Imaginary Friends is unlike Lurie’s other novels in that marriage, adultery, and the continuing war between the sexes, Lurie’s most common themes, give way to other concerns. She does, however, continue to explore academic lives—in this case, an older sociology professor, Thomas McMann, and his younger colleague, Roger Zimmern—and she once again juxtaposes two kinds of culture; the simple, lower-middle-class Truth Seekers with the intellectual, well-bred, and sophisticated sociologists who come to study them. Lurie demonstrates that the rational beliefs and pretensions of intellectuals are often more monstrous than the seemingly lunatic beliefs of the uneducated and that the most revered institutions of American life—colleges and churches, for example—are no more preferable to mystical cults and religious fringe groups, and often have fewer answers.
Lurie’s interest in such things as spiritualism and automatic writing may have come from her friendship with poet James Merrill, whose long narrative poem The Book of Ephraim (1977) recounts twenty years of experience with seances and Ouija boards. The novel is, in fact, dedicated to Merrill and another Ouija board enthusiast, David Jackson. Like them, Lurie takes the supernatural seriously. Verena Roberts, a young Seeker through whom higher beings speak by way of automatic writing, often gives messages that are difficult to explain rationally, although McMann, the senior sociologist, is always ready with a glib explanation.
At one point, for example, Zimmem (through Verena) receives a message from MAKES FAVOUR, SEE RIGHT ILLS, and O MAKE A VEIL HIGH, obvious puns on classic sociologists Max Weber, C. Wright Mills, and Nicolo Machiavelli, about whom Zimmern was thinking at the time. Moreover, Verena seems to have extrasensory perception when it comes to such things as finding lost car keys: Zimmern’s, she tells him correctly, had slipped down behind some furniture and were lying next to the wall. To Lurie, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in sociology.
A more literary influence on Imaginary Friends is Henry James’s novel The...
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