The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Gallery Books, 1999, 213 pages
YA Realistic Fiction
Charlie is starting high school. Charlie has a lot of doubts. Charlie is about to learn a lot about himself and the world. With the help of an English teacher, Charlie decides it’s time to reinvent himself as someone who “participates” as opposed to someone who observes. The first step is to make some friends. Writing to an unnamed “friend,” Charlie details the sequence of his growth and the lives of the people around him.
Well, finally. I know, I know, it took me far too long to get around to reading this one. But it’s happened at last! I’ll say up front that I wasn’t quite as enchanted by it as everyone else I seem to know and their grandmother, but that’s okay. I agree that it’s a pretty important book — sure, literature, even — and not a bad read. If you know anything about Perks at all, you probably know it deals with a lot of heavy material. As someone who hasn’t been subjected to most of these heavy and unfortunate events, I’ll venture to say that I feel Chbosky dealt with them with sensitivity and honesty, which can be a difficult balance to strike. (I’ll emphasize again, though, that I’ve never suffered from the more severe things that occur in the book and, while I saw Chbosky’s handling as appropriate, others may find it insensitive or triggering which is totally valid.)
Chbosky has also clearly mastered Charlie’s voice and its evolution within Perks. While I can’t say that I’m familiar with any of other Chbosky-material, it seems to me Charlie has a very distinct and deliberate voice. I got the sense that Chbosky may always use this voice in other writing — that is, the voice is very much his and while it’s strong, unique, and evident within the text, it makes him out to be a sort-of one-trick-pony. But, being unfamiliar with his screenplays and such, I can’t say that for certain. And I digress — this review is about Perks, not Chbosky’s entire body of work.
There are three particular points that I’m interested in discussing here, but given that it would involve spoilers, I’ll refrain. Instead, if you’ve read the book, I’ll just encourage you to think about Bill (what did you expect of his relationship with Charlie? I was completely surprised by his motives), the recipient of Charlie’s letters (does identity matter?), and Charlie’s main trauma (nothing in particular, and I understand why Chbosky included it the way he did, although it didn’t fit in with the way I understood the story was “working”). Obviously Perks gives readers a lot to think about.
And it’s partly that which has made people so angry about it. In their handy list of frequently challenged books, the ALA has reported Perks as being challenged with dizzying frequency over the years. This comes as no surprise — the book, intended for and marketed a young adult audience, contains anything and everything various groups might find offensive or distasteful (this is not to say I agree with any of them): drugs, sex, rape, incest, homosexuality, feminism, underage drinking, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Shall I go on? I’m not one for censorship, though from a literary perspective, I thought Chbosky put more on his plate than he could handle. While each of these topics are touched on (and some repeatedly), the sheer volume of heavy topics makes it difficult to digest any one of them within the context of the book. And with Charlie’s sometimes-vague prose, it’s sometimes hard to even know what, actually, the issue is. None of these issues are more or less valid than any of the others, but by cramming them all into such a small book, their treatment is severely diminished.
A lot of people have, in my memory, compared Perks to The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. I can see the similarities and the influence, but the books have a very different atmosphere. Where Holden Caulfield of Catcher is cynical, Charlie is curious and hopeful. This makes all the difference.
Generally not a bad read, but not one to rush through — read, digest, repeat.