At first glance, it looks like such an unprepossessing book. Simple, even. Your mind fills in the missing letters on the cover without taking in their significance, but that unwritten, ubiquitous "NO" is everything—without saying anything it tells a reader, a sharp-eyed reader who's paying attention, everything they need to know.
Haslett has taken a new spin on the nuclear, dysfunctional family and he gives us their story from each member's perspective in alternating chapters. The mom and dad: Margaret and John, and the three kids: Michael, Celia, and Alec. There are large gaps in years, which may or may not be filled in by reminiscences here and there, but it makes them real—like the neighbors next door—to not know everything about them. Each character has a different agenda in their telling (not to mention a different style) and I found myself getting caught up in the mess of their lives, really letting each narrative take over as the children grew up and even as the book wound toward its inevitable conclusion.
They seem like a pretty normal family but as it is increasingly easy, even more so in today's world of infinite screens, they don't really see each other. Maybe just like you didn't really see the missing letters on the cover of this book, or if you noticed they were missing, you didn't really see what they meant, that they formed another word, full of potential meaning. What this family doesn't see is that there are some among them that are really hurting. Not getting the right kind of help.
Haslett is interested in the mind—what stirs inside it, what complexities it hides even from its user. Mental illness that goes undiagnosed, untreated, or, potentially worse, overtreated, and how it affects not only the person with the illness but all those who surround that person. And what genes are there, restless, waiting to be passed along to the next generation.
Is depression potentially a genetic trait? Even with just the genes, there's probably more at play, though I don't think Haslett is making any scientific or theoretical statements here. It's more like he's drawing a map, tracing all the discrete moments for this particular family, all the characteristics from John and his chronic depression to Michael and his more maniacal, uncontrollable anxiety. Here are the pieces, do with them what you wish.
What's more interesting than an argument of nature vs. nurture is the examination of this plague of the mind and how it affects us all, though differently. John hides his depression from his family and thinks of it as a beast trapped in him, one he wants to physically release from his body and face head-on. Michael prefers to stow away behind a wall of medications, hoping for the miracle fix that will smooth everything out. But in the meantime, his anxiety forces him to cling to everyone around him, stifling relationships and making him stuck in time, unable to finish anything or accept change. His obsessive compulsive attachment to music, especially disco, is the only thing that grounds him, makes him feel real. There is a type of fantasy in music that we are all drawn to, that love story that never ends, and Michael definitely wants that for himself. Michael is an unforgettably complex and devastating character, so full of life and potential that it's truly frustrating as a reader to watch him from the sidelines, unable to help.
And just because the other three don't suffer from mental illness doesn't mean they are exempt. There are worries about money, sexuality, marriage, job security, general happiness, the other family members, heartbreak, and plenty of other ghosts to contend with. Just like we all have.
There is so much to unpack in this novel, and Haslett really leaves you to do that for yourself. He lays the narrative out on the table and lets you take it, whatever the consequences. I like that, because I think there's so many different things that readers could take from this, depending on where they are in life and where they have been.
Haslett renders a tragic but beautiful modern familial landscape with five distinct narrators who become real through each others' eyes. This is indeed true literary fiction at its finest and I will be seeking out his short story collection You Are Not a Stranger soon. This is an extremely intelligent, though haunting, book that will not soon leave your mind or your heart. Keep it close, and listen to some Donna Summers, on vinyl if you can get it.
Also, Adam Haslett on tour right now, so check out his webpage to see if he's in your area for a reading and signing!
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Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.