Marcelo in the Real World

At the beginning of Marcelo in the Real World, 17-year-old Marcelo Sandoval is leading a life that is safe, contained, and uneventful. He is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, though he does not have Asperger’s, so he attends a special school where he is shielded from the outside world. He enjoys working with horses, and plans to spend his summer—and potentially the rest of his life—taking care of the Haflinger ponies at his school’s stables. His father, however, believing that Marcelo is capable of much more, wants his son to work with him at his law firm: that is, in the “real world.”

The book takes place over the course of Marcelo’s summer in the real world, which ends up being a time of awakening, not only to adult responsibilities, but also to the occasional ugliness of adult relationships. In three months, Marcelo learns more about jealousy, competition, and injustice than he has learned in his entire life. He makes friends—like the fair but no-nonsense Jasmine, who helps him both with his tasks in the firm’s mailroom and in his personal development—and enemies—like the conniving Wendell, the son of Marcelo’s father’s partner, who, believing Marcelo to be slow-witted, attempts to use him in his various schemes—and ultimately learns that the person he must be most reliant on is himself. He discovers what it means to fight for what he believes in, even at the risk of alienating the ones he loves. In short, he learns that the “real world,” though complicated, uncertain, and often very ugly, is a place of rich possibilities and great fulfillment.

This book was beautifully written, so much so that it almost seems a shame to classify it as young adult literature. I believe that adults can appreciate it just as much as teenagers (maybe more), but I fear that few will discover it because of its categorization. The inside flap claims that it is “reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” and I only wish that it had been marketed the same way as that book. Marcelo in the Real World is touching, challenging, and profound: it is a universal story that feels absolutely genuine, both in its characters and its situations. Marcelo Sandoval is the type of narrative who, through his keen observation, his clear voice, and his unwavering kindness, draws readers in and inspires them. He is memorable, and will linger in one’s psyche even after the book is over.

I think many of the unexpected, but perfect, details are really what help Francisco Stork’s book capture the essence of real life. For one, Marcelo, at the beginning of the novel, hears internal music, which, he later clarifies, is actually “the feelings of music without the sound.” This IM, as he calls it, immediately qualifies him as different. Different, that is, but very, very special. This music is an effective marker of Marcelo’s development: early on, he can conjure it at any moment, but later, when he is entrenched in the politics of the law firm, he finds he can no longer hear the music at all. The neat analog of this is that Marcelo discovers his new friend Jasmine is a budding musician, improvising her own melodies on a keyboard in her tiny apartment. And so, in a way, the music returns.

There are many other such examples of Stork’s keen eye for detail, such as Marcelo’s special interest in religion, which has him quoting religious texts at inappropriate times and engaging in deep, philosophical conversations with his good friend, Rabbi Heschel. Then, of course, there is Marcelo’s Mexican heritage, which is important but nicely understated. Stork does a great job of illustrating the unique struggles of being a Mexican-American in a high-powered corporate law environment without letting it dominate the rest of the story. At the end of the day, Marcelo is just Marcelo, as complex and unpredictable as anyone. He is completely believable as a unique human being, which is what makes his story so powerful and enduring.

It seems all-too-rare that a book, or a movie, convincingly portrays the mental processes of someone who is, to steal a line from the excellent Temple Grandin biopic, “different, not less.” I was impressed by Stork’s ability to create a narrator who is in no way a caricature. His treatment of Marcelo is respectful but also realistic: he understands Marcelo’s strengths and his limitations, and he allows him to make choices that are true to his character. If you like this book, I would also recommend catching the movie Adam, starring Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne, which also deals with a high-functioning autistic man trying to navigate the “real” world. (And, if you missed it, Temple Grandin, with Claire Danes.) Such fictional representations, while perhaps not completely accurate, still do a great service to people who are misunderstood merely because they perceive reality differently. As we find in Marcelo, sometimes a different perception of reality simply means that one can perceive it more clearly.

The Catcher in the Rye

I first read The Catcher in the Rye when I was 15 and difficult to impress. Although I liked the novel to some extent, it always ranked, for me, as one of those classics whose popularity—and status—was confounding. Especially when I began to hold it up against comparable books like The Bell Jar (one of my personal favorites, which is sometimes regarded as its female counterpart) I simply could not justify its reputation as the definitive novel of adolescence. The only thing it seemed to have on its side was the fact that it came first. Revisiting it almost a full decade later, I find that my initial judgments may have been a bit harsh. The Catcher in the Rye captures the teenage psyche in a way that I, as a teenager, may have been embarrassed to recognize was convincing. Holden Caulfield’s anxiety over growing up, and his belief that he is the only one feeling the way he does, is no doubt exactly what I (not to mention every other teen) felt at the time I was reading the novel. The very aspects that I was critical of—Holden’s excessive, often misguided angst, his repetitive use of the word “phony,” his inevitable self-centeredness—were things that I was guilty of, in some sense, as well. During this reading, in contrast, I was able to look back fondly on that time of emotional tumult and to appreciate Holden both for his virtues and his flaws. In fact, in spite of his poor vocabulary, predilection for rambling, and general hatred of mankind, I found that Holden Caulfield is actually pretty good literary company.

The Catcher in the Rye begins with Holden promising not to go into any of that “David Copperfield kind of crap” about his birth and childhood, and this colloquial, even crass, introduction serves as a sort of manifesto for the novel as a whole. From its informal language, to its convincingly angst-ridden, unpolished narrator, The Catcher in the Rye feels much more like a popular teen novel than a classic work of literature. Salinger writes in a way that is assured to the point of seeming effortless; Holden’s voice is so clear and steady that we readers may be tricked (as indeed I believe I was at 15) into believing that the novel is slight and uncomplicated. To be sure, the plot is minimal, and all of the characters except for Holden flit in and out of the story with little fanfare. There are tiny episodes that don’t seem to add up to much; really, the only constant is Holden’s absorbing commentary. This is precisely the point: the book is all about Holden and his unique narrative voice. If you can get past his obsession with who is authentic and who is a “phony” (hint: almost everyone, from his cocky roommate to his favorite history teacher, is a phony of some variety), and you can accept that, while well-read, Holden narrates precisely like a 16-year-old and not an articulate adult, then you should be able to appreciate his often shrewd observations.

Holden is both a more sensitive and a sadder character than I remembered. Indeed, the whole book had a more melancholy air, rather than a rebellious one, when I read it this time. Although I remembered the basic plot—that Holden gets expelled from his prep school and must bide his time around New York City before returning home on the expected day for Christmas break—I failed to attach any particular mood to the story. I knew that Holden wandered around a lot, complained a lot, got into a fight with a pimp and accidentally broke a little girl’s record into a hundred pieces, but I think I was under the impression that Holden was supposed to be some untouchable malcontent hero, somehow beyond any emotional response. This time, I found him brimming with emotions far more complex than simply the anger that hovers near the surface. Holden is confused and desperately clinging to the simplicity—and authenticity—of childhood…but he is also, perhaps most significantly, still recovering from the death of his younger brother Allie only a few years prior. He is sad, directionless, and lonely, and his longing for real human connections is really what drives the plot. Indeed all of the episodes I had thought were meant to illustrate Holden’s aloofness now speak to me of his loneliness. His freedom is not freedom at all, but a growing isolation that could destroy him.

It is easy to dismiss The Catcher in the Rye when so many books have been inspired by it, and have translated its essence into more contemporary stories. Certainly, Holden can sound silly to the modern teenager’s ear, since his once-current slang is now hopelessly dated. Even his feelings are a little too quaint; his shock over seeing profanity scratched into the wall of his old elementary school is, sadly, a bit hard to believe nowadays. Still, Holden is a character who can connect with readers even today, if only they will listen. He speaks earnestly, without a filter, and he wants the same things any teenager wants. His story is moving because it is so relatable; though none of us will know Holden’s New York, or, one hopes, his family tragedy, we still understand (even those of us who are no longer teenagers) his desire to be a part of something without compromising his ideals. Though we are witnessing Holden’s fall, we are still optimistic that he will survive. For, in the end, adolescence is simply something to be endured. Holden Caulfield’s wintry purgatory, in some ways, represents adolescence as a whole: it is a time of confusion, isolation, and wandering that one can only emerge from by choosing where to go.

%d bloggers like this: