Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
By Michael Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the sort of book that was written for me to hate. You know the type: A quirky 90210-esque coming of age story involving an awkward teen who feels alone, finds an amazing group of friends, loses those friends and then, ultimately, regains them in a flourish of altruism. Along the way, said troubled teen manages to safely navigate the potholed landscape of modern adolescence with relative  style and panache coming out the other end a better and more well rounded person.

Well,  The Perks of Being a Wallflower follows that tried and true story line. This epistolary novel follows the hijinks of Charlie, a sensitive (and slightly troubled) teen who begins his correspondence with an unnamed person (known as Friend) on the eve of his first day at high school. Over the course of the next twelve months of letters, Charlie meets a group of amazing friends centered around Patrick, an openly gay senior and his sister Sam, with whom Charlie immediately falls hopelessly in love like only high school boys are capable.

Like so many teenagers, Charlie is forced to deal with the full spectrum of adolescent problems: alcohol, drugs, suicide, relationships, sex, teenage pregnancy, abusive parents, homosexuality, mental disorders and the dreaded Rocky Horror Picture Show. And given that this is a book about teenagers, and given that the novel is set in Nirvana-drenched plaid of 1991, this potholed landscape of adolescence is served with a man-sized helping of angst.

I should have hated it. But I didn't. I liked it. And I liked it an unhealthy amount. And there are two reasons why.

I started high school back in 1990, which would make me a year (give or take) older than Charlie and slightly younger than his senior year friends. I suspect that if this novel was set any more recently (or any farther back in time) that I would have dismissed it with a series of eye rolls and gimme-a-breaks. But since it hit the proverbial nail (me) on the head (my susceptibility to nostalgia and sentimentalism), I was sucked in hook, line and sinker. The cultural markers were comfortably familiar and I liked the fact that the social hierarchy is (as it was back in my day) based on the movies you watched, the music you listened to and the clothes you wore. I have no idea whether that intricate social classification system is still in place, but it was comforting to read a very specific high school caste system and know where 15-year old me would have slotted in. The cultural references consistently made me smile, especially each mention of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, a film I watched literally dozens of times throughout my own school career.

Second, I recently chose The Perks of Being a Wallflower as the next book to teach my advanced English class in Taiwan. Taiwanese teenagers have such a different school experience from their North American peers. Theirs is a life filled with tests, studying and academic competition. High school students in Taiwan have very little free time to socialize. My students often hear me talk about high school in Canada and they are amazed at the swaths of free time I used to have. How I used to have a part-time job, friends and a social life. They are aghast to know that I got drunk as a teenager and the topic of drugs is so completely foreign to them that I simply don't even bother.

I thought The Perks of Being a Wallflower would be the perfect novel to give my students a taste of what high school life is like for the average North American. Granted, Charlie experiences an entire student body's worth of triumph and tragedy in a single year, but the sentiment is there. While I was reading the novel I felt a sense of pride that this novel was able to convey a lot of the emotion and atmosphere of high school life in North America and that my students would gain some perspective on it. They have always told me that North American high school sounds easy. I have always told them that it is difficult, but a different kind of difficult. This novel seemed like an apt presentation of the point I have been trying to make for a few years.

And the writing isn't terrible either. It is fun to watch how Charlie's writing ability matures throughout the novel indicating that despite the lack of mention in his letters, he is indeed attending and succeeding in the classroom (especially English). I also thought it was a cute literary trick to have the story vaguely mimic the novels his English teacher has assigned to him. Parts of the novel felt like an homage to various classic fiction.... especially Catcher in the Rye.

That's not to say that the novel is without its faults. The ending was particularly disappointing. I thought Chbosky had set himself up for a nice non-traditional ending but I found that he left it feeling far too much like the ending of one of Charlie's assigned novels. As well, it did suffer from an over abundance of issues whereby the characters literally endure every possible After School Special ever addressed. But when I read the novel through the eyes of my students these little things hardly seemed to matter. I'm really looking forward to the illuminating comparisons that The Perks of Being a Wallflower will illicit in class, and how they correspond with my own experiences in high school in the early 1990s.

I can't wait.


Athira said...

I've been meaning to read this one ever since I saw the trailer of this movie. Never got to it though but it sounds very compelling.

Mary Beth said...

I read this a couple of years ago and started it with VERY low expectations. The more I read, though, the more I liked it. I found the characters surprisingly relatable and likable, which I wasn't expecting (let's be honest, any book involving angstey teens is a gamble, lol). I completely agree about there being an "over abundance of issues" and yet, you're completely right, taken from the perspective of its intended audience it doesn't matter at all. Definitely a book I'd recommend.

Brian Joseph said...

I think that a book of just about any genre or subject can be really good if it is in the right author's hands. It sounds like that is one reason why this one worked for you.

I too am a sucker for nostalgia if it is relevant to me. Thus that would also add to the appeal for me.

Anna said...

I tried to read this one a couple of years ago, but just couldn't get into it. And then I didn't like the movie, so I can't see myself giving it another try. But I'm sure it'll make for a great discussion.

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