“So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.”
At 232 pages, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky is not a mammoth masterpiece. It is, however, a very clever one. I read it in a few hours on a lazy Sunday morning, absolutely captivated by the story – even though I’d already seen the movie.
An epistolary novel (a book written in letters), it is told through the eyes of Charlie, a slightly awkward teenager, adjusting to high school life. There is all the usual teen stuff – first love, proms, exams. But the real brilliance of the story lies in its subtlety. Through Charlie, author Stephen Chbosky provides us with a running commentary on the daily life of a middle class American family living in suburbia in the early 90s. There are no dragons or wizards: just music records, bookstores and a lot of pot.
Charlie is incredibly philosophical. Often his letters, addressed ‘Dear Friend’ to an anonymous recipient, will include detailed play-by-plays of family parties or school lunches. But most of the time, Charlie – or Chbosky – is commenting on (read: challenging) social norms and musing on how silly some conventions seem. It’s one of those books that helps you put life in perspective and forces you to look at situations in a different light.
To illustrate my example, here is a quote from one of my favourite passages. Charlie is in a takeout restaurant (presumably McDonalds):
“I saw other people there. Old men sitting alone. Young girls with blue eye shadow and awkward jaws. Little kids who look tired. Fathers in nice coats who looked even more tired. Kids working behind counters of the food places who looked like they hadn’t had the will to live for hours. The machines kept opening and closing. The people kept giving money and getting their change. And it all felt very unsettling to me.”
This short paragraph contains so much meaning. You can see why Chbosky didn’t need to write a 600 page novel – his 232 pages are more than enough. He gives you a tantalising glimpse into the lives of so many different characters – and then he moves on. Just in that paragraph, you have snippets of other people’s stories. And you can probably relate to them all on some level.
I found it incredibly refreshing to read a book that communicated powerful messages in such a ‘readable’ fashion. As in, in a clear and unpretentious way. And I don’t think it was by accident. Charlie received advice from his advanced English teacher about his writing, as follows:
“[Bill] said that I should use the vocabulary that I learn in class like ‘corpulent’ and ‘jaundice’. I would use them here, but I really don’t think they are appropriate in this format. To tell you the truth, I don’t know where they are appropriate to use. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t know them. You should absolutely. But I have just never heard anyone use the words ‘corpulent’ and ‘jaundice’ ever in my life. That includes teachers. So what’s the point of using words nobody else knows or can say comfortably? I just don’t understand that.”
The Perks of Being a Wallflower doesn’t hide behind any fancy words or academic references. It is the sort of book you can read in a couple of hours on a lazy Sunday morning, but finish the last page feeling as though you have soaked up a whole semester’s worth of philosophy class. And if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know it contains the essential hallmark of a great novel: a shocking twist.
Although that doesn’t mean it embodies perfection. One passage in particular in The Perks of Being a Wallflower stood out to me. Bill, Charlie’s English teacher, gave him a new book to read. And this is what he said:
“Be sceptical about this one. It’s a great book. But try to be a filter, not a sponge.”
I read that sentence a few times, and it dawned on me that lately, I have been a sponge. Just read my latest review of ‘Little Princes‘ and you’ll see what I mean. I’m positively gushing about this book, praising it to high heaven – so much so that I probably didn’t apply a filter at all when reading it. My critical eye was blinded. Instead I had just soaked it all up and bathed in what I perceived to be its brilliance.
But I need to be a filter. The written word is powerful and I can be easily inspired. All it takes is one novel about orphanages in Nepal and I’m ready to pack my bags and sign up as a volunteer. Now, in hindsight, I see that Little Princes may have teetered on the ever-blurry border of fact and fiction. How much of it was true and how much of it was carefully constructed publicity? The author, after all, has a not-for-profit to run. This book wasn’t just written to provide an insight into Nepalise life – there is always an agenda. And this doesn’t make it bad, but it is simply worth remembering. With how much I read, I need to be a filter, or I will struggle to stay sane under the weight of so many different ideas.
And that, when I think about it, is probably why Charlie needed to be a filter too. He suffered from severe panic attacks and was highly sensitive to the world around him – so much so it almost killed him. But life will not be enriching if you try to soak it all up like a sponge. Eventually you are going to run out of room and become laden and heavy, overburdened with information, unable to move forward. But being a filter, you can take what you need out of life and leave the rest. It isn’t worth holding onto what doesn’t serve you.
“We accept the love we think we deserve.”
“Enjoy it. Because it’s happening.”
“He’s a wallflower. You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand.”