Book Review: ‘Imagine Me Gone’

Adam Haslett’s novel “Imagine Me Gone” is a family story set to dance music loved by the oldest son

Imagine Me Gone, the second novel by Adam Haslett, begins in the recent past. Haslett then spends 330 pages laying out the history of one family leading up to the pivotal moment that commences the book. There is a mother, a father, and three children – two sons and a daughter. Each chapter is narrated by one of them and Haslett develops distinctive voices for each of them. The narratives not only provide facts and move the plot, but also express feelings as if the characters of Inside Out are talking over one another in each person’s brain.

As Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Imagine Me Gone family certainly has its share of unhappiness: the father and oldest son Michael both suffer from (different) mental health illnesses, which stress the rest of the family. Not that the mother and the two other children are living perfect lives either. Alec, the youngest son, contemplates his homosexuality throughout the book and has a difficult time committing a relationship. Mid-book, he starts dating Seth. Alec keeps waiting for a time when “one of us would get bored on the Internet and decide to hook up with someone else, just for fun, and there would follow an awkward coffee date and that dwindling exchange of e-mails.” However, they do not break up and Alec says “I love you” first, which Seth reciprocates. At this point Alec thinks:

I barely took in what he’d said, wanting so badly to keep going myself, to confess that this was the first time I had ever spoken these words to any man, that I was ashamed to be thirty-one and never have reached this point before, that I was afraid my loneliness was a leprosy, a disfigurement, which, if he ever saw it, would repulse him.

In the quote, Alec takes the famous Woody Allen line from Annie Hall “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member” and applies it to his own situation. Haslett’s stream of consciousness is vivid and Allen-like, though the bulk of the (darkly) humorous lines in Imagine Me Gone go to Michael. As a teen, Michael sees a premonition on a walk in the forest and goes off to England to live with a friend. Then, as an adult, he meanders in and out of college and in the process gets hooked on antidepressants that lead him on a downward spiral. Throughout all this time he has two obsessions – the study of intergenerational trauma and music, specifically dance music from Donna Summer to obscure 00’s British DJ Oris Jay.

Michael is an obsessive record collector, a music writer, and admirer of the evolution of dance from disco to house to techno. An early chapter captures a teenage fantasy of Michael’s in which he is on a cruise ship with Donna Summer and producer  Giorgio Moroder:

We talked a bit about Munich in the mid-seventies, the dilemma about whether to sign with Geffen, and how Donna wanted to move toward more of a rock sound on her next album. I wanted to tell him that they couldn’t control what they’d started, that the beats would only get faster and the synth more gorgeous, but this seemed presumptuous. I was worried the door might open and Donna might appear and I would be ugly and dumbstruck. So eventually I excused myself, and hustled back down to our cabins on 5.

In Michael’s passages on music, Haslett sounds like an erudite Pitchfork writer, and he was indeed interviewed by Pitchfork under the headline “Every Music Fan Should Read Imagine Me Gone.” Haslett’s story behind the book sheds a lot of light on the plot. The framework is autobiographical – Haslett had a brother who struggled with mental illness and was obsessed with dance music. Haslett’s own upbringing in Massachusetts and England echoes in the lucid settings of Imagine Me Gone. And his thesis on music is that it is a source of liberation for people who feel marginalized and misunderstood. Unfortunately, Michael’s desire for a “sufficient dose” of both volume and antidepressants leads to a tragedy that neither his mother nor his siblings can prevent.

Yet after all the trauma and the unhappiness encountered in Imagine Me Gone, family members arrive at a point filled with reflection and meaning. Despite all the bad things that happen, there is love and warmth in the blood connections between family members. This book is about family first, with a pulsing dance beat that plays as happiness emerges even in despair. Haslett’s spectacular writing plays the sound of each narrator and will certainly remind every fan how interconnected music is to the highs and lows of life and relationships.

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