Monday, December 28, 2009

Taking on the Real World

Ding dong, the semester’s done! Now that I’ve had my fill of some forty books on fantasy, flash fiction, prose poetry and essays, I’ve been catching up on what everyone in the real world has been reading.

Speaking of which, I reluctantly picked up “Marcelo in the Real World” by Francisco X. Stork (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009). As someone who’s spent close to twenty years (and counting) in the field of developmental disabilities—most of those years as an advocate for self-determination and inclusion—I was afraid of what I might find and how I would react.

After some initial groaning and teeth gnashing over the way Marcelo described his segregated private school as being necessary for some “disabled” kids, and small irritation about the Asperger's diagnosis, I climbed down from my self-righteous high horse and began to appreciate this book for what it is, and there’s a lot to appreciate.

For one thing, Stork isn’t churning out some weak-kneed version of a “special” kid in the real world. When Marcelo, a seventeen year old who describes himself as having Asperger’s syndrome, is thrust into a tense, unethical work environment by his father, any fear I had that this would not be a realistic book was put to rest.

(Asperger’s syndrome, for anyone who’s not hip to the lingo, is at the highly functional end of the Autism spectrum, characterized in part by an inability to interact socially.)

Through Marcelo’s first person narration, Stork is able to convey a highly complex intellectual process that not only puts the reader inside Marcelo’s head as he navigates the typical world, but also peels back the veneer of social interaction and exposes the ugly underbelly of “normal” (whatever that is). I like the fact that this is first person, as it avoids a one-dimensional depiction of someone with a disability.

The ethical dilemmas and personal risks that Marcelo faces are real, and his approach to solving them is wholly his own. No one rushes in to save the day for the poor special kid. He tackles his problems thoughtfully and on his own. No simple, pat storyline. Hooray!

Stork scores on the character integrity scale. For me, characterization is this book’s strongest quality. He crafts a well-developed, often subtle, interior life that’s supported by Marcelo’s actions and choices. At no time did I think, “Oh puleeze, who does that?” The same is true for all of the characters, except for his mailroom boss, Jasmine, whose sub-plot feels a bit strained and distracting. Not only is Marcelo in the real world, the characters are painfully recognizable. Who hasn’t worked in an office infested with social climbing a-holes?

Stork earns every plot point the hard way—not a single cheap, sentimental trick up his sleeve. When the external action slowed, Marcelo’s internal process never fails to carry the momentum. It’s a fabulous reminder that, when writing a story, a sagging plot does not have to be boosted by a chase scene or dramatic meltdown. In fact, a little emotional restraint goes a long way toward elevating the tension and pulling the reader forward.

When it comes down to it, “Marcelo in the Real World” is a darn smart story. The fact that it portrays a person with a disability as a unique individual and not a human jar with a label just makes it even smarter.