Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Dear friend,

I wanted to tell you about us running. There was this beautiful sunset. And there was this hill. The hill up to the eighteenth green where Patrick and I spit wine from laughing. And just a few ours before, Sam and Patrick and everyone I love and know had their last day of high school ever. And I was happy because they were happy. My sister even let me hug her in the hallway. Congratulations was the word of the day. So, Sam and Patrick and I went to the Big Boy and smoked cigarettes. Then, we went walking, waiting for it to be time to go to
Rocky Horror. And we were talking about things that seemed important at the time. And we were looking up that hill. And then Patrick started running after the sunset. And Sam immediately followed him. And I saw them in silhouette. Running after the sun. Then, I started running. And everything was as good as it could be.

Despite what USA Today would have you believe, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is not Catcher in the Rye. I've never read A Separate Peace, but I'm pretty sure it's not that either. But it isn't fair for us to ask it to be, when it does pretty well on its own terms.

Perks is written in the form of a series of letters written by Charlie, a freshman in high school, to an anonymous "friend" he has never met. Charlie is a fairly typical protagonist for a coming-of-age story: Shy, sort of nerdy, and quite sensitive--god, it seems like he cries every other page--but also removed from other people and not prone to "participate". Almost despite himself, Charlie ends up befriending a pair of seniors, Patrick and Sam, outsiders and nonconformists who help to pull him out of his shell.

There is no real central conflict, but a series of unrelated plot threads, some of which end up being pretty underwritten: The young first-year English teacher who encourages Charlie to read great books. Patrick's secret affair with the high school quarterback. Charlie's crush on Sam (who is a girl). Having to deal with his best friend's suicide (this one in particular is half-baked). Charlie learning about drugs, and taking up smoking. Learning about masturbation, and then sex. His sister's secret abortion. The memory of his aunt's death in a car crash some years before. Mixtapes. There are a lot of mixtapes.

But you know what? All of that adds up to something that, if it doesn't reflect what it is to be 14, it reflects something quite incisive about the imagination of 14-year-olds. I've never quite been comfortable with the way people identify with Holden Caulfield, partially because I don't think Holden would quite want people to identify with him. But Charlie is a character overwhelmed by his own passions and sensitivity toward others, and draws readers quite easily into himself. He isn't as abiding a character as Holden is--because Perks is not literature on the same plane as Catcher--but I'll be damned if he doesn't deserve that sort of attachment more.

This was the summer reading for the students I'll be teaching in tenth grade next year. Teaching Perks is a dicey proposition because of the sexual content, and especially because of the explicit homosexuality in it. I wouldn't be surprised to get a few complaints from parents. But I think that, for the students--most of whom have a deep revulsion toward homosexuality--it will end up being something that resonates strongly with them.

Here is Christine's perspective.


Christine said...

Christopher, I think people tend to take certain genres of fiction and lump them together because there's so few of that particular kind of subject they don't really know what to do. I agree The Perks of Being a Wallflower is nothing like Catcher in the Rye...but hey they're both about over emotional coming of age youngsters so it's all the same right?

Christopher said...

But they must be alike! I read it on the back of the dust jacket!