After hearing this novel recommended by a friend, I picked it up on a whim. I haven’t read a lot of contemporary literature recently, and given the popularity – and controversy – of this one, I figured it was worth a look.
Essentially, “Perks” is a modern coming-of-age novel written as a series of first-person letters. The eponymous “wallflower,” Charlie, is a semi-reliable narrator who demonstrates some characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome. The story charts Charlie’s life and relationships over the course of one year. Many of the tropes employed by author Stephen Chbosky will be familiar to readers: identity crisis, the struggle to fit in, first sexual awakening, etc. Drawing on the teen-angst tradition pioneered by Salinger and others, it endeavors to capture the totality of the contemporary adolescent experience.
It is not, however, a throwaway piece of YA-lit drivel.
“Perks” succeeds primarily on the strength of its writing. Chbosky brilliantly captures the perspective of an introverted, socially challenged individual who observes life rather than participating in it. This may seem relatively insignificant – given the glut of “emo” novels on the market today – but Chbosky’s story strikes an intricate balance between sadness and joy. The novel is by turns hilarious, incisive, and heartbreaking – a feat difficult to accomplish in any book, but a rarity indeed in the realm of young adult fiction.
Particularly notable is the stark sense of detachment that pervades the book. Charlie’s difficulty understanding emotions evokes another critically acclaimed novel, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Given this restricted narrative viewpoint, the reader is forced to extrapolate beyond the text to understand what’s actually occurring. This element, more than perhaps any other, will be challenging to incorporate into the forthcoming film adaptation.
As evidenced by the multiple challenges raised against it (the book occupies the #3 position on the American Library Association’s list of most frequently banned books), “Perks” deals with controversial subject matter. At varying times, drug and alcohol abuse, date rape, abortion, and homosexuality factor into the plot. Generally, however, these themes are handled in a mature manner: the content may be realistic – and sometimes graphic – but never becomes sordid or titillating.
The sense of narrative detachment, interestingly, renders these elements less objectionable than in other works. Immoral actions are described matter-of-factly, with an attitude of clinical pragmatism. The novel refrains from explicitly endorsing or condemning various behaviors – but does not shy from depicting the consequences of bad decisions. Moral judgments are left up to the reader, which may be a strength or a weakness depending on one’s perspective. It’s fair to say, though, that the novel evokes no desire to engage in teenage vices.
Also praiseworthy is the surprisingly positive portrayal of family life. While Charlie’s family is sometimes fractured by conflict, his parents generally demonstrate love for their children and one another. Considering how much young adult literature deals with “emotionally scarred children coping with divorce,” Chbosky’s depiction feels like a breath of fresh air.
Is it worth reading?
As an intense (and somewhat disquieting) view of the modern teenage experience, “Perks” is an exceptional achievement. It challenges the reader on multiple levels, and simultaneously manifests a unique literary voice. It’s not for everyone – the pervasive “mature themes” will likely be off-putting for some – but it certainly offers a touchstone for serious cultural discussion.
A smartly written, thought-provoking look at modern American teen culture.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky is narrated by Charlie, the titular ‘wallflower’, in a series of letters that he writes to a stranger, beginning the night before he starts his freshman year of high school in 1991. These letters catalogue Charlie’s attempts to “participate”, as he wanders wide eyed through a series of house parties and Rocky Horror Picture Show productions with his new, older friends. Along the way, Chbosky intelligently explores stock YA themes such as mental health, substance abuse and sexuality, whilst simultaneously reminding the reader about how exciting it is to be young and idealistic.
What makes Chbosky’s stream of consciousness style more beautiful than that used in Suicidal Tendencies’ hardcore punk song “Institutionalised”, for example, is the lyrical, philosophical nature of the prose. At one point, Charlie starts going to the mall simply to try and figure out why people go there. He see “Old men sitting alone. Young girls with blue eye shadow and awkward jaws. Little kids who look tired.” “It all felt very unsettling” to him. The writing here is so rhythmic that it’s almost hypnotic. I love the control that Chbosky exercises: he demonstrates Charlie’s deteriorating mental health to the reader simply by having him see sadness wherever he goes. Beyond the writing style, there is still a lot to like about the novel. The cast of characters is diverse. The female characters are numerous and as well developed as their male counterparts. Chbosky’s approach is always unflinching, even when the content is upsetting. Underpinning everything is a desire to acknowledge the complexities in other people, an understanding that nobody does bad stuff because they are innately bad. In this way, although the book is, at times, very upsetting, it is ultimately uplifting and life-affirming.
Maybe I’m just being sentimental, but it is actually difficult for me to find anything that I don’t like about The Perks of Being a Wallflower. My one criticism is that whilst Chbosky does include a gay character, that gay character is male. Humour me, dear reader, allow me one tangential rant. Can anyone think of a single YA book that isn’t explicitly about LGBTQ+ issues, that contains a lesbian character whose sexuality (like Patrick’s) is part of the narrative without being integral to the plot? I can’t. Culturally, we seem quite comfortable with the idea of a slightly effeminate, flamboyant, gay character and I guess I would have liked to see Chbosky be more original in this regard. However this gripe is not as much with Perks as with the YA genre as a whole. I do not expect every book to have an obligatory lesbian extra, but a sprinkling across the lot would be refreshing. On the whole, I think that Chbosky’s discussion of sexuality is excellent and very interesting. For example, Charlie used to kiss boys in the neighbourhood when he was little and is very aware that this concerned his father. Similarly, Charlie’s grandfather doesn’t like to hug family members – especially the boys. The contrast between the older generations’ fear of homosexuality and Charlie’s acceptance of Patrick is indicative of the way that society’s response to homosexuality was changing in the 1990s. It also has a kind of didactic purpose in showing the reader that it’s ok to be gay, which I think is particularly important in YA fiction.
However, I also ought to mention that sexual abuse and suicide feature quite heavily in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and it would therefore be irresponsible of me to recommend it without a trigger warning. Furthermore, it is probably worth pointing out to parents who are inclined to censorship that this book does contain some additional (really quite exciting) drugs/sex/swearing content that would make the text unsuitable for younger readers.
With this in mind though, I cannot recommend The Perks of Being A Wallflower highly enough. In general, literature allows us to live other people’s lives through their stories. We can discover what it is like to be a different gender or age, to live in a different place or time with different values. In this way, reading is a remarkable feat of empathy. But occasionally we find a fictional scenario which in some way matches our own circumstances so profoundly that there is no need for empathy. When I first read The Perks of Being A Wallflower, I was Charlie. Although our backgrounds were in some ways different, I had never, and have never since, read a textual representation of adolescence that matched my own experiences so well. This is the strength of Chbosky’s writing. He crafts Charlie’s voice in a way that defies context. Charlie is inside every lonely teenager and every adult remembers him fondly. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a gift, and to Stephan Chbosky I will always be grateful.
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