If one gets nothing else from Adam Haslett's stunning novel and there are freightloads of else to get a new appreciation for the decisive place of Donna Summer in the history of late-twentieth- century music might be enough. Yes, Donna Summer: never again may she be underestimated.
The words above were in fact written while listening to "Our Love," a 1979 track that Haslett's indelible character Michael understands as the single origin of the great burgeoning of techno, instructing a youngster decades later, "It's the genealogy of what you already love." Michael is a fountain of anxiety, "hyper- articulate," a supercollider of thoughts, a conduit for the impossible flood of pain that runs through a society that has not begun to acknowledge the ever-bleeding gash in its middle that is the legacy of slavery. Michael devotes himself to collecting music on an epic scale, the more outré the better, and reading into what might be called the literature of legacy, Proust and Althusser and Audre Lorde and Marx ("As Marx tells us, the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare upon the brains of the living").
Imagine Me Gone fulfills its considerable ambitions. It touches greatness, and its seamless interleaving of the deeply personal with the widely collective is one reason. The character of Michael is another. Haslett suggests grief is passed to succeeding generations of a society by the same mechanism it is to individuals. In Michael both converge. He's a true head case hurting, a perennial child in need of solace, and a preacher who seems in lonely possession of the one true religion: the truth he was bequeathed by his unhappy parents and the one that came through his headphones. In fifth grade, 1978,
I couldn't be certain what it meant to "Give Up the Funk," or "Tear the Roof off the Sucker," or why Parliament would title an album Mothership Connection. But I had my first secret joy at knowing that beyond the veil of the apparent, meaning ached in the grain of music. A joy accompanied by my first intuition that black people might know a thing or two about the need for that meaning history being the culprit.From his ears it enters his blood. He begins to bear a mortal guilt, bolstered by his music fandom and humanist education, over his discovery that his race caused another to so desperately need that meaning, one that could only be expressed openly in the music that mutated down the years from funk to disco to house. He believes music is "the medium for the transgenerational haunting of the trauma of slavery." Of course, such a weight finally breaks him. The congenital burden of his father's manic-depression and a calamitous chemical dependence do not help.
Pulitzer-nominated Haslett (You Are Not a Stranger Here) has often used fiction to anatomize the ravages of mental illness, of existential despair. Here he accuses Big Pharma of cynically "curing" it primarily for the benefit of its own pocket. But he also acknowledges that no one has a much better idea of how to fix the unbearable sadness that can descend; he delivers a fine-grained map of the territory of chronic depression in the sections devoted to Michael's father, John, who has only momentary reprieves before being overtaken by the "monster" again. (In one of the book's multitude of striking aperçus John's wife, Margaret, remarks of the British ward to which John has been committed, "The light in that room was a kind of malpractice.")
Their other children are Alec and Celia, and each finds ways to hold in abeyance the family's heirloom anxiety the latter by running obsessive wind sprints and becoming a psychotherapist to heal herself by proxy, the former by taking it upon himself to oversee his brother's withdrawal from drugs. But, notwithstanding Haslett's intention to use them to display the prismatic effects of their own flashes of originality (Celia drops a truism worthy of a T-shirt at least, "Love is an affliction or nothing at all"), they fade behind the bright light that is Michael. For he is both the intellectual center of this cerebral novel and its tragicomic relief, the author of several brilliant parodic set pieces. It is he who is most heartbreakingly real, even as he stands in for the missing conscience of a nation.
Haslett's peculiar talent is to fuse the high to the low, the sardonic to the profound, cultural critique to human feeling, to achieve a seamless, polished whole. Imagine Me Gone accomplishes a complex feat, bringing close that most distant personality, the socially detached depressive, while giving the specificity of his guilt tangible weight. Adam Haslett has a point to make, and emotions for us to feel. If you are a son or a daughter, a member of a society with a dark past, remember one thing: "What we ignore only persists." What we read, so long as it is beautifully written and filled with astonishing insight, persists too.
Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of three works of nonfiction: The Perfect Vehicle, Dark Horses and Black Beauties, andThe Place You Love Is Gone, all from Norton. She is writing a book on B. F. Skinner and the ethics of dog training.
Reviewer: Melissa Holbrook Pierson