As mentioned in my most recent What I’m Reading Wednesday post, my decision to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower was something of a break from tradition. Having failed to spend the requisite few months on my To Read list, Perks was also described to me as a ‘coming of age’ story – something of which I normally steer well clear. My main memory of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is, in fact, complete frustration with the massive levels of teenage angst. Perhaps a result of the fact that I was born middle-aged (but let’s not explore that theme now). So my decision to delve into Stephen Chbosky’s first (and extremely popular) novel was a strange deviation for me – a deviation that owes itself entirely to a recommendation from my brother. While my bro has never been much of a one for literature (unless we are allowed to count the monthly editions of Rugby World), The Perks of Being a Wallflower is his favourite book of all time. When he asked me to give it a read and write up a review, I obviously could not say no (it’s the puppy eyes), but was understandably concerned that an unfavourable review would result in destruction of our sibling understanding. Fortunately, I absolutely adored this book (no bribery involved, I promise).
“I guess what I’m saying is that this all feels very familiar. But it’s not mine to be familiar about. I just know that another kid has felt this. This one time when it’s peaceful outside, and you’re seeing things move, and you don’t want to, and everyone is asleep. And all the books you’ve read have been read by other people. And all the songs you’ve loved have been heard by other people. And that girl that’s pretty to you is pretty to other people. And you know that if you looked at these facts when you were happy, you would feel great because you are describing ‘unity’.”
The Perks of Being a Wallflower follows the story of Charlie, a Freshman and the ultimate outsider. Made up of a series of letters, all addressed to an unidentified ‘Friend’, Perks opens with Charlie responding to the suicide of Michael, his only school friend. Charlie writes these letters in order to understand his life and the reasons why he cannot seem to find his place:
“I just need to know that someone out there listens and understands and doesn’t try to sleep with people even if they could have. I need to know that these people exist. I think you of all people would understand that because I think you of all people are alive and appreciate what that means. At least I hope you do because other people look to you for strength and friendship and it’s that simple. At least that’s what I’ve heard. So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.”
It becomes apparent within the first few pages that Charlie is different. Highly intelligent and extremely introspective, the world within which he moves is a dichotomy of confusion and logical consequence. His keen observation of those around him allows Charlie to demonstrate a poignant understanding of their emotional state and motivations, but his social interactions are always troubling and constantly awkward. On the instructions of his favourite teacher, Bill, Charlie sets out to “participate” in life, leading him to form a friendship with the step-siblings, Sam and Patrick. Through them, Charlie begins to truly experience his existence, embarking on first dates, a dip into drug-taking, and the world of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. While Charlie continues to battle with confusion and social-awkwardness, as well as the trials and tribulations that inevitably come with family life, his new friendships give him an opportunity to step outside of himself. Following him over the course of his Freshman year, Perks is a moving and agonising journey into the rawness of living.
The brilliance of this book is owed entirely to its exquisite first-person voice. I maintain that this is the most troubling narrative style for an author to get right, yet Chbosky succeeds in a manner that renders this book entirely unique. Not only does he manage to relate the experiences and observations of a teenager without falling into parody or distortion, he also successfully writes Charlie’s character (and obvious psychological difficulties) without alienating the reader. While reading Perks, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the fantastically affecting depiction of autism that readers receive through Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. While it is at no point established that Charlie is on the autistic spectrum, his characteristics and introspections clearly allude to a difference in the manner that Charlie perceives the world around him. Chbosky’s narrative is entirely sensitive to this difference and, avoiding the pitfalls of many similar novels, never descends into caricature.
Charlie is one of the most endearing and vivacious characters I have ever come across – while it is repeatedly asserted by others in the novel that he fails to truly live life, his enormously perceptive observations ensure that Charlie is entirely engaged with what it means to be alive. Describing the moment when his family is gathered at Thanksgiving to watch his brother play with the Penn State football team, Charlie relates:
“There were only two people who weren’t smiling. My grandfather and I. My grandfather was crying. The kind of crying that is quiet and a secret. The kind of crying that only I noticed. I thought about him going into my mom’s room when she was little and hitting my mom and holding up her report card and saying that her bad grades would never happen again. And I think now that maybe he meant my older brother. Or my sister. Or me. That he would make sure that he was the last one to work in a mill. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I don’t know if it’s better to have you kid be happy and not go to college. I don’t know if it’s better to be close with your daughter or make sure that she has a better life than you do. I just don’t know. I was just quiet, and I watched him.”
This book broke my heart. Repeatedly. Not only through that wonderful feeling of complete investment in Charlie’s journey, but because it forced me to confront some of those questions that are so easily avoided. Perks looks at life from the outside and I am sure that we have all, to varying extents, known what it is to be an outsider. While Charlie’s experiences are extreme, his thoughts and observations are so utterly human that I believe every reader will feel a sense of familiarity in what he describes. It may be that you have known what it is to be without friends, what it feels to be divorced from those closest to you, or simply what it is to be completely out-of-your-depth on your first date. That is why I am reluctant to describe this as a ‘coming of age’ story. Because much of what this book describes entirely transcends age. It is not about some indefinable ‘teenageness’ or puberty-induced angst. This is a novel about the pain and beauty that we all experience on a daily basis, those feelings that are simply a consequence of being alive. What Perks offers is a narrative seeped in the little experiences that make up life – the misunderstandings, the euphoria, and the fear.
One of the most regularly cited quotes given to us by the wonderful C.S. Lewis is “We read to know we are not alone.” I would be hard-pressed to find a book that better demonstrates the truth of this sentiment than The Perks of Being a Wallflower.