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Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

"Do you always think this much, Charlie?"
"Is that bad?" I just wanted someone to tell me the truth.
"Not necessarily. It's just that sometimes people use thought to not participate in life."
"Is that bad?"
"Yes." – Stephen Chbosky,
The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The protagonist of Stephen Chbosky’s coming of age novel is a fifteen-and-a-half-year-old boy who may or may not be called Charlie. Like most fifteen-and-a-half-year-old boys Charlie has problems. They’re not insurmountable, they’re the kind of problems most fifteen-and-a-half-year-old boys face but in Charlie’s case all his problems boil down to one simple truth: he lets life do what it pretty much wants to him. This might make you think that Charlie is more of a doormat than a wallflower but he really isn’t. He’s a nice lad, clever, from a not-too-terribly-dysfunctional family whose only real weakness apart from wanting to please people is a tendency to cry more than certainly I remember doing when I was fifteen-and-a-half. All in all life doesn’t want to do anything really that awful or out-of-the-ordinary with Charlie. At least not during the course of the year that the book covers. In fact things start off quite well for him when he starts his freshman year at high school: he makes friends with Nothing and Nothing’s sister.

You need to watch what you say at school. One slip of the tongue is all it takes:
[T]here is a guy in shop class named “Nothing.” I’m not kidding. His name is “Nothing.” And he is hilarious. “Nothing” got his name when kids used to tease him in middle school. I think he’s a senior now. The kids started calling him Patty when his real name is Patrick. And “Nothing” told these kids, “Listen, you either call me Patrick, or you call me nothing.”
So, the kids started calling him “Nothing.” And the name just stuck.
Anyway, while watching a football match “Nothing” says to Charlie:
“Hey, you’re in my shop class!” He’s a very friendly person.
“I’m Charlie.” I said, not too shy.
“And I’m Patrick. And this is Sam.” He pointed to a very pretty girl next to him. And she waved to me.
“Hey, Charlie.” Sam had a very nice smile.
When I think about some of the friendships I’ve had most of them have started off as innocuously as that. In fact there have been some where I can’t actually remember being introduced to the person; they simply slipped into my life and the next thing I knew we were inseparable. And that’s pretty much what happens here. Suddenly, seamlessly, Charlie is absorbed into the lives of these two seniors and their friends. This first meeting happened on 6 October 1991. 

The reason I can be so precise about the date is that this whole book is written as a series of letters beginning on 25 August 1991 and ending on 23 August 1992. The letters are all addressed “Dear friend,” and this is how the first letter opens:
Dear friend,
I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. Please don’t try to figure out who she is because then you might figure out who I am, and I really don’t want you to do that. I will call people by different names or generic names because I don’t want you to find me. I didn’t enclose a return address for the same reason. I mean nothing bad by this. Honest.
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.
Intrigued? I certainly was although I have to say that if the recipient of these letters really wanted to work out who this Charlie was then it wouldn’t be hard because as hard as he tries to disguise who he is there are just too many checkable facts. What’s harder for us readers is not trying to work out who the friend is. There are some people it most certainly won’t be because they turn out to be exactly the kind of people who do sleep with people at parties whenever they can but I'm pretty sure that whoever it is is one of the book’s minor characters because of what Charlie says in one particular letter but I’m not letting on and I deliberately didn’t go through the characters listed to see who it probably was because it’s not that important. I still think it’s significant though that this is presented as an epistolary novel rather than simply as Charlie’s Diary.

catcherOf course it’s impossible to think about a first person narrative of a teenage misfit without wondering if The Catcher in the Rye was an influence. The book is certainly referenced – his teacher gives him a copy to read and his mother buys him a copy as a present – and in fact Charlie reads it no less than four times but this is what the author had to say in an e-mail interview:
It’s hard to talk about The Catcher in the Rye, because it’s such an American classic. I do love the book. It was one of my favourites growing up. But honestly, I hadn’t read it for years when I wrote The Perks of Being a Wallflower. And as much as J.D. Salinger was an influence on me, as was F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, screenwriter Stewart Stern, and countless others, I was not trying to mimic his style as a writer.
I did, in part, reference The Catcher in the Rye as a tribute. But no more than This Side of Paradise, On the Road, and a host of other books that I loved growing up. I can see how people could compare Charlie to Holden Caulfield. At the same time, I think they are very different people with unique problems and perspectives. – Ann Beisch, ‘Interview with Stephen Chbosky, author of The Perks of Being a Wallflower’, LA Youth, Nov-Dec 2001 issue
And the bottom line is that Charlie and Holden really have very little in common other than being about the same age, they both lose a close friend and they both end up talking to therapists; Holden is jaded and cynical whereas Charlie frankly is rather sweet and innocent. After that we’re stretching it. But content aside there is one other thing that the books have in common: controversy. The Perks of Being a Wallflower was third on the American Library Association's list of the top ten most frequently challenged books of 2009:
3. The Perks of Being A Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
Reasons: anti-family, drugs, homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited to age group
I wonder if the abortion comes under “religious viewpoint”? On the plus side, however, On March 15, 2000, Booklist chose The Perks of Being a Wallflower as one of the Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Readers, and on June 1, 2001 Booklist chose the novel as one of the Top 10 Gay and Lesbian Books for Youth. But is this a YA novel?
Chbosky did not intend The Perks of Being a Wallflower to be a young-adult novel, but because of its graphic focus on adolescent life it has been viewed as such by many critics. In an interview with Marty Beckerman for, Chbosky discussed how he responded to the criticism and controversy that followed the book's publication.
"It's hard, because I didn't write it to be challenged. I didn't write it to be a controversial book. I can't really take it as a point of pride because it was banned someplace." Instead, Chbosky has reacted by "mourning the fact that people can't agree to disagree, and people can't find common ground. The people who object for moral reasons cannot see the value of the book, and the people who see the value of the book don't realize why it's upsetting to more religious people." – Brief Biographies
I’m not saying there are things in this book that won’t upset you because there are. Life goes out of its way to upset us and what we witness is a kid trying to keep his balance against the odds. The simple fact is that most of the bad things that happen in this book are things that Charlie witnesses or learns about like Michael’s suicide at the start which is what prompts that first letter:
Michael’s funeral was strange because his father didn’t cry. And three months later he left Michael’s mom. At least according to Dave at lunchtime. I think about it sometimes. I wonder what went on in Michael’s house around dinner and TV shows. Michael never left a note or at least his parents didn’t let anyone see it. Maybe it was “problems at home.” I wish I knew. It might make me miss him more clearly. It might have made sad sense.
One thing I do know is that it makes me wonder if I have “problems at home” but it seems to me that a lot of other people have it a lot worse. Like when my sister’s first boyfriend started going around with another girl and my sister cried for the whole weekend.
My dad said, “There are other people who have it a lot worse.”
One of those who’s had a rough time of it would be his aunt Helen who “lived with the family for the last few years of her life because something bad happened to her.” At the start of the book Charlie says he doesn’t know but we do get to find out. He’s very fond of Aunt Helen:
She was the only person other than my mom and dad and brother and sister to buy me two presents. One for my birthday. One for Christmas. Even when she moved in with the family and had no money. She always bought me two presents. They were always the best presents.
On December 24, 1983, a policeman came to the door. My aunt Helen was in a terrible accident. It was very snowy. The policeman told my mom that my aunt Helen had passed away.
The “two presents” thing needs explaining. Charlie’s birthday is 24 December and his aunt had gone out to buy him a birthday present. So he feels especially guilty about her death as you can well imagine. But all families have stuff like this to deal with. It’s life. His big brother moves out to go to college, he walks in on his sister having sex, he falls in love with a girl three years older than him, his best friend struggles with being gay: these are the kind of things we all go through. And then there’s the good stuff like Bill. Bill is his English teacher who sees something in Charlie, something unique, and singles him out for special attention:
I don’t have a lot of time because my advanced English teacher assigned us a book to read, and I like to read books twice. Incidentally, the book is To Kill a Mockingbird.
He says I have a great skill at reading and understanding language…
And so, in addition to his regular schoolwork (which he invariably aces) Charlie gets extra assignments to stretch him. His essay on To Kill a Mockingbird for example only earns him a C but this is just between him and his teacher, it doesn’t affect his overall grade. Over the year he tackles a whole range of seminal works:

When I first read the title I assumed that the book’s protagonist was going to be something of an outsider, a loner, but Charlie really doesn’t come across like that. Okay he doesn’t have many friends – Patrick and Sam are really it – but then that’s the case with most of us, one or two best friends, in fact when I was fifteen my best friend was about five years older than me and I ended dating his older sister so when Charlie develops a crush on Sam I could relate totally to his situation and I make no bones about it when I say that I would have loved this book when I fifteen or probably younger because we all like to read books that are a bit beyond us especially when we’re kids. I related strongly to Catcher in the Rye which I read when I was about fourteen but even more so to Billy Liar because it was set in Britain.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is set in the early nineties, not a time I remember particularly fondly myself, but apart from a few cultural references – Charlie’s fondness for The Smiths for example – really the book could have been set in any of previous three or four decades or even today. The only difference now is that he would be burning CDs rather than doing mix tapes or is burning CDs out of fashion now too? Surely not.

The book is not without its flaws. That Charlie has reached fifteen and never discovered masturbation on his own and needed Patrick to tell him about it I found beyond hard to swallow. Other readers have thought that it was unrealistic that Sam would give him the time of day but when I was thirteen I had a fifteen-year-old girlfriend – it does happen – so I suppose the masturbation thing might happen late for some guys. (Nah – I’m not buying it either.) What is unrealistic is that so many firsts would happen within the space of a year: he smokes a cigarette for the first time, gets high, gets drunk, kisses a girl, kisses a boy, sees his sister naked, gets Rocky-Horror-Picture-Showinto a fight, gets hooked on The Rocky Horror Picture Show and discovers why exactly he is the way he is. No, that’s stretching it. But reading though the reviews on Goodreads, Library Thing and Amazon it looks like most readers were willing to overlook these facts – the average was 4+. 

In many respects this reads more like a film script where everything has been crammed into the smallest space possible so I’ll be very interested to see how the film adaptation turns out. Chbosky’s directing his own script with Emma Watson as Sam and Logan Lerman as Charlie. Frankly I can’t see her as Sam but I’m willing to be impressed and this might be the role to do that. Lerman will be twenty when he tackles the role but I suppose if you stick him in a school blazer that’ll knock a few years off immediately.

This book may feel more like an episode of The Wonder Years on the surface but it has more in common with My So-Called Life. As is the case for both of these shows, the supporting characters in The Perks of Being a Wallflower are very important and all are well rounded; in fact one reviewer said that it was the character of Patrick that kept him reading. For me, I’m sorry, call me an old romantic, it was the awkward friendship/romance that plays out between Charlie and Sam that had me hooked.

Chbosky_picture Stephen Chbosky was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on January 25, 1972. He grew up in Upper St. Clair, graduating from the local high school. He received his Bachelor of the Fine Arts degree from the University of Southern California’s filmic writing program in 1992. 

Chbosky is a screenwriter, television writer, and stage writer. His first film, The Four Corners of Nowhere (which he wrote the screenplay for and also directed), premiered at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, the largest independent cinema festival in the United States. The film won Narrative Feature honours at the Chicago Underground Film Festival. According to an All Movie Guide plot description written by Sandra Brennan, The Four Corners of Nowhere is a “humorous film [that] attempts to explain the nihilistic attitudes and terminal ennui of the X-generation.” The film follows the lives, relationships, and opinions of a group of twenty-somethings living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

He is the recipient of the Abraham Polonsky Screenwriting Award for his screenplay Everything Divided. Chbosky wrote the screenplay for the film version of the popular stage play, Rent, and he was the co-editor and contributor to another stage play, Sexaholic. Fingernails and Smooth Skin is the story of a young couple whose long-time relationship is threatened by their foibles and infidelities. Chbosky was a participant in the Sundance Institutes Filmmakers’ lab, is the editor of Pieces: A Collection of New Voices, a collection of fictional short-stories, and he is also the author of a book for a musical, Kept. 

In the mid-2000s, Chbosky decided, on the advice of his agent, to begin looking for work in television in addition to film. Finding he enjoyed the people working in television, Chbosky agreed to serve as co-creator, executive producer, and writer of the television drama Jericho, which premiered in September 2006. The series revolves around the inhabitants of the fictional small town of Jericho, Kansas in the aftermath of several nuclear attacks.

Chbosky lives and works in Los Angeles, California. He is an active gay rights supporter, and he continues to work on films.


Art Durkee said...

For once, here's a novel I've actually read before you reviewed it. A friend gave it to me a pole of years ago, and I read it then. I think you hit a lot of the main points, well done.

One thing I'd like to add, though, is another difference between this novel and Catcher in the Rye. The narrator of Perks is postmodern to Salinger's modern narrator in that he is not a totally trustworthy narrator, i.e. a variety of unreliable narrator. Part of that is the anonymity, part of that is the epistolary form used. All of which I think are positive attributes of this novel.

My friend who gave me the novel liked it because of the gay content, and that's why he gave it to me. I think that content is handled well, albeit it still stays within the bounds of the character, so I don't think it's gratuitous.

I disagree with your points about all the firsts in the novel, because even the sexual firsts at age 15 in here, which you are skeptical about, well, I know some people in real life who made it all the way to 14 before discovering any of those things. There are pockets of culture here in the US, believe it or not, where that is in fact possible, and where sexuality is so taboo that if you were as psychologically disconnected as this narrator, it would in fact be possible. I did not perceive the narrator as passive so much as disassociative, which I have seen in more than one person I know. It might be a matter of degrees. But again, to me this was realistic psychologically because I have known people like that. So I didn't have any trouble with the various firsts happening at that age in the book.

Jim Murdoch said...

As always you make good points, Art. It wasn’t so much the age because even though I was sexually aware at 11 (seriously) I never lost my own virginity until I was 18, it was the fact that it all happens in the book within a small timeframe. It’s not impossible; I just didn’t think it was likely. I was probably around 12 the first time I tried a cigarette and 16 the first time I got drunk, I got into my first fight when I was about 7—this is Scotland remember—but I was probably in my thirties before I first saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Art Durkee said...

Well, as you know fiction doesn't have to be exactly like real life, and probably is better when it doesn't try to be. Real life can be incredibly boring for long periods of time, with significant events coming in clumps separated by long boring passages. And one thing fiction does is compress time. It want you to talk about things that seem unlikely, the series of coincidences that happen in some far more famous novels (Dickens comes to mind) are frankly unbelievable.

In science fiction they were talking decades ago about the "willing suspension of disbelief." In other words, being willing to go along for the ride, and allow the "rules" for the novel to be set within the self-contained universe of the novel, rather than pick all the details to pieces. If someone wanted to be a nit-picker than of course even beloved SF TV series like "Star Trek" are full of holes. But then so is Shakespeare (speaking of incredible coincidences going on all the time).

The thing with fiction, it doesn't HAVE to all be believable, or exactly like real life. What James Joyce and Virginia Woolf did as innovators was to try to present fiction as much more like real life—which is interestingly still controversial, because I guess most readers of novels still do prefer things to be neatly tied up at the end, and so forth. I think most readers still prefer their fiction to give them the illusion of realism rather than actual realism. (Andy Warhol's film of somebody sleeping all night long is pretty realistic. And dull.)

As you know, "realism" in fiction is quite the artificial construct itself, with its own tropes and rules and expectations. The whole presentation of "realistic fiction" is to make the unlikely seem inevitable. And to do it without too much scaffolding (the mechanics of craft) showing. If we want to equate realism with what's likely, I'd give "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" higher marks than most of Nabokov. (Or Hemingway, for that matter.)

(P.S. I was quite aware of my own sexuality by age 9, with significant personal milestones achieved at ages 11 and 14. I never had a single cigarette till I was in my 30s. I saw Rocky Horror for the first time probably in my late teens.)

Jim Murdoch said...

No, Art, I get it. I got it when I read the book. It just annoyed me. All the coincidences and convenient happenstances in Shakespeare annoy me too if it comes to that. I am perfectly willing to suspend disbelief and do too—no one is going to tell me that everything that happens in Waiting for Godot takes place within two calendar days—but this book didn’t have that feel. As I said in the review this “reads more like a film script where everything has been crammed into the smallest space possible” and as a film script I’m willing to bend a bit more; I want it to be over in an hour and a half so, yes, cram away. I enjoyed the book. I bet I’ll enjoy the film if I ever see it. And I think there’s a good chance I’ll actually enjoy the film more than the book. Films are great at missing out boring stuff—Warhol aside—they just stop the camera and cut to the next relevant piece of action and so many modern writers who, like me (and Chbosky from the look of him), have watched far more than they have read produce books that are improved by that technique. Usually.

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