Critical Mass, The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle

30 Books #10: Michael Schaub on Adam Haslett’s ‘Imagine Me Gone’

by Michael Schaub | Feb-24-2017

In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 16 announcement of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Michael Schaub offers an appreciation of fiction finalist Adam Haslett's Imagine Me Gone (Liveright).

The title of Adam Haslett’s unforgettable second novel comes from a scene early in the book, when John, a businessman who has struggled most of his life with mental illness, embarks on a boat trip with his two youngest children, Celia and Alec. He decides to give them a test-- he kills the engine of the boat, lies down and closes his eyes. “Imagine me gone, imagine it’s just the two of you,” he instructs his children. “What do you do?”

John’s goal, it seems, is to prepare his children for a worst case scenario. And eventually that’s exactly what happens, though it doesn’t involve two kids in a motorless boat at sea. Not long after, he walks into a forest and slits his wrist. He’s gone; there’s no need to imagine it. And he’s left behind his wife, Margaret, and his three children, Michael, Celia and Alec.

The rest of the novel spans decades, and the point of view switches between John’s widow and kids. Margaret tries to occupy herself with her work in a library, but John’s ghost is never far from her mind. Alec, prone to panic as a child, works as a journalist in New York, sometimes indulging in anonymous gay sex. Celia moves to California, finding work as a social worker. And Michael -- brilliant, quicksilver Michael -- finds himself unable to work a steady job; he’s beset by his own mental illness.

Imagine Me Gone succeeds on just about every level that a book can. Haslett has a keen eye when it comes to family dynamics; every conversation in the novel comes across as authentic, filled with the affections and annoyances that are common when children talk to  parents or siblings talk to one another.

And though the book takes depression as its chief subject matter, it’s also, at times, extremely funny. Most of the humor comes courtesy Michael, a manic genius with a gift for writing. One of his chapters takes the form of a fake medical questionnaire, where he lists his treatment goals as “ordinary unhappiness” and “racial justice.” Under the field for “Current Symptoms,” he simply writes, “Yes.”

Haslett’s greatest accomplishment, though, is his writing about “the monster,” which John calls his depression. “There is no getting better,” John reflects. “There is love I cannot bear, which has kept me from drifting entirely lose. There are the medicines I can take that flood my mind without discrimination, slowing the monster, moving the struggle underwater, where I then must live in the murk. But there is no killing the beast. Since I was a young man, it has hunted me. And it will hunt me until I am dead. The older I become, the closer it gets.”

It’s a stunning novel, written with compassion, and it ends where it has to -- Haslett is a fearless writer, refreshingly unafraid to confront darkness. That’s not to say there’s no light in Imagine Me Gone; it is, in the end, a book about love and about survival. And it’s unquestionably one of the truest and most beautiful novels of 2016.

Bret Anthony Johnston’s review in The New York Times Book Review.

Heller McAlpin’s review on NPR.

Lara Feigel’s review in The Guardian.


30 Books #9: Colette Bancroft on Michael Tisserand’s ‘Krazy’

by Colette Bancroft | Feb-23-2017

In the 30 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 16 announcement of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Colette Bancroft offers an appreciation of biography finalist Michael Tisserand's Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White (Harper Collins).

In a surreal desert landscape, a tiny white mouse throws a brick at the head of a black cat. On impact, the cat lifts lightly off the ground, hearts floating in the air above its lovestruck head.

That image, and the story it suggests, might sound slight. But it was the heart and soul of Krazy Kat, a tremendously influential comic strip that ran for more than 30 years at a time when newspaper comic strips were among the most popular American art forms.

Its creator is the subject of Michael Tisserand's engaging, revealing biography, Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White.

The long list of comics artists who have revered Herriman as an influence includes Walt Disney, Charles Schulz, R. Crumb, Bill Watterson and Stan Lee. Herriman's fan base went way beyond fellow cartoonists, though -- to E.E. Cummings and T.S. Eliot, Jack Kerouac and Michael Chabon, not to mention Herriman's longtime boss, William Randolph Hearst, who kept Krazy Kat running in his newspapers from 1913 to 1944.

Yet today, 72 years after his death, Herriman and Krazy Kat are a footnote in our popular culture. Tisserand's book just might change that by bringing back into the conversation not only Herriman's remarkable artistic creation but his extraordinary, very American life story.

Herriman's adventures in newspapering in the early years of the 20th century are alone worth the price of the book. But Tisserand also gives the reader a critical biography, focusing on every stage of Herriman's brilliant, unique masterwork.

Krazy Kat's main characters were the title feline, a gentle soul whose gender was fluid; Ignatz Mouse, an irascible brick-flinger and all-around rascal with whom Krazy was hopelessly in love; and Offissa Pupp, a stolid bulldog in a police uniform who doted on Krazy and endlessly sought to throw Ignatz in the clink.

Krazy Kat was a marvel of sophisticated art and endlessly inventive use of language; Herriman regularly tossed in references to Shakespeare and Greek myth as well as popular culture.

In exploring the artist's life story, Tisserand reveals something that adds even more depth and complexity to the strip: Herriman came from a mixed-race New Orleans family that moved to California during his childhood and ever after passed as white.

Herriman attended white schools, worked on the white staffs of newspapers owned by Joseph Pulitzer and Hearst, married a white woman. Indeed, Tisserand tells us, his secret was never revealed in his lifetime; only in 1971, 27 years after his death, did his birth certificate with the designation "col." come to light.

All of the Krazy Kat strip's riffs on color and origin change shape, from Ignatz complaining a cup of coffee "isn't black" and Krazy telling him to look "unda the milk," to a strip about Krazy's birth, described as "a tale which must never be told, yet which everyone knows."

In Krazy, Tisserand tells that tale, illuminating one man's life and a corner of America's popular culture that seems as fresh as ever.


Colette Bancroft in the Tampa Bay Times.

 Nelson George in the New York Times. 

Glen David Gold in the Washington Post.

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