Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks (St. Martin’s Press, 2012, 320pp.)
We’ve all had imaginary friends at some point or another. The thing is, most of us give them up before too long. So what happens to those imaginary friends when we forget about them? Memoirs is a kind of autobiography of Budo, the imaginary friend of autistic kindergartner Max. Max needs him more than most children: he doesn’t like using the school bathrooms unless they’re completely devoid of other occupants (Budo keeps watch outside the door); he hates it when his mother kisses him goodnight (Budo has to keep track of how many goodnight kisses his mother bestows upon him while he’s asleep). Budo doesn’t mind his duties, though. All this means that Max needs him, and the more Max needs him...the longer he can exist. As Budo explains:
“It’s very strange to be an imaginary friend. You can’t suffocate and you can’t get sick, and you can’t fall and break your head, and you can’t catch pneumonia. The only thing that can kill you is a person not believing in you.” (140)
Dicks has given Budo an elaborate set of rules to abide by. No one can see him but Max, and his abilities are limited to what Max has imagined for him: he can pass through doors and windows, but not through walls; he can’t communicate with adults or other children (but he can talk to other imaginary friends). He can’t pick things up, either. All of these things come into play when one of Max’s overzealous special ed teachers decides that she knows more about Max’s well-being than his own parents (what were they thinking, enrolling an autistic child in a public school?) So she decides to take custody of Max—without Max’s parents’ permission (which technically is kidnapping). Naturally, Budo wants to help Max return home to Mom and Dad—but that would mean encouraging Max to take things into his own hands—and that could threaten Budo’s very existence.
I won’t lie. Memoirs takes its time setting up the rules, and it’s about eighty-five pages in before the story really gets started. Dicks also focuses more on the premise than the characters. Budo (How do you even pronounce that? Budd-o? Boo-do?) spends a lot of time repeating himself, giving example after example about how imaginary people are different from real people: “It’s not the fence that blocks [an imaginary friend] from entering. It’s the idea of the fence. ... I don’t leave footprints because I’m not actually touching the ground. I’m touching the idea of the ground” (60). “I look like I breathe, but all I breathe is the idea of air...” (140). And at one point, Budo accidentally backs into the corner of a wall (“The idea of the corner, I mean...”) (233). Yeah, yeah, we get it already.
As other readers have noted, though, there are times where Budo’s childlike voice pushes the story into the territory of YA cross-over instead of adult fiction. This is not to say that Memoirs has plenty of elements to make a good story: Max’s evolution from inflexibility to self-sufficiency, his poor parents’ struggles with having an autistic child, not to mention the almost unbearable suspense of the novel’s second half (if you find yourself struggling through the first half, don’t worry. It picks up really soon). So if you’re not too fond of childlike narrators, you may want to look for something else. If you liked Emma Donoghue’s Room, however, chances are that Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend will be just the right fit for you.
- Room by Emma Donaghue