I wanted to like this book. I really did. I normally enjoy the bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel, but for some reason I just could not get into this book. It felt like it was trying to hard to be hip. It reads like Catcher in the Rye set in the 1990s, but instead of Holden Caulfield’s self-confidence we have Charlie’s lack of self-esteem and low self-confidence. There are moments when the novel manages to take off, especially the descriptions of driving through a tunnel and the moment when Charlie says “we are infinite”, but these do not carry the novel.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower concerns Charlie, a young boy starting high school who lives his life on the margins being a “wallflower”, watching what everyone else is doing rather than participating. He meets Patrick and Sam and quickly becomes close friends with them. He is romantically attracted to Sam, but she is several years older and interested in an older boy named Craig. Through these two characters, Charlie is introduced to a world of misfits and outsiders in the high school world. They watch and re-enact the Rocky Horror Picture Show weekly, they party together and are critical of the popular kids, and watch foreign films. I can see why this book has become a cult classic as my own high school experience was not one of being on the inside circles of the high school world. Yet there consistently felt like something was lacking in the novel.
Part of this may come from the epistolary form that the novel takes. It is written in letters by Charlie to someone he does not know. He needs someone to talk to, so he writes these anonymous letters, changing the names of people so that the recipient will never know who this is from. At first, this narrative technique seems innovative and interesting, but it soon wears thin (or at least it did for me). The recipient of the letters becomes a kind of anonymous figure through whom we, as readers, come to know Charlie and his friends. In the end, it seems more like a narrative trick than something that enriches the novel. The epistolary form is a difficult style of narration, and I’m not sure it is pulled off here.
This novel deals with serious issues including sexuality, violence, homosexuality, and drug abuse. It does not beat around the bush with these issues nor does it glamorize them. In fact, the pot smoking and drinking appear more as crutches to deal with emotional difficulties rather than a kind of alluring habit (except for, perhaps, two instances). I appreciate the frankness of this approach, but I wonder how much it works for a young adult audience.
Charlie has an interesting relationship with his English teacher, Bill, who assigns him extra reading. This part annoyed me as well as Chbobsky name drops all the “cool” books like Camus’s The Stranger, William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. This came across as a moment where Chbobsky is trying to be hip and name an alternative canon of reading that many high school kids discover. The fact that it was first published by MTV Books suggests that this is an intentional marketing scheme. He also name-drops Catcher in the Rye, but I could not help thinking that this novel is a homage to Salinger’s work that only achieves mixed results.
I would not recommend this book for most readers. If you really enjoy coming-of-age narratives from a marginalized perspective, it might be worth reading.
Chbobsky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: MTV Books, 1999.