After my short feature on The Rough-Face Girl, I’m back and I’ve got a thicker book to share with you today. Published in 2009, Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork is a young adult novel that I have discovered recently. It’s a perfect addition to our book theme, Rainbow Colors of Diversity: Voices of the Silenced, a good reading material for autism awareness, and a celebration of Latin American literature.
The book is 312 pages long and has a beautiful cover that uses a black-white-blue-and-red color combination in text and design. It was noted in the summary that Marcelo in the Real World is “reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in the intensity and purity of its voice.” It has been cited for numerous awards and recognition such as the Schneider Family Book Award (2010), Once Upon a World Children’s Book Award for Young Adults (2010), New York Times Notable Children’s Book (2009), and NPR.org Best Young Adult Fiction for 2009, just to name a few.
A World of Internal Music and Halflinger Ponies
“Ever since I was six years old, maybe before that but that’s the first time I remember it, I could hear music, only it wasn’t really hearing and it wasn’t really music, it was like it… Imagine just feeling the emotions caused by the music without the sound of the music, but you know the music is there…”
— Marcelo in the Real World, pp. 254-255
Marcelo Sandoval is a seventeen-year-old boy with a cognitive disorder that is similar to but not quite like Asperger’s syndrome. No doctor has been able to identify it. Marcelo likes to address himself and the people around him in the third person, has a pervasive interest in religion, and loves Halflinger ponies. I should also mention that he is tall, handsome, and has a well-toned body (because he likes to lift weights).
In the first few chapters of the book, Francisco X. Stork introduces readers to the peaceful and protected world of Marcelo. Marcelo’s father, Arturo, wanted him to transfer from Paterson to a public school, and he was also offered a summer job at the law firm where Arturo works. Needless to say, Marcelo was reluctant to accept his father’s proposition. He had planned his life around Paterson despite the many things he knew he still had difficulties with.
“I cannot walk by myself in a strange place without a map. I get flustered when I am asked to do more than one thing at once. People say words I do not understand or their facial expressions are incomprehensible. They expect responses from me I cannot give.” (Marcelo)
“Maybe the reason you can’t do those things is not because you are not able to, but because you have not been in an environment that challenges you to do them.” (Arturo)
— p. 23
The discussion that Marcelo and Arturo had about Paterson and the summer job at the law firm was probably the only “heart-to-heart” conversation that they had in the book. Arturo cared about Marcelo but their daily interaction made me feel like Arturo was loving his son from a distance. Was Arturo’s decision to send Marcelo to another school an act of genuine concern or was it fueled by selfish reasons?
Jungle Fever in the Corporate World
“It saddens me that you will find out soon enough
the different ways that we have devised to hurt each other.”
— Rabbi Heschel, p. 120
The story became more interesting when Marcelo accepted his father’s offer to work at the law firm for the summer. Under the supervision of a girl named Jasmine, Marcelo was assigned to work in the mailroom. I’d say it was brave of Marcelo to leave his comfort zone and attempt to survive in the real world.
“A law firm is not like Paterson. In a law firm, the environment is competitive… People will be testing you. They’ll want to see if you can do the job or if you’re just there because you’re my son and I’m the boss… Competition is an attitude. It’s a way of understanding that the motive behind someone’s action may be self-interest, and reacting to that accordingly.”
— Arturo, pp. 43-44
Working for the law firm was certainly challenging for Marcelo. It wasn’t anything like Paterson where he could be himself and not worry about playing by the rules. He was “too soft” to be in a jungle like Sandoval and Holmes, too soft to go for the jugular as Holmes’s secretary Juliet told him.
As the story progressed, I realized that Arturo’s reasons for making Marcelo work at the firm no longer mattered. Marcelo embraced the corporate attitude but he wasn’t there to compete with anybody. Marcelo’s interactions with the different people at the firm helped him learn things about himself and the real world that he would not have learned in Paterson.
People made fun of Marcelo but he was oblivious to it for the most part. I found myself sympathizing with him when he learned from Jasmine that Arturo used the words “cognitive disorder” to describe his condition. If anything, what Arturo said hurt him more than the subtle insults and jeers that people at the firm had told him.
It surprises me to hear Arturo refer to me that way. He has always insisted that there’s nothing wrong with me. The term “cognitive disorder” implies that there is something wrong with the way I think or with the way I perceive reality. I perceive reality just fine. Sometimes I perceive more of reality than others… This is a topic of conversation that I am knowledgeable about but not particularly fond of. Explanations about my condition are based on the assumption that there is something wrong with the way I am, and at Paterson I have learned through the years that it is not helpful to view myself or the other kids there that way. I view myself as different in the way I think, talk, and act, but not as someone who is abnormal or ill…
— Marcelo, pp. 54-55
It’s sad that anyone who acts differently from a “normal” person is deemed abnormal by society. It’s sadder that people like Marcelo always had to “dissect” and explain themselves to others.
Faint Voices and Gentle Stirrings of the Soul
“Every time you decide, there is a loss, no matter how you decide. It’s always a question of what you cannot afford to lose. I’m not the one playing the piano here. You’re the one that needs to decide what the next one will be. The right note sounds right and the wrong note sounds wrong.”
— Jasmine, pp. 168-169
It wasn’t until Marcelo and Jasmine’s weekend trip to Vermont that this book reminded me of the movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The book and the movie have no similarities whatsoever, except the parts where both protagonists decided to go on a trip. Marcelo went to Vermont to take his mind off the crazy events that happened to the firm shortly before the trip, whereas Walter Mitty traveled to different parts of the world in search of an elusive photographer. Both men, however, came back changed. I suppose that’s what traveling does to people sometimes. There’s a bit of soul-searching and self-realization that take place when you leave the confines of your familiar “world.”
There’s more to Marcelo in the Real World than a young man with an autism-like disorder who worked at a law firm over the summer. While the events in the story proved Marcelo to be another silenced voice in society, the story also showed how Marcelo transformed into someone else’s voice, along with a few other people who acted as vessels so that faint voices could be heard. For teaching ideas, Vamos a Leer provides a comprehensive discussion guide of the book.
Marcelo in the Real World has a charm of its own. Through this book, we are reminded of the ponies and savages that exist in this world. It doesn’t matter where you are because the world will continue to poke you in the chest with its index finger, a realization that occurred to Marcelo while riding a cab one night. Marcelo in the Real World moved me because it’s not everyday that I encounter a character like Marcelo Sandoval whose “illness” (as society called it) is what makes him beautiful.