September 21, 2012

BOOKS: Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, Matthew Dicks (2012)

This is an absolutely charming and unexpectedly moving novel, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

The narrator is Budo, who has been alive for five years, an unusually long lifespan for an imaginary friend. Budo clarifies for us that despite the whole "imaginary" thing, he is very much real. Yes, he's created by the imagination of 8-year-old Max, who is the only person who can see or hear him, but the fact that his existence is tethered to Max's belief in him doesn't mean he's not real.

That inability to interact with the real world, though, is a tremendous obstacle when Max finds himself in danger, and only Budo knows what's happened to him. Saving Max is even more difficult because Max is autistic, and doesn't entirely comprehend that he's in danger at all. Budo's fight to overcome his own limitations, and those of Max, is marvelously entertaining; his conversations with other imaginary friends (they can all talk to one another) are among the book's highlights.

The jacket blurbs refer to both Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Emma Donoghue's Room, which are good points of comparison. Dicks's novel is less emotionally brutal than Room can be, in large part because the principal villain is given motives that we can understand, even if we can't condone the resulting behavior. And the book is less twee and precious than the (IMHO) vastly overpraised Curious Incident; letting Budo narrate instead of Max helps greatly, as it avoids direct recreation of the autistic mind, which is a difficult thing to pull off.

I might complain that Max's behavior in the final chapters is out of character, more overtly brave and heroic than we'd have expected he could be, but given the goodwill Dicks has built up in the rest of the book, I'm willing to accept his explanation as plausible enough for fiction.

The ending is sad and sweet, and brings the book to just the right close. This is a wonderful, wonderful novel.

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