Friday, October 2, 2009

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

In honor of banned books week, I thought I'd try to finish reading a frequently banned YA book I've been reading for the past year, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. I recently re-discovered my copy in a pile in the car, which is unusual, because usually I'll retrieve a book from the car by the end of the day to read before bed. This one wasn't compelling enough to make me do that; it had been in the car for a few months by the time I turned it up.

It's obvious why this book has been banned--it has everything that parents who think they can shelter their kids usually object to (sex, homosexuality, abortion, child abuse, drugs, drinking). But I spent the first part of my reading (before I left the book in the car) trying to figure out what's wrong with the narrator, Charlie. Why does he cry all the time? Is he autistic? Is he stupid? When I finally picked up the book again and read to the end, I found that the answer to these questions turns out to be no, and there is sort of a reason he cries so much, although this big secret of the novel seemed pretty contrived to me.

There are some nice bits along the way, though. Charlie's thoughts can be interesting, like about how some people have "glory days" in high school and then their children need to be told that they are as happy now as their parent looks in old photos, and about how in the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" he wishes "the angel would come down and show us how Uncle Billy's life had meaning."

I also got a lot of wicked enjoyment out of the conversation in which Charlie and his friends conclude that their parents compare all their music to the Beatles because "it kills them when they can't relate to something." My enjoyment is wicked because I feel like the kids about this--I'm tired of hearing baby boomers relate everything to their era--and then I realize that I'm doing exactly what the conversation is about--trying to relate, when I'm too old. So in a more age-appropriate way, I also like the melancholy reminder of what it can be like to be a teenager, at least some days: "I tried to help my mother in the kitchen, but I dropped the casserole, so she told me to read in my room until my father came home....he told me to stop 'hanging on his shoulders like a monkey' because he wanted to watch the hockey game. I watched the hockey game with him for a while, but I couldn't stop asking him questions about which countries the players are from, and he was 'resting his eyes'....So, he told me to go watch television with my sister, which I did, but she told me to go help my mother in the kitchen, which I did, but then she told me to go read in my room."

Although I appreciate the way Charlie deals with his problems and decides not to blame anyone else for them, I was relieved to emerge from his world. The simplicity and directness of the way he speaks irritates me: "We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them." I think Charlie is always trying to be profound, and that readers closer to the agonies of being sixteen respond to that more positively.

Me, I can take this book or leave it. But certainly I think all teenagers should be able to read it.

7 comments:

Nymeth said...

I read this last year, and readily acknowledge that the fact that I still feel sixteen sometimes may have to do with how much I enjoyed it :P

Amanda said...

Well, I just hit the 30 line. Maybe I ought to get to this one sooner than later. :D

lemming said...

I'm just tired of the baby boomers....

Care said...

I do get a kick out of teenagers thinking us old people are so "OLD!" and yet, time flies so very very fast. Maybe it's my suddenly working in a HS; it IS bizarro-world there. I don't know many teenagers so just watching them and listening to them is fascinating.

Memory said...

I was beginning to think I was the only person who wasn't over the moon in love with this book. I'm with you: I can take it or leave it. I often found that Charlie's voice sounded stilted and contrived. I couldn't believe in him as this wonderfully talented English student.

Kristen said...

I remember enjoying this one when I read it. I do think that Charlie trying to be profound all the time is not that far off what I remember of pompous teenaged-life. Now that my children are rapidly heading towards the teens (I only have a few months remaining before I am officially the mother of a teenager), I can see it in some of their conversations with each other too. And good mom that I am, it makes me want to tell them to stop being such condescending, pompous, little twits but I refrain and hope they outgrow the tendency before too long.

Jeanne said...

Nymeth, this may well be a book I'm just too old for.
Amanda, before your kids get to be teenagers!
Lemming, thank you. As you know, I've been tired of them most of my life.
Care, I like your term "bizarro-world." That's something this book really gets across.
Memory, exactly. A great English student, and so inarticulate?
Kristen, yes, there's some of that pompousness in Charlie, and that doesn't bother me too much; as you say, it's part of being a teenager. Probably a survival technique! But some teenagers take it to an extreme, and Charlie is one.