The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
When I was in high school, I believed that the purest thing in the world could be found in the third verse of Scissor Sisters’ “Paul McCartney.” When Jake Shears declares that “I’m just in love with your sound!” and hits “sound” so perfectly and satisfyingly, there is simply no room for something else in the world. It’s communication that includes words, obviously, but goes beyond it, managing to pull your heartbeat into its own beat and rearrange you.
I think this is why music feels so heartrendingly important to teenagers, especially socially awkward ones. When you can’t communicate effectively, something that does is both awe-inspiring and comforting. If someone else likes Ta-Dah as much as you do, then you share a wavelength. You can begin to make yourself understood. Of course, there are limits, as lovingly parodied in Avenue Q’s “Mix Tape,” but sharing music that means so much to you is an incredibly intimate act.
This is why The Perks of Being a Wallflower, despite being absolutely a novel of the nineties, remains timeless. The music mentioned (which I thought was going to be a much larger focus for the novel, given that its publisher is literally MTV) reminds us about Nirvana and the Smiths, but the songs themselves aren’t the point. Rather, it’s how the characters interact with the songs, as almost a proxy for interacting with each other.
Well, not all the characters do this; it’s mainly Charlie, the aloof, quiet, and sensitive protagonist. After the suicide of his only friend, Michael, Charlie is ready to venture back into the world, detailing his efforts to participate in life (per the instruction of his new English teacher) in letters sent to an unknown recipient. Charlie, a freshman in high school, makes friends with a pair of seniors—stepsiblings Patrick and Sam. Despite the ticking time bomb of graduation, the three become close as they suffer and succeed together in small, fragile ways.
Charlie’s almost overwhelming feelings are described in gorgeous detail. He’s prone to crying panic attacks and great feats of violence; the two are married beautifully when Charlie slashes someone’s tires to feel better. Charlie may have been the first one to deliver “And in that moment, I swear we were infinite,” but there’s a ghost of Charlie in horse_ebooks’ oft-quoted “Everything happens so much” and those subsumed by waves of feels. (Or should I be saying that there’s the ghost of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, in there as well?) But Charlie’s delicate sensibility is all his own. Early in the book, he makes a playlist for one of his new friends. The a side is all popular hits, but the b side is a quiet, wintery playlist that feels like Charlie himself.
Right down to Charlie’s inability to take action. His incredible depth of feeling often leaves him paralyzed—not through indecision, but because he feels its inappropriate to try and impose his will on others. When Mary Elizabeth, one of Sam’s friends, asks Charlie out on a date, he’s excited, but soon reflects that, if he does the asking, he might get to go out with a girl he actually likes. It’s almost cute in the moment, reminding us that Charlie is younger than his friends, but it comes back to haunt the reader. Later in the novel, Patrick suffers a hideous break-up and takes it out on Charlie: drinking, making Charlie take him cruising, and kissing him. And Charlie consents to all of this, because he thinks this is how you express love: by being what another person needs you to be.
Obviously, this supposition is taken apart bit by bit as the novel goes on, culminating in Sam taking Charlie aside and specifically tells him that “You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love. You just can’t. You have to do things” (200). And therein lies the universality of Charlie’s story: The Perks of Being a Wallflower is about learning to become your own agent, in its own gentle way. And that is what becoming an adult is all about.
At the very end of the novel, we learn about something that, in the wrong hands, would hand wave away why Charlie is the way he is. But Chbonsky refuses any pat explanations, preferring instead to explore Charlie’s complex feelings about what happened and who did it to him. It’s a welcome relief; as Ana points out, it’s rare to see this situation treated so sensitively in fiction.
There are a thousand other things I love about this book: the way it captures wanting to break free from suburbia, Charlie valuing friendship over dating, Charlie’s utter shock that people think about him at all, Charlie’s desire to be heard… so, Charlie, Charlie, Charlie, basically. He is a masterful creation.
But I think the thing I love most is that there’s an in for everyone into this exquisitely documented world. For Ana, it was Charlie’s love of the Smiths. For me, it was Charlie describing how bright something was by comparing it to the wonderful, disorienting feeling of leaving a movie theater in the afternoon, a strange experience that I’ve always adored and cherished.
In that moment, I knew we were on the same wavelength.
Bottom line: The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a delicate, sweet, quiet, and exquisitely detailed book about that most universally adolescent of all quests—learning to be your own agent. Charlie is such a wonderful, marvelous creation. Highly recommended.
I rented this book from the public library.