Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks
St. Martin’s Press, 2012
Reviewed by Nicole Bartley
Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks is the kind of book you recommend with a one-line explanation: It’s amazing.
This story absorbs readers so thoroughly that they won’t realize 50 pages have been read. It’s as if the reader is sitting at a table with the main character as he colors in a coloring book, inside the lines, and tells the story. It’s about an imaginary friend named Budo and the boy who imagined him, Max. At first, readers follow daily routines of school and their home life—subplots such as bullying troubles, Learning Center teachers, and family problems at home. Then Max is kidnapped by one of his teachers, and Budo must find a way to save him, even if it means relinquishing his own existence.
Budo is the perfect combination of a childlike mentality with a few bits of adult knowledge. His narration is repetitive and simple, with a basic knowledge of how the world works. Because Budo was not imagined as being stuck by Max’s side, he can wander away for extended periods of time and for indefinite distances. Max also imagined that Budo is smarter than he is. Because of this, Budo learns from catching glimpses of the adult world, and then uses his knowledge to help Max with his daily routines.
To Max, Budo is a complete, real person. Other imaginary friends are usually startled to learn that he’s one of them. And, he’s five years old, which is ancient by imaginary friends’ standards. Budo speculates that his age and nature are the result of Max being different from other children.
Max either has Asperger’s syndrome or he’s a high functioning autistic. Yet, no one ever mentions these words, including Budo. This is what makes the novel special. To Budo, Max is normal. His fascination with toy soldiers and video games—and his antisocial tendencies—are all regular, everyday attributes of an eight-year-old boy. In fact, the only times the reader encounters signs of autism are when Max becomes “stuck” or when Budo describes him. Yet any reader who doesn’t already know the signs might agree with Max’s father, noting only that Max is peculiar. This lack of concentration on autism itself presents Max as intelligent, clever and talented instead of automatically stunted. It helps to convey that Max is not defined by his autism.
Despite his apparent freedom, Budo is confined by the science of being an imaginary friend. They seem to exist on a separate plane, and only other imaginary friends and the children who “imagined” them can see them. Thus, Budo cannot communicate with other humans. Also, imaginary friends cannot affect their immediate surroundings, and how they interact with their environment depends on how they were imagined. They are governed by the “idea” of things. They walk an inch or so above the floor because it is the idea of the floor that they touch. Some imaginary friends can walk through windows and doors, but others are trapped by the idea of the window and door as an obstacle and can only get through them if they are opened. And, when a child no longer believes in his or her imaginary friend, that friend gradually fades from existence.
Dicks probably had a brainstorming session in order to determine an imaginary friend’s capabilities and to describe all of them, and then kept every idea. The details are extensive, incredibly unique and represent the wide range of childhood imagination. Some friends have no ears but can still hear, others are different colors, one is a flat paper outline of a person that coils and folds in order to move, and another is a bobblehead. One is even a small puppy that can talk. There are so many imaginary friends in the book that Dicks may have interviewed children to discover the appearances and details of their imaginary friends.
But the story isn’t just about the imaginary friends. It’s about what it takes to be a parent, and what it means to be a friend. Max’s mother tries to get his father to recognize that there’s a problem, though she never outright says what it is. His dad believes that Max is just a late bloomer, a normal kid who likes to be by himself. He believes that Max doesn’t need special teachers at the learning center or any sort of therapy. The mother seems frazzled but determined to make the best of their situation, while the father comes off as disinterested, stubborn, and in denial. This results in a dissonance at home, to the point that the reader might worry about a divorce. But when Max is taken, the parents rely on each other and do whatever it takes to get him back.
As for Budo, he realizes that while Max remains kidnapped, he will always believe that Budo exists. Budo is better off with Max this way, but he understands that Max is better off with his parents instead of a woman who thinks she knows better. Max will never grow up if he remains with his teacher, and Budo recognizes the problem with that. This culminates in a few scenes that are heartbreaking but necessary.
The book also illustrates the importance and the effect that one teacher can have on a student. In a way, it seems as if this novel is homage to the author’s teachers. It is possible that Dicks based the teachers off real people he knew while growing up, or people he knows now. In particular, Mrs. Gosk, who is Max’s favorite teacher, is revered by her students. Budo never stops talking about how great she is, to the point that sometimes she is too perfect. This is countered when Budo sees her away from the other students, where she is revealed to be flawed and emotional, but the tactic almost seems like a requirement to prevent her from being perfect.
Throughout the novel, Dicks represents childhood very well. He pulls his readers back into a child’s mind. He also panders to the inner child of his male readers. For example, there is at least one scene and multiple references to poop jokes. In the beginning, a bully tries to reach Max by crawling underneath a bathroom stall door while Max is inside. In order to escape, Max “accidentally” poops on his head, an event that establishes their relationship for the rest of the story. The event is also remembered fondly and with apprehension by Budo, who recognizes the act as a moment of growth and also a catalyst for future bullying.
Overall, Dicks makes us remember our childhood and the imaginary friends we loved or almost had. His story references the existential question of what it means to be real and alive. And at the end, when Budo is faced with his own mortality, we dredge up memories of past imaginary friends and, for a few brief moments, entertain the possibility that they were real. Then maybe, for those fleeting moments, our beloved or barely formed friends are alive again simply because we believe.