Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Here's to Small Fan Clubs, Big Hearts and Bonus Poops: Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend
by Matthew Dicks
St. Martin's Press
Guest review by Jim Thomsen

Matthew Dicks deserves a small audience.

This is a compliment.

We often say that novelists we admire “deserve a wider audience.”  The idea is that more readers equals more appreciators, which, sadly, hasn’t proven to be the case these days for most literary worthies, I suspect.  Often what you get are people who pick up a fifteen-minute-long buzz on somebody, grab one of the author’s books, putz through eighty pages or so, and put it away on a high bookshelf.  And never purchase another of the author’s books.  (When I visit friends with lots of books, I always see one David Guterson novel, or one Alice Sebold or Junot Diaz or Jhumpa Lahiri.  But never more than one.)

For Matthew Dicks, author of the recently released Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, I fervently wish a smaller audience.  A small but devoted audience that will buy each of Dicks’s books, a fan club exquisitely tuned to Dicks’ experientially narrow characters on their narrow emotional frequencies.  I wish for them to get together and host Big Lebowski-esque Burning Matt Festivals each year.  They could do the cheerfully, harmlessly oddball things that the characters in Dicks’ novels do: sing “99 Luftballons” in German; steal things from each other that the victims will never miss; pop the vacuum seals on jelly jars with sighs of almost sexual release; and eat a lot of good food but not enough that they’re forced to make Bonus Poops.  (Trust me, it’s worth reading Dicks’ books to find out what the hell I’m talking about.)  They could speak with whimsically flat affects and put their diagnosable personality disorders on pleasant parade (as Dicks does in his books) and Nerf-spray Twitter posts at one another (as Dicks does in real life).

You’re starting to see that Dicks’ stories aren’t serious Great American Novels of epic sweep and all-encompassing themes and self-conscious prose pyrotechnics.  They’re more like the literary equivalent of Wes Anderson movies, quirky small-scale tales of people who are a little bit off but not unpleasantly so, sweet with a little bit of sour, perhaps a bit precious but utterly unpretentious.  The sort of people who think, in the middle of sex, about how satisfying it might be to crack a tray or three of frozen ice cubes.

Memoirs of An Imaginary Friend is in a similar vein, though it’s a story told from the point of view of an invisible friend to an 8-year-old boy who is a semi-paralyzed puree of Asperger Syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder (as is every Dicks hero) and a bunch of other quirky stuff that most of us don’t have and maybe find hard to relate to.

Budo is the invisible buddy to Max.  Max can’t eat breakfast after eight-thirty in the morning, can’t “make a poop” at his Connecticut school, and gets “stuck” in a semi-catatonic state by most anything that threatens his rigid routine.  He has loving parents and sympathetic teachers, and while he doesn’t have friends, the other kids (mostly) leave him alone.  But still, Max struggles, even with special-ed help, to the point that his mother and father argue about whether to pull him out of school.

Budo wants to help Max.  But Budo also lives in fear of “disappearing,” which is what happens to invisible friends when their human creators grow up—or go sideways—and stop believing in them.  So it might be more accurate to say that Budo wants to help Max, but maybe not too much.

All of this sounds cute and soft and nonthreatening, and maybe a little earnestly dull as well.  But, as he did in his first two novels— 2009’s Something Missing and 2010’s Unexpectedly, Milo—Dicks lets unplanned reality swing a wrecking ball into his heroes’ carefully constructed walls.  Violently so.  And you sit up and say, “Wait … what?  What?”

I won’t give away exactly what upsets Max’s bubble in Memoirs of An Imaginary Friend, but I will say that it involves a teacher who takes too intent an interest in Max.  And it puts Budo in the impossible position of choosing between himself and Max.  If he lets Max go, he may ensure his longevity through Max’s displacement and need for emotional continuity.  If he figures out a way to save Max, or to help Max save himself, Max may well emerge from the experience finding that he no longer needs Budo.  But wait.  Does Max really want to be saved?  And how can an invisible friend who can’t open a door or make himself known to another living soul be of material assistance to a kid desperately in need of it, anyway?

The answers are well worth sticking around for, though Dicks may try your patience getting there.  His prose, like his characters, is fussy and fastidious and flatly declarative—imagine listening to this story as a nine-hour audiobook read by someone with Asperger’s—and it’s easy to find yourself fiddling with your shirt collar or thinking about making a sandwich as Dicks explores the boundaries of his characters’ world with excruciating and unhurried precision.  An example:
      Max is in the bathroom stall. He is making a poop, which Max does not like to do outside the home. He almost never makes a poop in a public restroom. But it’s 1:15 and there are still two hours of school left and he couldn’t hold it anymore. He always tries to poop before going to bed every night, and if he can’t, he tries again before he leaves for school. He actually pooped this morning right after breakfast, so this is a bonus poop.
      Max hates bonus poops.Max hates all surprises.

A little of that, I think, goes a long way.

But the worlds Dicks creates surpass the words that describe them.  Rarely, in my reading experience, have disorder-impaired people been rendered with such rich empathy.  (Not sympathy, but empathy, to the point that I wonder what Dicks himself might be diagnosed with.)

That empathy ultimately wins the day, as his characters labor to overcome hurdles of harrowing immediacy to win their own days.  Plotting isn’t Dicks’ strongest suit; he tends toward god-in-the-machine contrivances to get his characters in and out of trouble (I found it implausibly convenient that Budo happened to happen across a fellow invisible friend who can open doors and honk car horns, for example).  But again, ultimately you’re too invested in Budo’s frantic efforts to break through his boundaries and help Max help himself.  And so, when the climax comes, when Budo and Max finally make their breakthroughs, each helping the other, that moment is as heart-in-the-throat as anything in an apocalyptic thriller or serial-killer suspenser.

But wide audiences, it seems, prefer action heroes in the Jack Reacher mold, not invisible friends to little boys. Intellectually, I get that.  Emotionally, I’ll see the rest of you who see it my way at the inaugural Burning Matt fest.  I’ll bring the ice cube trays and my Blu-Ray edition of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (and maybe sneak in Moonrise Kingdom, which Memoirs of An Imaginary Friend reminds me of, a lot).  This time, I promise, they get away.  My invisible friend tells me so.

Jim Thomsen makes his living as a copy editor of novel manuscripts, and is at work at his first novel, a hardboiled crime tale set in his native Kitsap County, in Washington state.  He lives in Seattle.

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