Francisco X. Stork (and how much do I love that name, let me tell you) writes about Latino teens on their voyages to adulthood and coming of age, bringing an important voice to young adult fiction, which is so often uniformly white. His 2009 novel Marcelo in the Real World follows the journey of a teen with an unspecified cognitive impairment most often textually described as “Asperger’s” or “Asperger’s-like,” suggesting that he lies somewhere on the autism spectrum. The narrative captures Marcelo at the teetering point behind childhood and adulthood as his father pushes him to ‘enter the real world’ while his mother expresses hesitations, and Marcelo wrestles with his own private feelings about the world and the people in it.
(Note: this review discusses the ending of the novel.)
While we’re never told exactly what Marcelo’s impairment is, and it’s implied that no one can quite figure it out, it shares many features that will be familiar to those of us on the autism spectrum. Intriguingly, Marcelo himself seems reluctant to identify with that label, arguing that he doesn’t experience impairment as severe as that of some of the children at the school for disabled learners he attends. In this framing, he’s not disdainful (as seen in the “functioning wars” witnessed in some corners of autistic culture), but attempting to be respectful—he talks essentially about not wanting to appropriate the experience of people who may essentially never be able to front in the way he does, to perform in the “normal” world.
Yet, he also questions the value of normative versions of society and wonders whether this so-called real world is really such an important thing to be integrated into:
The term “cognitive disorder” implies that there is something wrong with the way I think or the way I perceive reality. I perceive reality just fine. Sometimes I perceive more of reality than others.
Marcelo is easily overwhelmed by stimuli, sharply observant when others are not, but still troubled when it comes to interpersonal interactions. He prefers his communications to be direct, clear, and unmistakable, even as he probes complex thoughts about religion and the nature of consciousness. And, like many people with cognitive impairments, he’s accustomed to being treated like an object by the people around him; he’s well aware of what the pauses in speech when people are talking about him mean, he’s fully conscious of the fact that people think he’s an “idiot” and a “retard” because he perceives the world differently and appears to move more slowly than the people around him.
Marcelo is fortunate in that he has access to an excellent school that helps him develop coping skills and tools for interacting with the world, while still maintaining his independence and fundamental sense of consciousness. All too often, it seems like those of us on the spectrum are expected to mold ourselves to society; we must be taught how to behave and look like “normal” people and suppress behaviours that are natural and comfortable to us. Marcelo’s school, on the other hand, provides people with an opportunity to be themselves.
Yet, his father insists on making him come to work for his law firm during the summer, and that plunges Marcelo into a world where his plans and routines are disrupted, he can’t work with the Halflinger ponies he loves, and he’ll face some unexpected ethical quandaries. They’ll test his understanding of normality and humanity, while also forcing him to make some very difficult choices.
One of the things that I love about Marcelo in the Real World is that it’s narrated intimately from the first-person perspective of an autistic person, rather than being about autism. Marcelo has a voice here, and it’s clear and loud; we get to read both about what he is thinking internally, and how he is interacting with the people around him. His thought processes and attempts to grapple with concepts that are slippery and strange are laid out for examination and discussion, which is a departure from the way life on the autism spectrum is often depicted.
Instead of being told what autism is about and how autistic people think, readers are living it. And when those readers are autistic, they’re finally reading themselves as heroes and encountering a character whom they can deeply associate with, which is a huge thing. Especially in the years of coming of age and trying to navigate a society where everything is shifting and people are bound up in double entendres and attempts to make themselves seem wiser than they are and positioning themselves for the next big thing, being autistic can be very isolating. Reading that your experiences are not freakish and abnormal can be empowering.
What Marcelo in the Real World represents, in a lot of ways, is similar to my own experience, and I know I’m not the only one. Though I experience things he does not (and vice versa), I understand his world on a visceral level. I know the feeling of hearing words but not understanding what they mean and how they’re being used in this context and feeling lost and isolated. I understand the sensation of feeling like my head is exploding because I’m being asked to process too much. And I’m familiar with being around people who make assumptions about me and think I won’t understand what they’re assuming, and what the implications are.
Stork has managed to capture an authentic depiction of one facet of the autistic experience, though it’s notable, of course, that he chose an experience of someone at a point on the spectrum that allows for a highly successful degree of fronting and performance. Most books about the autism spectrum involve people at this point, with very few touching on, for example, nonverbal autistic people, or autistic people who can’t front well, let alone people who choose (and are able to choose) to reject performances of neurotypicality.
Thus, I can’t say that they wholly humanise autism, because they don’t depict the full diversity of the spectrum, and they also humanise only a very specific form of autism, and that’s the one closest to and perhaps most understandable to the neurotypical reader. Is it really a bold blow for the autistic community when all the narratives about autism are only about one kind of autism, and it’s one neurotypical readers can easily connect with?
Shouldn’t neurotypical readers also be made to feel uncomfortable with autism stories? Confronted with their own attitudes and prejudices about autism? Marcelo in the Real World pushes at that, challenging the reader to ask why Marcelo is treated like a child, but it could be a much more radical and aggressive book if it wanted to be.
Especially since, in the end, this is a book all about how Marcelo was able to “overcome” and enter the real world. It’s notable that his life goals remain consistent throughout the book—at the start, he says he wants to train Halflinger horses and work as a hippotherapist, and he says that again at the end—but there’s also a hint of an idea that Marcelo’s father Arturo made the right choice by “forcing him out of his comfort zone” and giving Marcelo what amounted to an ultimatum instead of an actual choice when it came to working with the ponies for the summer, or working in the law firm.
Thus, readers were ultimately reminded at the end that “good” autistic people are able to succeed and perform in a neurotypical world, and that those who do not just aren’t trying hard enough, or aren’t whole people. And that’s a troubling note to leave readers on in a text that is otherwise a very striking depiction of the autistic experience. I would have loved to see the very notion of “reality” more directly challenged and confronted in this text, with a larger conversation about the reification of cognitive functioning in society that marginalises some and praises others.