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'Imagine Me Gone' Paints Mental Illness Through Five Fictional Voices


No one in a family has an illness alone, especially mental illness. Adam Haslett's long-awaited second novel is told through the five voices of a family in which the father, John, has a mental illness, a sort of hibernation he calls it, that he winds up sharing with his oldest son Michael. Each gets certain chapters to tell, as does Margaret, John's wife, and Celia and Alec, their youngest children. You begin to understand how each person shares some of the sting of that illness but also sometimes some of the wisdom experience can bring.

Adam Haslett's new book is "Imagine Me Gone." And Adam Haslett, a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

ADAM HASLETT: Thanks, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Tell us about Michael, who's at the center of the narrative of these five voices.

HASLETT: Well, he's a music fanatic. He is a boy and then a man who has a very sharp sense of humor and a kind of fanatical desire to convert those around him to the music that he loves. And he also suffers from really severe anxiety. And so my challenge in trying to get him as a character on the page was to try to find the right rhythm or music to the prose that I was portraying him with that would bring that across. And that's when I came across this - or, you know, found in my writing this parody of forms. And so there's a psych intake form and there's a family therapy session narrated as though it were an after-action report from the military. So those are the sections that actually have the most - for me, there was levity and humor, which is - was just necessary for me to write this material.

SIMON: I want to, if I can, get you to read a section which is just an absolutely dead-on description of anxiety.

HASLETT: Sure. So this is from about two-thirds of the way through the book and it's in the voice of Michael. (Reading) What do you fear when you fear everything? Time passing and not passing. Death and life. I could say my lungs never filled with enough air no matter how many puffs of my inhaler I took or that my thoughts moved too quickly to complete, severed by perpetual vigilance. But even to say this would abet the lie that terror can be described when anyone who's ever known it knows that it has no components but is instead everywhere inside you all the time until you can recognize yourself only by the tensions that string one minute to the next. And yet I keep lying by describing because how else can I avoid this second and the one after it? This being in the condition itself, the relentless need to escape a moment that never ends.

SIMON: Boy. May I ask how you know that?

HASLETT: Sure. I mean, the truth is that I'm no stranger to mental illness. You know, my father committed suicide when I was 14. My brother indeed suffered from anxiety. And I've been no stranger to those states myself, luckily, for some unknown reason, not in the same severity of my father or brother. But when I came as a fiction writer to this material, I needed to find a way not so much to tell the story of my family but to tell a kind of counterfactual history, a sense of what might have been. Because I think in a sense we all carry some kind of guilt or regret about how we could have treated people we loved who were in trouble. And so I sort of needed that imaginary space to investigate that. And that was sort of the inspiration for the book.

SIMON: I guess novels have been doing that for a couple centuries, haven't they?

HASLETT: Yes, indeed, indeed.

SIMON: One of the themes - one of the more mundane but certainly important themes that runs through the book is the usefulness of medication or not.

HASLETT: Yeah, I think the question for the characters in the book is always what is first going to offer relief, but then what is it making of them? And I think - you know, I'm not a psychiatrist and I don't have a view or an opinion on what any person should or shouldn't do - but what I do want to represent and what I do want to get at is the often agonizing and difficult relationship people have to these medications and the back and forth because mental illness is not something that stays in place. It's not a fixed entity. Over the course of a life, it waxes and wanes. And people's way of coping with it waxes and wanes too.

SIMON: Yeah. Now that you've written this novel and talked a bit about your family history, any new thinking about why so many creative people seem to be troubled at the same time?

HASLETT: Well, I mean, it's sometimes said that you don't choose your material, your material chooses you. So I suppose there's a way in which when people go through the experience of seeing others close to them suffer or to suffer in that rather private and sometimes shameful way, there's a need to communicate. And one of the ironies or paradoxes of writing is that in order to communicate, you have to withdraw into solitude. And you have to concentrate for a good long time in order to figure out the words that are required. So - and that solitude itself can be healing. This book was a cathartic book to write.

SIMON: Adam Haslett - his novel, "Imagine Me Gone." Thanks so much for being with us.

HASLETT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.