Let’s Talk Books – Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend

Warning: Spoilers

I think it was about a year ago that I saw Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend sitting on a shelf in Barnes and Noble. I read the back cover and thought it sounded really interesting. I put it on my to-read list, although I made an additional mental note to prioritize getting around to this one. It wasn’t a top priority, but I didn’t want this book to fade away in an ever-growing to-read list, which already contained too many books I’d completely forgotten about.

Well last month, I saw Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend on a clearance table for five dollars. I wasn’t really looking to buy any new books (I’d only come into Barnes and Noble for Starbucks), but come on, man, five bucks. Break the fucking bank already. So I bought it, although I didn’t get around to reading it until last week. There were other books I wanted to finish first. You know how it is.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend was an interesting read. It’s pretty much exactly how it sounds. Budo’s an imaginary friend to Max, this kid who’s super sensitive, doesn’t like talking to people or being touched, “gets stuck” whenever he gets overstimulated, etc. There are several times throughout the story when Max’s parents argue about what’s wrong with their son, and they even take him to a therapist to begin finding out what’s up, but the book never labels him as autistic or anything. I’ve got mixed feelings about this; on the one hand, something the author says in the interview at the end of the book makes a lot of sense about his decision not to label Max:

A diagnosis can be very useful to a person and his family-it’s often the first step in getting proper treatment and support. But a diagnosis can also be a label that stops the conversation, “Oh, so-and-so’s got Asperger’s…” or “She does that because she has autism,” as if that can explain everything about a person. It’s never that simple. I didn’t want Max to be defined, or worse, dismissed.” (318)

At the same time, the topic came up enough and the symptoms were descriptive enough to make me feel like the author wanted us to know Max had a specific condition without actually letting us know what it was. It’s not a big deal, it just seems a little strange how he didn’t want Max to be labeled but set the story up like he almost needed one.

Anyway, one of Max’s teachers, Mrs. Patterson, starts acting strange and meeting Max in secret. Budo doesn’t like this and spies on them, which makes Max mad. At the risk of further upsetting Max, Budo listens when he’s told not to follow him to Mrs. Patterson’s car with her. Mrs. Patterson then kidnaps Max, and Budo’s the only one that knows who took him. But as an imaginary friend, he can’t talk to real people except for Max, so it’s up to Budo to rescue him.

I’ve never read a book about an imaginary friend before, so maybe that’s one of the things that made this title stick out to me at the book store. I can’t say for sure if it’s a completely original idea, and the story was honestly a little predictable, but it was still interesting enough to really enjoy and make me want to finish out of pure curiosity alone.

One of the best things about the book, however, was the rules the author set for imaginary friends. For example, Budo can’t just magically appear to find out where Max went. Budo (and all imaginary friends, for that matter), are bound by the extent of their creator’s imagination. Some kids don’t imagine that their imaginary friends can walk through doors, for example. And since imaginary friends can’t physically interact with the real world (save for one), they can get trapped if they’re not careful. And because they need to interact with their creators to stay alive, this can also be fatal. These rules are the driving force behind the story. They give limits to entities that many people would naturally assume are omnipotent, and they make the story seem more real. Trying to locate Max and rescue him, when Budo can’t interact with the real world, gives a simple story heavy stakes, and for the most part this works really well.

There’s also a theme of life and death that plays throughout the book. Budo cares about Max, and truly wants to find and rescue him. But the longer Budo is separated from Max, the more likely that Max will forget about Budo, which will make Budo disappear. Budo’s not only trying to save Max, but also trying to save himself. He contemplates this throughout the book, and even other imaginary friends question whether or not Budo’s trying to save Max for the right reasons.

Budo is the oldest imaginary friend he knows. Most imaginary friends last from a few days to a couple of years. Budo’s seen a lot of friends come and go, and naturally is very curious (and frightened) of his eventual death. He wants to know what it feels like to disappear. He wants to know if there’s an afterlife for imaginary friends. And perhaps most importantly, he wants to know if Max will even remember him. Where the external struggle in the book is trying to rescue Max, the internal struggle is coping with the inevitable. After he finds Max, who is being held in a secret room in Mrs. Patterson’s house filled with his favorite types of toys, Budo even wonders if he should leave Max here. You know, let him be a happy little boy forever and stay with him.

In a lot of ways, this book reminds me of Toy Story 3. Woody wants Andy to keep playing with him forever, even though Andy needs to grow up. Woody’s self-worth is defined by his ability to entertain Andy. Budo wants to help Max deal with his condition and grow up, but doing so pushes Budo closer and closer to death. Woody and Budo truly love Andy and Max, but they both need to accept the fact that Andy and Max are going to move on one day. It’s sad, but it’s for the best.

The entire last third of the book was intense. Budo hesitantly teams up with an imaginary friend, Oswald, that had beaten him up before the book began. Not just beaten him up, but threw him around like a rag doll. This new teammate (who, thanks to the book’s description, reminded me of Billy from Adventure Time) is the only imaginary friend who can interact with the real world, but he has rules like everyone else. He can’t move heavy things, for starters. He can move doors and other small things, as well as push buttons. However, doing so takes a heavy toll on him. It’s extremely difficult for him to interact with the real world, and he can’t do it whenever he wants or else it wears him out. He can’t walk through doors like Budo can, which adds an extra layer of complexity for Budo’s rescue mission.

After breaking Max out of Mrs. Patterson’s house, she takes chase after them through the woods and neighborhood as Max tries to get back to his house. Max shows a real change throughout these final chapters as he learns to rely on himself in a situation that he would normally either “get stuck” in or depend on Budo. Budo takes note of this, too, and goes through his own change as he accepts Max growing up, which eventually leads to his own disappearance. It’s something that I think everyone could see coming, but it was still a really sweet way to end the book.

Overall, the book was really good. I was kind of surprised how much I got into it, but I’m a sucker for themes like these. It’s kind of like a Disney movie: even though it’s predictable, it’s still a fun ride.

However, there were some things that kind of bugged me after I finished. Some are technical writing problems. For example, there was a lack of contractions throughout the narrative that became a little distracting (I do not instead of I don’t, for example). I have a feeling this was intentional, like it was supposed to somehow reflect Max’s inability to interact with people on a socially acceptable level (even if Budo is the one narrating, although I view Budo as a reflection of Max). And I’m sorry if this makes me sound like an ignorant asshole, but when I’m reading words on a page like that, it can become very distracting. Not nearly as distracting as a book like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but still, sometimes distracting. But I guess that’s a personal issue. Same goes for the occasional spelling and grammar errors I found.

But those are nitpicks. What actually let me down involved Mrs. Patterson. Okay, so maybe I missed something, but why did Max go meet with Mrs. Patterson in private in her car in the first place? I was under the impression he hated her as much as Budo, and since he hates talking to people anyway, why did he not only go with her, but look forward to those meetings? What did she actually do to persuade him to go with her?

I may have grown up on too much television, but I found it a little unrealistic for Mrs. Patterson to have a secret room in her basement. A secret room whose door blended perfectly into the wall and could only be opened by a secret switch, no less. Like… what? That seems a little too… cartoonish.

When Budo reunites with Max for the first time, Max implies that Mrs. Patterson killed her husband. This isn’t the first fucked up thing in this book, but it’s never revisited again. Like… why bring it up? The book does this a couple of times, actually. It plants these seeds of potential plot that never go anywhere, and it leaves me wondering what the point of even bringing them up were. The thing with her baby dying, okay, that I can understand. That gives motive for Mrs. Patterson to kidnap Max and want to raise him for herself (even though I still remember Mrs. Patterson not liking Max at the start of the book, although I may have misread something). But the thing with killing her husband? Why bring it up if it’s not going anywhere? At first I thought maybe that would be revisited after she was caught by the police at the end. Like, maybe they felt sorry for her, maybe they realized she kidnapped Max because she wasn’t sane, maybe they sent her off to a mental hospital or something, but then they find out about the murder and send her to jail instead.

But that’s the thing! We don’t know what happened to Mrs. Patterson! Max’s dad pins her down, the police come, but… that’s it! We don’t know what becomes of the major antagonist of the book! Maybe it doesn’t really matter, because this is more Budo’s story of accepting reality, but I don’t know… I felt a little let down. Especially because the book sets her up as a semi-sympathetic character by the end.

But you know, even with all those issues, I still really liked the book. I’d still recommend reading it. It’s not the best written book, and older readers might be more annoyed with the technical writing issues than I was, but the idea behind the book was extremely refreshing and creative, and the rules that the imaginary friends need to follow are really, really interesting. Go check it out if you can. Or wait for the movie. This book has “film adaptation” written all over it, I’m sure it’s bound to happen sooner or later.

Info for my edition of Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend:

  • Published 2013 by St. Martin’s Griffin
  • Paperback, 328 pages
  • ISBN 978-1-250-03185-3
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