That tension becomes, in the adult Michael, an anxiety disorder that powers his two obsessions. The first is dance music, which he starts pursuing in 1980s London because he “needed to be in the hurricane, in that storm blowing in from paradise, pushing skyward the wreckage
of James Brown and George Clinton and the Jamaican dub masters and, yes, Giorgio Moroder and the German industrialists, and all the forgotten producers and DJs who kept the ideas and the vinyl coming, vanishing mediators of a culture considered too throwaway to chronicle.” The other, taken up in graduate school, is “transgenerational haunting,” or the hypothesis that the descendants of Middle Passage slaves carry the imprint of their ancestors’ trauma and suffering. (This, too, has autobiographical overtones: Tim Haslett, Adam’s brother, was a DJ, record-store clerk, and graduate student in African American studies whose master’s thesis was titled “The Fright of Real Tears: Slavery, Trauma, and Transgenerational Haunting in African Diasporic Lifeworlds.”) The two fixations meet in an extended phantasmagoria in which one of the family’s transatlantic crossings is revealed to be a voyage on a white-slaver ship where little Alec almost falls prey to a child-prostitution ring and Donna Summer provides the nightly entertainment.

Where others might have delusions of grandeur, Michael has delusions of remorse: His paroxysms of white guilt seem to be stand-ins for his primal sin, committed in his teens, when he left his family at its lowest ebb to return to school in England. In his mind, Michael abandoned those closest to him just as his father had done, leaving him for the rest of his days to act out a kind of gruesome paternal inheritance—one in which intellectual rigor and creative energy twist themselves into compulsive knots. Michael is the animating spirit of the book and its central conundrum, a figure at once half-deranged and brilliant, stymied and restless, utterly self-absorbed and yet pseudo-empathetic to the point of pathology. With Caleigh, his black girlfriend, Michael says he wishes “to physically reverse racial privilege by becoming her slave. And where else could this transposition occur with any real force but in the trauma of sex?” He is given some reprieve from his mind’s cacophony of constant hypervigilance and guilt when he’s prescribed Klonopin, at which time, he says, “I was lifted down off a hook in the back of my skull that I hadn’t even known I’d been hanging from.”

Just a few months earlier, my ambient dread and my obsession with [Caleigh] had been so entwined I would have been reduced to pleading and threats. Instead, I found myself bewildered at the equanimity of my response. It struck me then, for the first time, how unethical anxiety is, how it voids the reality of other people by conscripting them as palliatives for your own fear. For a moment there, I was able to step outside that, to hear what she wanted to be.

As with so many prescription medications, the Klonopin works blessedly well until it doesn’t; one of the tragedies of Imagine Me Gone is not just the way John’s and Michael’s minds betray them but the way those betrayals exhaust the people who love them the most. Celia, a social worker and thus something of a professional empath, finds she can’t tell Michael she’s pregnant because she dreads the inevitable neediness and self-absorption of his response. Likewise, Alec, a journalist, hesitates to tell his brother that he’s found a boyfriend and fallen in love. Both of Michael’s younger siblings are constantly wondering how deeply they should invest in their troubled brother’s well-being, and how many inches they can carve out for their own relationships and their own self-preservation. The final, awful movement of the book, foregrounded in its opening pages, may represent the ultimate act of overcorrection, a chaos of love and devotion and pure presumptuous folly that will play out in my head, with different endings, for years to come.

Of the adolescent Michael, John observes, “Now he’s taller than I am, thin as a rail, and he talks as fast as can be, not questions but endless invention, his imagination running out ahead of him, to make sure everything stays in motion, that he doesn’t get stuck.” Imagine Me Gone confronts the moment when the motion finally stops, when the mind’s wheels spin and squeal against the skull until a person breaks apart, his family looking on helplessly, haunting him and haunted by him.

Jessica Winter’s novel Break in Case of Emergency will be published by Knopf in July.