On the surface, Adam Haslett’s second novel might sound like a lot of other books you’ve read or heard about. It’s about a family, for one thing, which you could be forgiven for suspecting is a whole new genre of fiction created by Jonathan Franzen back in 2001. It’s also about depression and mental illness (which, again, are topics that draw writers like the proverbial moth to the flame). It’s a relatively chunky American novel and quite possibly the kind of book that some people would miss simply because Haslett is less interested in fireworks and more interested in getting at some truth in a beautiful way.
There are five narrators, each a member of the family – Margaret and John, wife and husband, mother and father, and their children, Michael, Celia and Alec. The novel opens at a point in the future, in the moments after a tragedy, and then pans backwards (again, as you may expect but the novel doesn’t run as you would expect). We see Margaret remember how she met John, how he suffered from depression, how they moved from John’s home in England back to Margaret’s home in America (but oh how she pines to return to England, at least at first). We see their return trip to England – their boat trip – filtered through the imagination of Michael, which incorporates Donna Summer and cannibals (oh, you think, it’s that kind of book – but it isn’t). We skip forward, there are failures, there is wreckage, there is shit here that people do not get over.
Slowly we begin to realise that this is a novel about Michael, after all, Michael and the effect that he has upon his own family and the individual lives of each of the people in that family – each of whom go on to have lives, involving other people, but each of whose lives remain tied by a bond that wears them out but also gives them focus and reason and distraction. Another reviewer has pondered how closely we are to wonder – and if we are to wonder – if Michael is based upon David Foster Wallace. I only mention it here because there is definitely an echo of DFW here (or at least an echo of the popular mildly deified vision of DFW). What we can say, and say with conviction, is that Imagine Me Gone is a book that quietly, surreptitiously sneaks up on you. There was a point in the earlier opening chapters when I felt a brief disappointment, that Haslett hadn’t lived up to the premise of his debut novel Union Atlantic or his short stories You Are Not a Stranger Here. And then suddenly, almost before I knew it, I was in love, just like that. That’s what reading Imagine Me Gone is like. That first, sudden fall of being in love. And if you read that admission and roll your eyes, poor you. I went there. I’m not afraid. I can still fall. That’s why we fall, it’s what all of the disappointments are for, because once – every few months, hopefully – a book comes along you can be blown away by.
Obviously it’s sad but it’s not just sad. It has hope. There is art here and artfulness but it is not pretentious. It is, as we said at the start of this review, true. It is a true book. And when we say true, we mean that it thrums with an honest approximation of life. If we wrote fiction any more, this would be the fiction we would want to write but as we don’t write we are happy we can read. That’s enough.
Any Cop?: A thoroughly satisfying, stimulating, well written, well told novel that entertains and challenges and moves and does everything we would want fiction to do.