I’m writing this post a little ‘cold’ and unprepared because I’m unexpectedly going to see The Avengers tonight! To say I’m excited is a ridiculous understatement. I’m a Joss Whedon super fangirl. As far as Perks is concerned, I’ve had a month to soak in the after reading funk and have come out on the side of – not a a huge fan. And I’m entirely unapologetic about this unpopular opinion. (Spoilers below)
Chbosky’s debut novel presents itself as the universal tale of awkward teenagedom, especially that first year of high school. It was published in 1999 and follows Charlie as he writes letters to a ‘friend’ describing his freshman experiences as the ‘wallflower’. Going in, I had reservations and expectations. So many friends have lauded this book for its emotional revelations and ability to capture some truth of adolescence. People who I trust have explained how the book saved their lives or got them through those turbulent years. So. Much. Hype. I avoided it like the plague despite the book being published during my freshman/sophomore years of high school. I continued to avoid it during college and most of my twenties.
To put my expectations into perspective, I feared I’d feel about Charlie the way I now feel about Esther from The Bell Jar. Reading The Bell Jar in college felt life altering. She and I were the same person with the same problems. I felt so much in common with her that I began to fear I was bat shit crazy and would end up with my own head in an oven (I know I’m mixing up Esther with Sylvia here, pretend it’s for effect). But upon a reread a couple of years ago – in my late twenties – my perspective had completely changed. All I wanted to do was shake the shiz out of Esther and yell at her that all this shit won’t matter in 10 years. What if I was too far removed from high school to relate to Charlie? What if I had missed my chance?
But my fears were misguided. I liked Charlie from page one. I enjoyed his voice, loved the execution of the epistolary storytelling, and found myself in several of his thoughts. One particular feeling really registered with me even as an adult – the idea that you could be happy and miserable at the same time. I happily flew through the first 100 pages before I began to get uncomfortable. Something was off about Charlie – and not just in an awkward 15 year old way. His emotional responses to things were not normal. I put the book down and got in bed, ruminating on what could be Charlie’s real problem. When I awoke, I felt positive that he was autistic and read the rest of the novel under that belief until all is revealed in the end. And even though he’s not autistic, he is the victim of sexual abuse/molestation which leaves him physically, emotionally, and mentally crippled. I was enraged.
Not at Charlie or his particular story. I still adored Charlie and was so happy I had gotten to know him. Instead, I was mad at all the people who explained how much they related to Charlie’s life and all the marketers who touted this novel as a ‘universal’ teenage story. Are you kidding me? What is universal about being sexually molested unless you have actually been molested? For those kids who have unfortunately experienced this kind of trauma, then yes, this book is ‘universal’ and probably so incredibly cathartic to read. But for the rest of us who were simply awkward wallflowers in high school, band geeks, sci-fi nerds, etc. – how can we possibly pretend to relate to Charlie? How disrespectful to the truth of his life and his experiences.
I just got really angry. I knew kids who had gone through that kind of ordeal early in their life. Or who were autistic. And to walk up to them and say – hey, I know just what you’re going through because being a teenager sucks and sometimes I feel so sad I can’t even cry – what a holy fucking mess.
Again, I’m angry at the readers – not the book, not Charlie, and not Stephen Chbosky.
My second and far more minor problem with Perks is the misleading title and idea of what being a ‘wallflower’ is. Charlie is not a wallflower. He approaches Sam and her brother to befriend them, he tells Sam he likes her, and he has a handful of friends he spends lots of time with. How is this being a wallflower? I don’t even consider myself a true wallflower and I didn’t have the nerve to tell my crush I liked him or randomly befriend strangers all of a sudden at football games. And just because you aren’t the most popular kid at school or have the biggest social circle doesn’t make you a wallflower either. I had a handful of awesome friends – we weren’t popular; we weren’t unpopular – and most of my high school experiences were great.
And then there’s Sam. When Charlie admits to liking her, she explains that he must not feel that away about her and that she doesn’t return his feelings. And God Bless the boy, he respects what she says and remains her friend – doing his best to support her and her boyfriend. When said boyfriend is revealed to be a total cheating douche, Sam has the nerve to berate Charlie for not immediately rushing in and claiming Sam as his own. God forbid he just give her some space. I mean, she has already told him she doesn’t like him. And then to say he lacks the ability to take action and that if he likes her he should just ignore what she said and take her as his own anyway. EXCUSE ME? What lesson does this teach teenage boys? Girls are stupid, don’t know what they want, never mean what they say, don’t want to be respected – and this is the kicker – No. Means. Yes. Chbosky, what were you thinking? Maybe we’re just supposed to chalk it up to teenage stupidity and lack of life experiences. Sam and Charlie obviously still have much to learn. But for a book that seems to be so validating to its young audience, I just think this path might have frightening affects on a teenage psyche that hasn’t reached full maturity yet.
Has anyone else read this and think I’m way over-thinking things? I absolutely could be. Did I entirely miss the point? Please let me know. Perks was my bookclub’s April selection, but our discussion won’t take place until the end of May so I’d love your thoughts. I firgured I’d cool down the longer I was separated from the novel, but that hasn’t happened. I don’t know why, but this book has affected me more than any other this year. And garnered the longest post known to man. Kudos if you made it all the way through!