Marcelo in the Real World (by Francisco X. Stork)

30 01 2012

Marcelo in the Real World is one of those novels that will appeal to a broad audience, from the more accidental reader to the most critical of voices. It definitely has a few perks that will attract the critical masses, almost in true Academy Award tradition: a protagonist with a slightly skewed point of view (cf. Rain Man), a bit of a (legal) mystery, a dash of sexual attraction. It is also one of those books that, because of its slightly different protagonist (who’s at the same time the narrator) will undoubtedly be likened to another YA book with more or less the same theme, namely Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which also combined the unreliable narrator POV (due to the protagonist’s Asperger Syndrome) with mystery.

That said, there are obvious differences between the two. For one Marcelo insists that he does not exactly suffer from Asperger’s, though society’s need to categorize would probably label him as such. He only has a problem with change and a lack of structure. Second, Marcelo is a great deal older than Christopher in Haddon’s novel (which coincidentally also appealed to a Young Adult and Adult readership, and was marketed as such, hence the 2 different covers), and has actually had the opportunity to adapt to his surroundings, even though these have always been very sheltered and accommodating.  Marcelo has, in fact, been attending Paterson for quite a number of years, a school for disabled children, which also gives lessons in socialization: how to function properly in a society that usually doesn’t cater for the disabled, physically or mentally handicapped, or basically the slightly different ones.

It is exactly this sheltered existence that Marcelo’s father Arturo objects to, and he feels that Marcelo needs to challenge himself, something which will not happen if he stays at Paterson to finish his school. So Arturo makes a deal with Marcelo: if he works at Arturo’s law firm for the summer and successfully fulfils the tasks and duties expected of him, he will have the choice to either finish his last year at Paterson (Marcelo’s choice) or go to ‘normal’ public school (Arturo’s choice).

At the firm Marcelo first has to work with Arturo’s very young secretary, Jasmine, but soon Wendell – the son of Arturo’s partner at the law firm – claims him into doing his ‘dirty’ work. In this case, the dirty work entails getting into Jasmine’s pants. Marcelo should help him do that, because if not, Wendell will make sure that Marcelo fails his father’s challenge… tit for tat… Mixed in with Marcelo’s first encounter with the ‘real world’ is the mystery surrounding a photograph of a girl with a deformed face that Marcelo finds in a box. The legal world really isn’t  presented as the fairest of worlds: mainly a world of deceit, and a complete you scratch my back and I scratch yours type of attitude.

At the heart of the novel, though is Marcelo and his view on the ‘real world’. While Marcelo tries to discover who the girl in the picture is, and what happened to her, and how his father’s law firm is involved, he needs to figure out himself most of all. What do his strange feelings with regards to Jasmine mean? What does friendship mean? Is his relationship with Wendell based on a true bond of friendship or is it based on lies and hypocrisy? What about his ‘special interest’ (something all children at Paterson have, in Marcelo’s case, this is God)? What about the relationship he has with his parents? Will Marcelo learn something in the real world? Will he prefer to stay at the sheltered community of Paterson after this experience, or will he decide to challenge himself and stay in the ‘real world’?

This is great set-up for some serious self-discovery but at the same time, this search didn’t feel completely convincing. Marcelo, for instance, though he is definitely a little bit ‘different’ from other people – but then again, who isn’t? – does not really seem to struggle a lot in the real world. Is this because of the unreliable narrator that he is and that he leaves out important elements? For example, the legal mystery moves on with a surprising ease. At one point Marcelo finds a picture of a girl and 10 pages further they have already figured out who it is and how to get to her…  Either this is an intentional thing (which would be believable because of Marcelo’s point of view), or it actually shows the holes in the construction of this book. Also most of the characters are drawn a bit too stereotypical and fall in the good or bad category, with very little shades of grey in between, and this despite Marcelo’s struggle to figure out what people mean exactly.

If nothing else, Marcelo in the Real World is a decent novel. As I said in the beginning, it will appeal to a very broad audience. This is not a negative point, of course, but I can’t feel much specialness about it, either, which was definitely the case with Mark Haddon’s A Curious Incident in the Night-time. Despite Marcelo’s special point of view, the feeling which prevailed most when reading this novel was a kind of ‘business as usual’ feeling… It’s meticulously done, but it lacks somewhat in the heart and subtlety department.

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7 05 2012
The Last Summer of the Death Warriors (by Francisco X. Stork) « Ringo the Cat's Blog

[…] novel to the highly acclaimed Marcelo in the Real World, which had left the cat with an only so-so feeling. In this novel, however, Stork does deliver where Marcelo fell a little bit short. This time around […]

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