Oh, this book. I treated it like a sacred text back in high school. I gave it regular re-reads through the beginning of college, but then I let it fade into the background. It used to be my “Fall” book (despite it covering an entire school year) and while I continued to think back on fondly, I started to replace that nostalgia drip with the character-created playlists from within the book. It’s been years since I last picked it up, but Ride’s “Vapour Trail” creeps back into heavy rotation whenever the leaves start to turn.
I was inspired to revisit the book earlier this month when crystalclear wrote about experiencing the book for the first time as an adult. I was curious: how would it hold up? Would I still love it? Would it still activate “that teenage feeling”?
Answers: not well, not really, and….yeah of course.
The nostalgia train was already charging full steam ahead once I unearthed my copy; it was at the bottom of a dusty stack in an unused room, and I gave it a good shake before cracking it open. The obvious dust and obligatory movie ticket stubs flew out, but so did a photo! A photo from Prom Night, 2004. I was off to *quite* the start! If only the book held up as well as the dress (and shout-out to past me for tucking a chartreuse photo into a chartreuse book)!
Charlie, our narrator, is difficult to relate to now. The book is his collection of letters to a stranger, and they are twee-on-twee. His choices are precious. He has a lot of capital-F-Feelings, and he expresses them in a way that is both precocious and juvenile. He is told, countless times, about how “special” and “smart” he is, which he frequently mentions, but he also makes note just as often as how the people who tell him these things tell him so because, in their words, they don’t think ANYONE gives him praise or support. His family is together and functional; his older siblings bicker, his mother is quiet but nervous, and his father is present but emotionally closed-off. His family spends a lot of time together, provides emotional support, and gives each other space to be individuals. He receives frequent hugs from friends and family alike, but reports after almost every interaction that it was the first time he had been hugged since he could last remember. He is a contradictory sort, and it’s tempting to armchair diagnose his peculiarities, but I am thinking now that it’s less about the character and more about Chbosky’s affected style. Mobius_Walker wrote a thoughtful review of Chbosky’s second novel at the beginning of the year, and it planted a different reason to re-read this in the back of my brain: maybe Stephen Chbosky is not as good as I remember!
Charlie is put on a pedestal by his English teacher for observations like this:
Things have stopped moving for the most part ever since. I haven’t skipped an- other class. And I guess now I don’t feel like a big faker for trying to put my life back together. Bill thought my paper on The Catcher in the Rye (which I wrote on my new old typewriter!) was my best one yet. He said I was “developing” at a rapid pace and gave me a different kind of book as “a reward.” It’s On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I’m now up to about ten cigarettes a day.
Oof. Also: On the Road is a “treat”? The teacher gives Charlie “special” assignments, as Charlie is such a special kid.
I remembered all of the major beats: going to Rocky Horror, chain-smoking at Bob’s Big Boy, pining after girls who are far out of reach, bad reactions to LSD, and becoming a “participant” in one’s own life. I remembered Charlie’s bouts with hospitalization, his unstable moods, his secrets- but I failed to remember the tragic tales of nearly every other person that slips in and out of Charlie’s circle. Chbosky doesn’t give his characters real stories; they are all collections of reactions and responses to trauma. It’s…really cheap. The first 40 pages alone hold suicide, domestic violence, and rape. EVERY named female character (except for one) has been preyed upon by a man; more than one was abused by older friends of the family, more than one was raped, more than one was beaten. Almost every male character is also an aggressor, a victim, or both. It’s overwhelmingly pessimistic. Do we, as humans, experience traumatic events throughout our life? Of course- but trauma does not define us. There is no room for post-traumatic growth; his characters are sentenced to live their past experiences over and over. They are collections of frayed nerves wrapped around, under Chbosky’s judgmental pen, fundamentally broken people. I haven’t even touched on Charlie’s “big secret”, but when the pieces fall into place they fall as cheap excuses.
I wish it had held up better, and I wish that I had placed less reverence upon it in my youth, but at the end of the day I am relieved to look back and measure my own changes against the perpetual manic-pixie-teendom of Charlie and his friends. When Charlie’s friend Patrick states that he wants a dorm room with exposed brick walls so that he can PAINT OVER THE ORIGINAL EXPOSED BRICKS, I was proud of my status as an old-man-yelling-at-clouds.
This doesn’t work on my Bingo card, as I am still fighting my way through my White Whale (LAST SQUARE! UGH!) but if you need to check off a square, then Perks of Being a Wallflower could help you out with Green, Nostalgia, Friendship, Adaptation (the movie isn’t bad), or quite a few others! Read with care; it is 215 pages of pure trigger warnings.