Imaginary Friend, by Stephen Chbosky***

It was the best of books; it was the worst of books. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Grand Central Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Chbosky met fame twenty years ago with The Perks of Becoming a Wallflower. He takes a bold step—and I would still argue, a good one—in switching genres with Imaginary Friend. The whole thing is written in accessible language and mostly short, simple sentences with the overall effect of the world’s creepiest bedtime story. At first I wasn’t sure I was down for 720 pages of simple sentences, but he makes it work. I like the horror of it, and I like the voice too. And so when I saw the mixed reviews, I was preparing my heated defense of this work before I was even halfway in. And halfway, sadly, it where the thing begins to weaken.

The premise is that seven year old Christopher is learning disabled, but his mother urges him to keep trying. Nothing much works until the day he is lost in The Mission Street Woods. He is called by a friendly face in the clouds; once he is there, he is incapacitated and held for six days. When it’s over, The Nice Man leads him out. He goes home; the perpetrator is never identified because Christopher recalls none of the six days nor who took him. But suddenly he is the world’s cleverest kid. His grades rise, and he graduates from the special classroom. Later in the story, he is called again to build the tree house to end all tree houses; he must do it furtively at night, because he is no longer allowed in those woods, and naturally that’s where the project unfolds.

This aspect of it is very cleverly conceived and executed. Christopher does all manner of things that no seven year old child, however advanced intellectually, would be able to do but it is plain to us that this is part of the supernatural effect that is part and parcel of The Nice Man and that face in the clouds. Likewise, there are many areas where he infers adult meanings and feelings, but we know that these are also supernaturally bestowed. Meanwhile, he is in most ways the way one would expect a child his age to be. As his friends—the twins and Special Ed—are drawn into the project, they too become capable students with unusual talents. But as to the tree house, that’s a big damn secret. Parents and the public are not in the loop for a long, long time.

As the story unfolds we have numerous subplots and several characters that have significant roles here. They are largely bound together by the children’s school, although we also have the sheriff and a handful of people from the nursing home where Christopher’s mother, Kate works. I have no difficulty keeping up with this large cast of characters, and Chbosky deserves kudos for creating so many distinct characters that stay consistent throughout the story. We see the ways that people become warped, often by the disappointments that life has meted out, and sometimes by mistaken goals, particularly where the children are concerned. I liked this a good deal too. We see a great deal of kickass figurative language, although I would have preferred to see a lighter hand with regard to the repetition. At first when the song “Blue Moon” is used, it gives me chills, but by the end of the story, whenever music enters a scene I find myself grumbling, “Oh let me guess. I bet I know what song is playing.” (The MAD Magazine of the 1970s would have had a field day with this book.)

A number of other reviewers have suggested that the second half of the story could do with some serious editing down, and I echo their concern. It would be stronger if it were tighter. But there are two other more serious concerns that dropped my rating from four stars to three. They have to do with mixed genre, and with Chbosky’s depiction of women and girls.

It is a brave thing to combine horror and literary fiction, but there is such a thing as trying too hard. The last twenty-five or thirty percent of this story becomes tortuous, confusing and overlong with the heavy use of allegory along religious lines. There are multiple places where the plot just doesn’t make sense at all, but because the author is determined to provide us with a virgin birth, stigmata in multiple characters (what?), sacrifice and redemption and yada yada yada, what has been a good horror story becomes a little ridiculous and a lot pretentious. It’s a crying shame. Had the author let the horror story be a horror story, or had he been satisfied with a more subtle level of allegory rather than the screaming-red-flags variety that is shoehorned in here, this would have been a much better book.

The other aspect , the one that made my feminist heart simmer is the way that women are depicted here. We have several important female characters, and none of them is developed in even the tiniest way beyond their relationship to men and their capacity to be nurturers. Our greatest female hero is Kate, mother of Christopher, and I have not seen as two-dimensional a character in many a year. The only thing that matters is her child. The only. The only. Gag me with a stick, already.  And had the author been content to have a horror story that is just a horror story I would cut him a little slack, because most horror stories do not have brilliantly developed characters. Even so it’s ham-handed, but I might have been tempted to call this a 3.5 star read and round it upward. But this is the most reactionary treatment of women—the girlfriend that feels filthy because she rendered oral sex; the women coming unstuck because of husbandly inattention; the stereotypical mean-old-broad at the nursing home—that I have seen in decades. It’s appalling, and it bothers me that other reviewers haven’t mentioned this at all. What the hell, guys?  And with literary fiction, a responsibility for nuance and character development is conferred in a way that horror novels do not require.

In other words, don’t talk the talk unless you’re gonna walk the walk.

Should you buy this book? Probably not, unless your pockets are deep and you have a good deal of free time. For the curious, I recommend getting it cheap or free. But if you are going to read it, read it critically, and don’t hand it off to your middle-schooler until you have read it yourself.