The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky, was a troublesome book for me. And I choose the word “troublesome” carefully. By the end of the book, I was completely caught up in the story and in the life of the main character, Charlie, and even after I had turned over the last page and closed the book, I sat there for awhile thinking back over not only the characters and events in the story, but over my own life as well, and the characters populating my story. Books that generate this bittersweet nostalgic feeling are sublime and rare, and I am very thankful that a friend suggested I read the book, even though I arrived at it too old for optimal impact, I’m sure.
What I didn’t like so much was the format of the book. The story is related via a one-sided, school-year-long series of letters from main character, Charlie, to an almost total stranger (whom we never meet). Charlie is fifteen when the book starts, very smart, a good writer… and a total passenger in life. I find that epistolary novels put an extra layer of distance between the reader and the characters, and so the author’s choice for such a style trades off some immediacy for… for what? I dunno, maybe just the novelty of form? Or perhaps, it’s for an added realism—some might say a “meta-realism;” I’m thinking here that maybe the author could want to preempt a reader from thinking: Why is this fifteen year old kid writing this book? He doesn’t seem the introspective type that would be writing such a detailed diary. And he’s too young for a book deal…
I also found that I could not completely buy Charlie’s fifteen-year-old voice of innocence. It became cloyingly twee at times, especially in the first half of the book. This is a difficult thing to critique, because it’s a tone thing, and about as subtle as the sound of a leaf falling. It is difficult to point to one sentence as being wrong; nevertheless, there was something that irked me in the totality. Perhaps it’s a situation of summing subtleties: as if all the leaves in a forest fell to the ground in the same instance. You notice such things when the scale is large enough. The story is not exactly off key, it just suffers from a tilted timbre. At least in the first half. I think Chbosky allows Charlie to become a slightly more articulate and less wide-eyed cutesy as the book continues, and this slight, subtle re-coloration of the character is just enough to subtract some of the artificial sweetener from Charlie’s observations about the world. Of course, I also could have just gotten used to it.
Charlie is like a passive-aggressive Holden Caulfield. He spends a lot of time critiquing society, but then shrugs his shoulders Will Rogers style and says, paraphrasing here: “Oh well, I’m just I kid. Guess I don’t understand the wise ways of adults yet.” Whereas as Holden is blistering in his cursing denunciations of society as “phony,” Charlie comes off as judgmental without being fully denunciatory— and when Charlie uses a swear word, he apologizes for it. Which reminds me, Charlie is also painfully—though we are to believe, fully naturally and unselfconsciously— appropriate in all of his opinions.
The one area where Charlie does not think absolutely politically saintly is drugs. In fact, this is the part of the book I understand the least, from an author’s perspective. This book gives every indication of wanting to be the go-to book for high school reading lists when the teacher wants to offer an updated Catcher In The Rye style story that describes a world kids can relate to and focuses on the trials and tribulations of adolescence and that also happens to serve as a good example of the epistolary novel. I mean, this is guaranteed reading list fodder here. And yes, I realize that drugs are a huge, huge part of teenage life, but Chbosky seems to go out of his way to romanticize drug use: Cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana— even LSD (prescription drugs are also used by the main character, but not in a romanticized way). This is a touchy, dangerous, complex area that may not have a better answer if you’re an author trying to keep it real about the teenaged lifestyle. Nevertheless, I was still perplexed by the way drugs were portrayed in an otherwise grindingly politically correct book tailor-made for the high school reading curriculum.
One other thing that made this book troublesome to me was that I could not help but be aware of how the author seemed to be running down a checklist of teenager problems. You may want to stop reading here, because I’m about to list, in a general and fractionally ***SPOILER*** fashion, some of the teenage problems that are checked-off in the book: teen sex, teen pregnancy, teen abortion, teen suicide, date rape, physical abuse, sexual abuse, cheating boyfriends, homosexuality, family weirdness, death of a loved one, teen smoking, teen drinking, teen marijuana use… I think you get the picture. It’s almost paint-by-numbers.
One last thing… This book has several very cinematic moments in it, which makes me wonder if it was ever written at one point as a screenplay. Or perhaps the author has been to film or drama school, or just plain thinks cinematically. I, myself, am such a movie lover and have seen so many, that I think I often approach my own fiction works in a way that is heavily influenced by film. One visual in the book that strikes me as especially cinematic is a scene wherein the three main characters repeat a certain car ride, but now with the main character in a different frame of mind, thus changing the dynamic of the ride. This is story-telling through pictures and is visually poetic in its repetition and is totally something a director would think to do, but not often how authors think.