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The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky is narrated by Charlie, the titular ‘wallflower’, in a series of letters that he writes to a stranger, beginning the night before he starts his freshman year of high school in 1991. These letters catalogue Charlie’s attempts to “participate”, as he wanders wide eyed through a series of house parties and Rocky Horror Picture Show productions with his new, older friends. Along the way, Chbosky intelligently explores stock YA themes such as mental health, substance abuse and sexuality, whilst simultaneously reminding the reader about how exciting it is to be young and idealistic.
What makes Chbosky’s stream of consciousness style more beautiful than that used in Suicidal Tendencies’ hardcore punk song “Institutionalised”, for example, is the lyrical, philosophical nature of the prose. At one point, Charlie starts going to the mall simply to try and figure out why people go there. He see “Old men sitting alone. Young girls with blue eye shadow and awkward jaws. Little kids who look tired.” “It all felt very unsettling” to him. The writing here is so rhythmic that it’s almost hypnotic. I love the control that Chbosky exercises: he demonstrates Charlie’s deteriorating mental health to the reader simply by having him see sadness wherever he goes. Beyond the writing style, there is still a lot to like about the novel. The cast of characters is diverse. The female characters are numerous and as well developed as their male counterparts. Chbosky’s approach is always unflinching, even when the content is upsetting. Underpinning everything is a desire to acknowledge the complexities in other people, an understanding that nobody does bad stuff because they are innately bad. In this way, although the book is, at times, very upsetting, it is ultimately uplifting and life-affirming.
Maybe I’m just being sentimental, but it is actually difficult for me to find anything that I don’t like about The Perks of Being a Wallflower. My one criticism is that whilst Chbosky does include a gay character, that gay character is male. Humour me, dear reader, allow me one tangential rant. Can anyone think of a single YA book that isn’t explicitly about LGBTQ+ issues, that contains a lesbian character whose sexuality (like Patrick’s) is part of the narrative without being integral to the plot? I can’t. Culturally, we seem quite comfortable with the idea of a slightly effeminate, flamboyant, gay character and I guess I would have liked to see Chbosky be more original in this regard. However this gripe is not as much with Perks as with the YA genre as a whole. I do not expect every book to have an obligatory lesbian extra, but a sprinkling across the lot would be refreshing. On the whole, I think that Chbosky’s discussion of sexuality is excellent and very interesting. For example, Charlie used to kiss boys in the neighbourhood when he was little and is very aware that this concerned his father. Similarly, Charlie’s grandfather doesn’t like to hug family members – especially the boys. The contrast between the older generations’ fear of homosexuality and Charlie’s acceptance of Patrick is indicative of the way that society’s response to homosexuality was changing in the 1990s. It also has a kind of didactic purpose in showing the reader that it’s ok to be gay, which I think is particularly important in YA fiction.
However, I also ought to mention that sexual abuse and suicide feature quite heavily in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and it would therefore be irresponsible of me to recommend it without a trigger warning. Furthermore, it is probably worth pointing out to parents who are inclined to censorship that this book does contain some additional (really quite exciting) drugs/sex/swearing content that would make the text unsuitable for younger readers.
With this in mind though, I cannot recommend The Perks of Being A Wallflower highly enough. In general, literature allows us to live other people’s lives through their stories. We can discover what it is like to be a different gender or age, to live in a different place or time with different values. In this way, reading is a remarkable feat of empathy. But occasionally we find a fictional scenario which in some way matches our own circumstances so profoundly that there is no need for empathy. When I first read The Perks of Being A Wallflower, I was Charlie. Although our backgrounds were in some ways different, I had never, and have never since, read a textual representation of adolescence that matched my own experiences so well. This is the strength of Chbosky’s writing. He crafts Charlie’s voice in a way that defies context. Charlie is inside every lonely teenager and every adult remembers him fondly. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a gift, and to Stephan Chbosky I will always be grateful.
- Buy this book at the Guardian Bookshop
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