Yesterday I had a compulsion to go to Unity Books and buy The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. I had seen the movie years ago, and in spite of the poor reaction to it by someone important to me at the time, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I am not sure where the urgency came from, it was just like the compulsion to get Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and read it before sunrise. Or the earlier time I read Lolita. When these forces arrive in my head they must be obeyed. And so at ten to four this morning I finished The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
My impressions are raw, and I have to trust any skill I have to write this in a coherent manner. As in most books the words are not merely downloaded by the eyes, but recited aloud by an inner narrator. In this case the narrator was Charlie, the central character, who was played by Logan Lerman in the film and it was his voice in my ear from start to end. I guess this means he did a good job in the film, because I never imagined Charlie as anyone else. Truth be told I imagined the characters in the book as exactly the same as their movie counterparts, and have come out of the book even more confident of my impressions of the film.
But what of the guts of the book. I suppose I am waffling on. The structure is simple, and the story is told through a series of chronological letters over the first year of Charlie’s high school life that he writes to someone anonymous who is never revealed. Nothing complex and I am grateful for that. The myriad of thoughts and feelings that cross an adolescent’s consciousness in every moment need a solid anchorage of some sort. I think too that the book is not meant to be read piecemeal. Each letter functions as a piece of something larger, but they are not chapters. Instead the story is broken into four parts, and as far as the flow of it goes I would advise one to read it all in a single sitting (which I did and now can barely lift my arms because I am so tired and read so slow) or in four sittings. Stopping between letters is not ideal because you might miss the contrast between them. How in a single month Charlie can go from desperately lonely, to irate with someone, to suicidally depressed, to extremely happy, to infinite. On that last I refer to the classic scene in the movie where Sam (whom Charlie is in love with) played by Emma Watson stands up on the back of a pickup truck while her step brother drives through a tunnel and Charlie sits in the passenger seat. David Bowie’s Heroes is blasting out of the car speakers and Charlie feels a sense of belonging he’s never felt before. In the book the scene is very similar except that the song isn’t Heroes. I am glad they changed it for the movie for reasons I trust you already know.
The chronicle of Charlie’s year contains moments in common with me, and undoubtedly since we were all in the passage of youth once. Some still yearn for it, some try to forget it, and some barely made it out alive. There were girls at my school like Sam, and there were boys like Patrick, and I (and most people went on to study arts) felt similar to Charlie in the sense that thinking was synonymous with living. That is his challenge with Sam, ultimately she tells him that she doesn’t want to be anyone’s crush because she can’t feel what someone else feels if they lock it away to themselves. Of course he has other challenges as well, but what is vital is that he cannot begin to deal with them until he has dealt with this.
His connection with his English teacher Bill (played by Paul Rudd in the film) is particularly touching, as a new teacher finds and tends to the gifted mind of his pupil. It is not a coercive relationship, nor does Bill attempt to mould Charlie’s mind. Instead he acts as the waterer of seeds that are already there, and the succession of books he gives to Charlie become a structure for him amid emotional turmoil. I hope there are real teachers like this, and that if you found and benefitted from one that it was good. I did not, but a literary awakening can occur at any point in life, it is never too late.
What is rather sad to note is just how much stress and demand the US education system puts on kids. The fact that they must apply for as many universities as possible and have back-up “safety schools” in case they get rejected. I have seen the process of applying close-up and it isn’t pretty. For any American’s reading this I am almost afraid to tell you that I applied for one university at the end of high school and was guaranteed a place because I had passed university entrance requirements that were rather straightforward. No ridiculous amounts of homework (I refused to do most homework on principle), no extra-curricular activities for the sole reason of filling up an admission letter. Why the American system puts so much pressure on people at their most vulnerable time of life is a question I’d like to see answered.
In a quiet sort of way that leads me to the more controversial parts of the book. Controversial because some schools banned the book on the basis that its content might be too mature for adolescents, who shouldn’t know about the horrible damage done to a significant proportion of them, and should not ask awkward questions about sex, and homosexuality, and rape, and other abuse. Better that the kids learn what is taboo and put walls in their minds. Truly the land of the free. Charlie has been abused as a younger boy by a person very close to him. He has repressed this, and the effects of such repression permeate his life and experiences. He overcomes that and recognises the causes and the nature of these things. That the abuser was themselves abused, and their own parents were too. In recognising the cycle and going through the breakdown it causes he ends the cycle. He still loves the (long deceased) abuser, and he loves Sam (who was abused as child too) and he loves Patrick (whom he saved from five jocks Patrick was fighting for calling him a faggot), and he loves his sister who called him a pervert and told him not to tell when her boyfriend hit her.
All of this echoes like musical notes in our lives. I use the plural on the basis that I am certain there are common struggles and elements in everyone’s lives that are built on in this book. The desire to be seen by someone else, and vindicated. The desire to be happy, and the willingness to be unhappy if it means that someone you love can be happy. I am sorry if my thoughts do not make sense. I decided it would be better to get this out while still in the wake of the story than try something more cerebral when the water settles. I really enjoyed this book and recommend it highly to anyone (especially if you are at high school). If a book is too much I recommend the movie also. Since it was directed by the book’s author Stephen Chbosky it has to be immune from the usual crap people claim about the quality of adaptations, and disagreements over interpretation.
With that I rest.