In 2004, Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. In 2005, Jonathan Safran Foer published his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Thanks for the history lesson, I hear you say. Both novels have something in common – they are narrated by young men who have disorders that fall somewhere along the autism spectrum. Intelligent, perceptive but socially unaware and conventionally awkward, Safran Foer’s Oskar and Haddon’s Christopher introduced readers to a world we can scarcely imagine. Matthew Green’s Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend takes this theme one step further – narration is not through Max, a young man who suffers from Asperger’s or autism, but through his only friend, Budo. Budo is not a normal friend, however; Budo is an imaginary friend. And so, the scene is set for one of 2012’s most heart-warming and charming novels.
Max Delaney is not like other 8-year-old boys. He does not run and play with his friends in the yard, he does not play catch or frisbee with his father, he does not cause his mother grief by leaving his room messy. Though not explicitly stated, Max has a disorder that makes him different to everyone else. And he has Budo to keep him company. Budo has been alive for 5 years, which is a very long for an imaginary friend to be alive. Max’s disorder has given him heightened intelligence and an incredibly active imagination, so when Max imagined Budo, he imagined him to look like a human, with the additional ability to pass through anything Max perceives to be a door. Max did not give Budo the ability to sleep, and so when Max sleeps, Budo goes exploring. The visits the gas station and meets other imaginary friends at the Children’s Hospital and watches TV with Max’s parents. He hears Max’s parents arguing about what to do with Max – they can tell he is different, but cannot agree on a course of action for the future. This makes Budo sad, for he can only exist as long as Max believes in him. If his parents were to seek treatment, Max would be forced to let go of Budo. This is not a pleasant thought for Budo.
Max knows he is different and he does is best to survive in an environment that can’t quite figure out what to do with him. His classmates don’t understand that he is different and he gets bullied by older kids. All in all, though, he and Budo get by with relative ease. Having spent so much time around Max, Budo understands his body language and non-verbal cues. So when Max starts lying and behaving differently, Budo knows something is wrong. Someone wants to take Max away. Away from school, away from his parents, away from everything he knows. In order to protect Max, Budo breaks promises, gets into fights, collaborates with other imaginary friends and devises a plan to save Max. Along the way, Budo learns a lot about himself and the concept of his own mortality which he appears to be both intrigued about and terrified of. Ultimately, Budo has to ask himself how far he will go and how much he is willing to sacrifice to save Max.
With a host of incredibly inventive characters and a thriller-esque plot, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend is entirely unique in that it is an adult’s novel told through simple childlike language. This can be difficult to reconcile at times when Budo’s naivety is reflected in his overly simplistic perception of situations. For me, this was rectified through regular, randomly dispersed pearls of wisdom that Budo imparts on the readers, very much a product of Max’s overly developed observation skills. The novel covers off on many deep topics including friendship, love and mortality, and the lengths that people will go to in the process of protecting loved ones. Budo and Max both undergo incredibly heartwarming transformations as they are thrown into uncomfortable situations that require them to put aside everything they thought they knew to survive.
One of the supporting imaginary friends, when asked about his mortality, states that “there’s nothing worse than nothing. But if it’s nothing, I won’t know it because I will be nothing.” I think it’s little gems like that one that truly make this book spectacular. In a literary sense, it’s not a beautiful book. The narrator is an imaginary friend of a child with a variation of autism, so the language is limited and allows the book to be read easily. What makes it a remarkable story however is in its ability to make the complex simple; to break down big issues and strip away the layers until you’re left with the core of the problem, much in the way a child handles problem-solving. As adults, we seem to build up our issues and involve our emotions, rendering them practically unsolvable. The naively optimistic Budo made me stop and reflect on situations and problems, making me question how much more simple things could be if we said what we truly meant and didn’t play games with people. It made me smile and reminded me that even when you feel like you’re alone, there is always someone looking out for you. Whether you are aware of it or not, there is always someone willing to help. You just have to know where to look.
I loved this book. I had a highly active imagination as a childhood and for me it was both a tender homage to the joys of childhood and a reminder that most often, simple living is the best choice to make. Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend is an essential novel – it praises difference and gently argues that while we have troubles and problems of our own, everyone else is battling every day just like us. To be kind, honest and sincere might just be the easiest way to survive.