Friday, February 19, 2010

Read This Book:
Marcelo in the Real World

I read a few highly touted books over the December break, and was pretty much underwhelmed by each. What a joy, then, to pick up Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork, and find it every bit as good as it was said to be. It has much in common with Mark Haddon's wonderful novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time , but this is a different story, and Marcelo is a different sort of hero.

In Curious Dog, though the words 'autism' and 'Asperger's' are never used, Christopher's unique way of seeing the world give readers the opportunity to walk in the shoes of an autistic savant, gifted in math and profoundly uncomfortable with the noise, chaos and interactions of human society. From Christopher I learned about hyperfocus. Where I would walk into a pasture and see green grass and some brown and white cows, Chris could tell us exactly how much grass, how many cows, how many spots each cow has and how the spots are distributed on each cow's body. Relentlessly logical, devoid of humor (it just doesn't make sense), a guy like Chris can be incredibly difficult when viewed from the outside, but when viewed from the inside, from his point of view, everything changes, and the reader is the better for the experience.

In contrast, Marcelo is very aware of his condition, which is similar to, but not exactly Asperger's Syndrome. His family is well-educated and affluent, and Marcelo has been encouraged, protected and supported -- he goes to a special school, had years of social training, he lives in a tree house in their backyard, and though the Sandovals are Catholic, Marcelo has regular meetings with a female rabbi to discuss issues of God, faith and religion, his "pervasive special interest." He is also tall, handsome, and seventeen.

What Marcelo really isn't good at is people, their feelings, social cues, ambiguity and unpredictable natures. And so his father, founding partner of a very successful Boston law firm, is requiring that Marcelo spend the summer outside his comfort zone, in the "real world" of his law offices. Following the rules of the real world means
engaging in small talk with other people. It means refraining from talking about my special interest. It means looking people in the eye and shaking hands. It means doing things "on the hoof," as we say at Paterson, which means doing things that have not been scheduled in advance.
Marcelo is very bright, and sees the world with great clarity, but he doesn't feel the world in a way he can handle. An everyday challenge is to remember to refer to himself in the first person. He often mentions how well he has been trained to appeal "normal," when he knows he isn't. Marcelo's emotional growth is guided by Jasmine, the young boss of the mailroom, who somehow understands Marcelo, challenges him to try unfamilar and scary tasks, and who also becomes an inspiration and a role model for him.

Francisco X. Stork writes Marcelo's thoughts and observations in brilliant deadpan (a comic's dream straightman). As he grows, Marcelo not only recognizes his growth; others' reactions to him prove it. The novel is studded with wonderful passages that show rather than tell what it's like to be Marcelo.

When his father takes him to the gym for a lunchtime workout:
I know by now that I have a tendency to get annoyed about being asked to do something unexpected. I have worked very hard over the years to reduce the level and duration of the annoyance. I have been working on that as long as I can remember.
When Jasmine mock-swoons over the mention of Wendell, arrogant son of the firm's other partner, Marcelo recognizes the intent.
"That is called sarcasm," I say. There is no need to be proud of myself for recognizing it, but I am.
The catalyst that pushes Marcelo onto a path that's illogical, unscheduled, and full of uncertainty, is his discovery of a photograph of a young girl who has been horribly disfigured in a car accident. His father's firm is representing the defendant, a wealthy manufacturing firm responsible for the shattered windshield that hurt the girl, and the law firm's biggest client. In some way, this picture pulls together for Marcelo his lifelong fascination with religion and the reality of suffering in the world, and he is moved to action.
Why does the picture of the girl unsettle me so much? . . I have been around kids that suffer ... It's like I have walked among them without noticing the pain that must exist beneath their skin. Now I notice the girl in the picture and I feel as if I were responsible for her pain.
As a child, Marcelo had a unusual ability to hear what he calls his IM, "internal music," the feelings aroused by beautiful sounds without actually hearing them. As Marcelo struggles with his choices, his growing ability for empathy and passion for justice, his IM fades. It is replaced by feelings aroused by life in the real world, and as Jasmine tells him, he'll know the right choices the way she knows how to compose at the piano. "The right note sounds right and the wrong note sounds wrong."

There's so much to like about this novel, not least that the Sandovals are a Mexican-American family starring in a book that is not about being the struggles of being Hispanic. Remember how exciting it was that the Spy Kids movies had all Hispanic stars?

Over the years we have had several teens with Asperger's at Paideia. From Marcelo, I have learned about the "pervasive special interest" that is a hallmark of Aspergers, be it religious philosophy, political issues, or baseball. I understand how our students have learned and benefited from the years of training that they've had. We talk a lot here about reading as a window into different worlds. Read this book, and see a different world.

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