This novel, published in the 1967, has an old-fashioned flat, rather factual style that reminds me of the work of John Wyndham (Day of the Triffids, The Chrysalids) but the style belies the beautiful control Lurie has over the story—she skewers her characters and themes with acute irony.
The imaginary friends of the title are beings from another planet that have chosen a group of small-town citizens to reveal themselves to. Verena, the otherwise ordinary, although attractive, niece of a couple who are in contact with the beings becomes the conduit of their messages, which are revealed through automatic writing.
On to this scene comes our narrator, Roger Zimmern, a junior academic in sociology, and Tom McMann, his more successful professor. McMann has been looking out for a cult group on which to conduct field experiments into what would happen to such a group if their beliefs are questioned by external events.
While this scenario has the potential for a lot of high drama—individual comes under influence of venal cult leader, kidnapping, de-programing, or an SF take on extra-terrestrials—Lurie’s portrayal is of much more prosaic nature. The people involved in the group are everyday types: a uni student or two, a spinster, middle-aged couples etc. Verena, while ethereal, is pretty much the girl next door. The cult itself, who call themselves the Truth Seekers, emphasises meditation and purity of thought, something any health magazine might recommend today (there is some fun to be had when the beings specify the group should not wear lowly close-to-the-earth fibres and must wear mineral/synthetic clothes instead). And at the end of their meetings, after contacting the beings, there is always a spread of awful American finger food that seems to inevitably involve Jello.
Our narrator Roger, the junior academic new to field work, is asked by McMann to infiltrate the group and this he does very easily merely by knocking on the door of Verena’s aunt’s house and saying he’s interested—it’s like he’s asking to join their bridge evening. A few weeks later McMann also shows up and charms the group. Lurie very amusingly portrays the researchers’ non-directive responses to the Seekers—they’re not supposes to affect the group but just reflect it
… [McMann] was seeking us in his dream life [says Verena], which is now made manifest. Isn’t that so?’
‘Yes, That’s so.’ McMann assented to this truth as blandly as to the platitudes he had agreed with before.
‘… I seem to see a shadow over your leg, your left leg. Have you had an injury there?’
‘Yeah. My knee. I hurt it in the war.’
… I had thought McMann too prominent for an observer [Roger thinks], but no longer. Non-directively, following Verena’s line, he had lowered his voice, retired into the background. I knew by the way he watched everything that went on, sometimes with a brief nod or almost imperceptible smile, the he was satisfied with the Seekers—and felt as pleased as if I had invented them for him myself.
All the time of their involvement the two academics are taking notes and making assumptions about how the group will evolve.
It doesn’t take long, however, for the uni student to make a few inquiries at his own university and to find out the identities of our infiltrators (who have posed as businessmen). But, rather than feel betrayed, Serena et al. feel flattered at the attention and see the academic interest as support for their ideas.
In the end the novel is not about sensation but about psychology. The story comes to a head when, Heaven’s Gate-like, the invisible beings say they will become manifest at a certain time and date. The group sit in their usual circle in the lounge room with tinfoil under their feet (to assist contact) but when this doesn’t work have to traipse out into the sub-zero cold of the backyard in minimal synthetic clothes to await the visitation.
The tension of the novel is set up in the first paragraph:
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past months thinking about what happened to Tom McMann and me last winter in Sophis: asking myself exactly what it was the Truth Seekers did to us there, and how. Could any group of rural religious cranks really have driven a well-known sociologist out of his mind, and his assistant almost out of the profession.
It is how this scenario comes about that is the satisfying denouement.