While I have found, after several disastrous attempts to read Anne Frank’s Diary, that I don’t tend to enjoy epistolary-style novels, I read this one with quite a lot of anticipation, having waited 8 months for it in various library waiting lists.I can’t remember who recommended it to me, or how I came across it, but The perks of being a wallflower, a modern piece of realistic fiction, has been on my to-read list for ages – ever since last December. While this isn’t the best book I have read, it proved to be very thought-provoking.
The perks of being a wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, is a shortish YA epistolary novel (232 pages) that spans the length of a year, from August 1991-2, in a series of letters. It is written in first person, as the books protagonist and wallflower, freshman ‘Charlie’, exposes his thoughts, feelings and daily experiences to an anonymous ‘friend’. This ‘coming of age‘ novel, written in 1999, follows in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye‘s quest to capture the adolescent experience, but, in some respects, especially in the level of interest it produced for me, draws upon Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time, as ‘Charlie’ appears to have a slight case of Asperger’s Syndrome, and so uses language in unusual ways. A plethora of controversial topics are explored, such as identity, rape, violence, abortion, homosexuality, molestation and drug-taking, and while the novel in no way openly condemns or encourages any of these actions, preferring to stay quite distanced and allow readers to form their own opinions, it shows clearly that bad decisions have consequences which must be dealt with.
‘Charlie’, as he names himself in his letters, is 15, and has decided to write to an unknown ‘friend’, “because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have.” He begs this ‘friend’ not to try to figure out who“she” is, or who he is, and writes that “I will call people by different names or generic names because I don’t want you to find me”. Thus, the audience is given a sense of semi-reliability from ‘Charlie’ – on the one hand, he seems innocent and genuinely writing to sort things out, especially as he tries to reassure his addressee that “I don’t mean anything bad by it. Honest…I need to know that these people exist”, but on the other hand, from his narration readers pick up that ‘Charlie’ is quite out of sync from other teens, an outsider – a “wallflower” who doesn’t view things the way others do and has difficulty understanding others’ emotions – and that this restricts his viewpoint and renditions of events and experiences. Nonetheless, by the end of the novel, Charlie appears to have grown mentally wiser, showing maturity and reason in his last letter, as well as drawing to conclusions that have not only been the product of a lot of consideration, they are also good ones that are ultimately accepting and positive in their outlook for both ‘Charlie’ and his future.
One of the first things that struck me when reading The perks of being a wallflower was my ignorance about drugs and drug-taking through the decades. After reading the novel, which features the use of ‘pot’, ‘brownies’ (both names for Marijuana/Cannabis) and LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide), I became extremely curious about drug use in America, the effects of drugs, and when governments began to outlaw the use of recreational drugs in America. After some research from the ever-helpful internet and my knowledgeable parents, I discovered that while recreational drug usage was very popular in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, drugs were used from much earlier on, and drug abuse prevention, treatment and rehabilitation legislation was already in place in 1920. The federal war against drug use may have increased and strengthened in the 1980’s when the government realised that scare tactics weren’t the way to go to try and prevent recreational drug use, and began using education and awareness programmes instead, but legislations had existed for decades before. Thus, it was to my surprise that The perks of being a wallflower featured drug use as common and seemingly uninhibited in Pittsburgh, PA, the place it is deduced that ‘Charlie’ is living, although ‘Charlie’ himself doesn’t tell his ‘friend’ for the sake of anonymity. This, I found out later, was because there was a resurgence of drug use in the 90’s, especially LSD, which wasn’t very popular in the 70’s or 80’s, and the continued popularity of cannabis and heroin.
Something else which interested me were the books that ‘Charlie’ is given to read by his English teacher throughout the year – quite a comprehensive list that is written about, and maybe others which aren’t mentioned. The list is as follows:
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- “The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie
- A Separate Peace” by John Knowles
- The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac
- Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
- Walden by Henry David Thoreau
- Hamlet by William Shakespeare
- The Stranger by Albert Camus
- The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
(clicking on the links will send you to the wikipedia page for each text/author)
What’s really great about this is that I’ve read several of the books, so when ‘Charlie’ discusses some of his thoughts – or lack of thoughts – about the book, I can relate to it even while I don’t agree with some of his opinions (as I mentioned above, I never considered The Catcher In The Rye as a favourite). The books serve as good reference points, as they are classics and so there is a likelihood that they have been read by teens today, and so enable readers to relate and invest more into ‘Charlie’ as a character. They also show the type of books an advanced 15 year old would read in 1991. In a way, the entries about the books are Stephen Chbosky urging readers to keep reading, and giving suggestions as to what to read after they’ve finished The perks of being a wallflower. ‘Charlie’s’ description of Naked Lunch intrigued me, and I may take a leaf out of his book and read it sometime soon. This is a great way to encourage teens to read – by giving them a booklist which they know the protagonist of the book they are reading likes, and so influence to read it as well. The list of books are, in accordance to The perks of being a wallflower, either written about experiences while on drugs, or while the author was using drugs, introspective novels which discuss identity, existence and philosophy, or coming-of-age novels. Thus, Chbosky links some of the themes of his book to those which his protagonist reads, and forms connections to them.
There are many more issues, ideas and symbols which are woven into the novel, and I did take away more than what I have written here, especially as I embarked upon a quest to extend my knowledge after reading the novel. However, in saying that, the two themes above, literature and recreational drug use, were those that I was most curious about afterwards (er, also, I’ve already written over 1000 words, and so I didn’t feel like doubling my word count. That just makes me seem lazy, though). This novel is an interesting, somewhat extreme rendition of a year of adolescence, filled with experiences that affect and develop readers’ perspectives on “the roller-coaster days known as growing up”.
As always, I’d be eager to hear your thoughts, opinions, and any comments you might like to share,
Let’s call me Lily