The Stormy Phase Called Teenage Years
The stormiest and the most awkward, albeit the most dynamic, phase in one’s life is his/her teenage years. It is a critical juncture in one’s growth as it is the intersection of early years of curiosity and the succeeding years of maturity. During this period, one develops cognition over various critical issues and one’s senses begin to take more prominent shapes. It is a period filled with questions but also dotted with memorable experiences. It is when one takes his first proverbial steps into the more perplexing world of young adulthood. Most survive unscathed but there are some who find themselves inching towards the edge.
It is this stormy phase that the readers find themselves immersed in in Stephen Chbosky’s debut novel, The Perks of Being A Wallflower. Upon its publication, it turned into an instant sensation and became a cult phenomenon. It relates the experiences of a young teenager named Charlie as he navigates through his freshman year of high school in a Pittsburgh suburb.
The last of three children, Charlie grew up an introverted child and kept most of his thoughts to himself. However, when he entered high school, he met and befriended two seniors – Patrick and Sam. Patrick and Sam are step-siblings who would later open Charlie to the peculiarities, the joys, the pains, the romances, and the heartbreaks of being a teenager. The Perks of Being A Wallflower details Charlie’s experiences but also explores his past.
“So, I guess we are who we are for alot of reasons. And maybe we’ll never know most of them. But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.” ~ Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being A Wallflower
From the onset, it can be gleaned that there is something different, maybe even special, about Charlie. There was something unconventional about the way he rationalizes things, thus, setting him apart from the rest. He had a tone and a dreamy voice that easily compels readers, reeling them in. One can easily relate with his experiences. It is also this air of difference that made Charlie the eponymous “wallflower”.
Like its contemporaries, the novel addressed a bevy of dark and heavy themes and subjects that deals with teenagers and young adults. The primary subjects dealt with in the story include homosexuality, introversion, suicide, and mental health. It also underlined issues pertaining to violence against women and children, substance abuse and rape. Its explicit themes caused the book to be banned in a score of American schools.
Chbosky kept his readers culturally grounded by making several references to different seminal literary works. There were mentions of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Albert Camus’ The Stranger and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. Perhaps the biggest giveaway of the novel’s obscured theme is the reference to Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, To Kill A Mockingbird.
Appealing to the younger generation of readers, the novel’s cultural crossroads wasn’t limited to literature. The Perks of Being A Wallflower made allusions to films, music, and popular culture in general. The Smiths and Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide were prominent musical references. The musical comedy horror film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, plays a seminal role in bonding the story’s primary characters.
“I think that if I ever have kids, and they are upset, I won’t tell them that people are starving in China or anything like that because it wouldn’t change the fact that they were upset. And even if somebody else has it much worse, that doesn’t really change the fact that you have what you have.” ~ Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being A Wallflower
One of the story’s more effective facets is its structure, a collection of letters written by Charlie to anonymous readers. By writing the novel entirely in an epistolary form, Chbosky gave the readers deeper and more intimate insights into what makes Charlie tick. Other critics referred to this as “nostalgic” as most of Charlie’s experiences transport readers back to the very same phase in their lives. The authenticity does bring in a surge of memories of being a young adult.
In conjuring Charlie Chbosky did a commendable job, perhaps creating one of the icons of the struggles of young adulthood. Chbosky did an amazing job of accurately portraying experiences of depression and anxiety. Charlie’s character, however, was shrouded in mystery and doubt due to his perceived autism; it was never explicitly mentioned in the story that he had it. Despite this, his story is universal.
Chbosky’s five years worth of labor was sensationally delivered through Charlie. His voice was often perplexing and even though his emotions were palpably underdeveloped, his thoughts were honest and relatable. Charlie’s naivete and unconventional and free-flowing thoughts were imparted through humorous and witty lines such as:
Do you know what “masturbation” is? I think you probably do because you are older than me. But just in case, I will tell you. Masturbation is when you rub your genitals until you have an orgasm. Wow!
Whilst the writing structure was genuine, it was also the novel’s undoing. By writing the novel entirely through Charlie’s perspective, Chbosky failed to address the very same subjects he underlined in this work. Chbosky barely gave any resolutions on these subjects, hence, impairing the overall impact of the novel. Their developments were bereft of any depth. Charlie, an emotionally inhibited character, might have contributed to this lack of proper resolution.
“It’s just that I don’t want to be somebody’s crush. If somebody likes me, I want them to like the real me, not what they think I am. And I don’t want them to carry it around inside. I want them to show me, so I can feel it too.” ~ Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being A Wallflower
The Perks of Being A Wallflower is part of the tomes of our teenage years. It is a testament of all our experiences, our uncertainties, our infatuations and our heartbreaks capably written by an amazing writer in Stephen Chbosky. It took on dark and heavy subjects yet was balanced with several cultural touchstones. Moreover, the fusion of psychological aspects and trauma further gives the story a different complexion.
Charlie’s naivete and humor made it easier to relate to the story. But then again, not everything is seamless. The epistolary writing style gave a more solid picture and profile of Charlie but it also resulted to the story’s major blemish. The writing was creative but it also created a gaping hole that is left to the reader’s imagination to fill up. Or perhaps not.
Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 17%
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 10%
Charlie will forever be embedded on my mind. Like The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield (his literary antithesis), he is memorable. Both characters did possess labyrinthine minds that makes navigating their stories worth your while, or perplexing.
The story dealt with a score of difficult subjects. Unfortunately, these issues were hardly resolved in the story, hence, the low plot score. This is the same lamentation I had with Jay Asher’s The Thirteen Reasons Why, which, coincidentally, is also “cult phenomenon” and “sensational work”.
Author: Stephen Chbosky
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publishing Date: 2012
Number of Pages: 213 pages
Genre: Young Adult Fiction, Bildungsroman, Epistolary
Standing on the fringes of life…
Offers a unique perspective. But there comes a time to see what it looks like from the dance floor.
Since its publication, Stephen Chbosky’s haunting debut novel has received critical acclaim, provoked discussion and debate, and grown into a cult phenomenon with over 3 million copies in print, spent over 6 months at # 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, and inspired a major motion picture.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a story about what it’s like to travel that strange course through the uncharted territory of high school. The world of first dates, family dramas, and new friends. Of sex, drugs, and the rocky horror picture show. Of those wild and poignant roller-coaster days known as growing up.
About the Author
(Picture by Wikipedia) Stephen Chbosky was born on January 25, 1970 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
When he was a teenager, Chbosky immersed in literary works, primarily classics, horrors, and fantasies. Amongst his primary influences are J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher and the Rye and the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams. After graduating from Upper St. Clair High School in 1988, he met Steward Stern, the screenwriter of the 1955 James Dean film Rebel Without a Cause. Stern is Chbosky’s good friend and mentor, and is also a major influence in the writer’s career.
Chbosky graduated from University of Southern California’s screenwriting program in 1992. One of his earlier writing gigs comprised of writing, directing and acting in the 1995 independent film The Four Corners of Nowhere. He also wrote several unproduced screenplays. Most of Chbosky’s works revolved around screenwriting and film making.
In 1994, he began working on his debut novel, The Perks of Being A Wallflower. Five years later, it was published and was an instant success and was also adapted into the silver screen. Twenty years after his debut novel, Chbosky published his second novel, Imaginary Friend in October 2019.
Chbosky currently resides in Los Angeles, California.