A Cult Novel: The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a very good book that needs a very specific timeframe to have the right effect.
English novelist E.M. Forster said once that the books which influence us the most are the ones which call out from a little bit further down our chosen life paths. Depending on where you are standing, Perks can be viewed as a powerfully catalytic read or an overblown exercise in emotional wallowing.
Those who pick it up too early might find it confusing and a little intimidating. Wait too long, though, and the book's dreamy ambiance curdles into a faintly amusing morass of navel-gazing. I picked it up aged 17, and it never re-read quite the same, but I still remember the way it first hit me.
Perks is quite short at 224 pages, and is the story of Charlie, a shy American teenager in his first year of high school. It's a sweet coming-of-age story which centres around Charlie's relationship with two older teens, Sam and Patrick, and how he learns to come out of his shell to "participate in life". Charlie spends a lot of time walking around observing the world, hence his status as a "wallflower".
Something I only noticed on the second reading, several years after the first, is that Perks is a masterclass in understatement. Sentences are short and direct, words are rarely more than four or five letters long, yet Chbosky manages to express complex emotions through his teenage narrator without obvious difficulty:
"I walked over to the hill where we used to go and sled. There were a lot of little kids there. I watched them flying. Doing jumps and having races. And I thought that all those little kids are going to grow up someday. And all of those little kids are going to do the things that we do. And they will all kiss someone someday. But for now, sledding is enough. I think it would be great if sledding were always enough, but it isn't."
A clever aspect of the book is that Charlie's communication skills grow noticeably better as the book progresses, much like the text of Alice Walker's famous 1982 novel The Colour Purple. The improvement is due to the influence of his English teacher, Bill, who prescribes him a list of twelve life-changing novels:
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- A Separate Peace by John Knowles
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac
- Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs
- Walden by Henry David Thoreau
- Hamlet by Shakespeare
- The Stranger by Albert Camus
- The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
Here is a Reddit board where the members are reading the list in order over a year's time, just like Charlie. I can't say I'm entirely on board with the Rand suggestion, but the others I heartily support, especially the original Peter Pan. This gorgeously complicated play is available for free download from Project Gutenberg.
The film adaption of Perks was directed by Chbosky himself, and came out last year to decent reviews. I'm still a little disappointed the trailer doesn't feature Charlie's favourite song, Asleep by The Smiths, but the song does get a few mentions, at least.
To my great happiness, the book and movie have since taken on their own life in Tumblr and other blogging platforms - this is a blog where readers anonymously submit their own Charlie-style confession letters. It's really nice to see it being adopted by a new generation of Charlies even though it came out 14 years ago - obviously it's still doing what it's supposed to. Buy Perks for a teenage friend or relative, it's one to remember.