September 5, 2012 by NowhereButPop
The Perks of Being a Wallflower hits theaters next weekend. So in honor of the big screen release, I recently picked up the seminal teen novel for a second time—and in doing so, rediscovered just how gripping, layered, and powerful of a story it is.
When I first read Perks, I was left in a state of semi-shock. I had thoroughly enjoyed the book all the way through reading, but wasn’t quite expecting the coming-of-age story to take the turn that it did. But the premise of Perks isn’t predicated on a big revelation; instead, the joy of reading the book comes from the instant connection that the audience makes with the protagonist, Charlie. The eponymous “wallflower” of the story, (portrayed in the film by the very capable Logan Lerman of Jack and Bobby and Percy Jackson fame) Charlie is an introvert with a really compelling way of seeing the world—and in wanting to be seen. He cares about people; an empathy that is rarely seen, but that feels raw and real. However, to simply praise Charlie only scratches the surface at everything that Perks delivers.
Perks is a rare gem. In an age where a “Paranormal Teen Romance” shelf exists at Barnes and Nobles, good YA books are harder to come by than ever. Very few authors get it right—probably because so many of them are trying to emulate the wrong thing. That said, there are several writers who do a masterful job, not just at writing teenagers, but at creating stories and characters that are universal. To name a few: J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, John Green, David Levithan, and Markus Zusak, I believe have all done just that. And while I didn’t discover Perks until the end of my teenage years, I hold it up with the chosen few influential authors who captured my attention—not just as a child—but well into my adolescence within the pages of their stories.
Author Stephen Chbosky’s writing style is actually elegant in its simplicity; the story is told entirely in letter-form (each chapter consists of the story’s protagonist, Charlie, writing to a friend he hopes to make in high school). We’re always inside Charlie’s head, meaning we’re always thinking how he’s thinking—sometimes it’s a profound observation about the world, sometimes just a connection with a book or song, but it always feels important. Chbosky artfully paints Charlie as the ultimate outsider—without making him too trite in his periods of angst and depression. But what separates Charlie from the vast majority of teenagers is his blunt honesty and openness about his experiences. Charlie is desperate for companionship that can really only be filled in by one person: you (i.e. the reader). In this respect, Chbosky has accomplished an amazing feat in creating a teenager that is wise beyond his years—but who by the same token, isn’t any smarter than he should be at 15. Charlie’s central struggle is that he isn’t fully in touch with his emotions—that he doesn’t understand everything he’s going through—and I think this is ultimately why he’s resonated with so many readers over the years.
And true to the adolescent experience, by story’s end, Charlie still doesn’t quite have all the answers. “I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons,” he says. “And maybe we’ll never know most of them. But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel ok about them” (pg. 211). He’s been the “wallflower” because he chooses to be so.
The conflicting notion of what it means to be a true “wallflower” resonated with me. Sam—who I think qualifies as the manic-pixie-dream-girl of the story (and will be portrayed by Emma Watson in the film) brings up a really interesting point: “Wallflowers” can’t get what they want in the end—not really. At first, she doesn’t waver in her decision that Charlie is too young for her; despite his growing feelings, she makes this crystal clear. By the end, with everything they both of them have been through, she has a change of heart. The irony here is that what Sam wanted more than anything was for someone to tell her that they loved her even though she told him it would never happen in the first place. Likewise, it’s as if Charlie’s very DNA has been telling him to do the opposite of what she wants—to keep her as a friend and continue watching his life from a distance.
But here’s the catch in all this: that “wallflower” quality that Charlie has is what readers empathized with from the very beginning of the story. Without knowing it, Sam is asking him to shed a crucial part of his identity. But that’s what we want too, isn’t it? We want Charlie—our hero—to be happy. And the thing that will make him most happy is to stop being the thing we loved about him throughout the whole book. It’s an interesting dichotomy.
So, which path is better? It fascinates me is how the reader is left to solve this seemingly contradictory message. In order to get what we truly want out of life, we have to act; put simply, we must do. But simultaneously, what we all want is to sit back, observe, and be the audience to the show that is our own lives. The problem is—I think everyone knows that “wallflowers” shouldn’t stay that way forever. Eventually you have to stop watching and start living. It sounds clichéd, but there’s an element of truth to that—perhaps not a “perk,” but rather something we need to accept. And I think at the end of it all, Perks is trying to tell us to all be a little more present in our day-to-day lives; to give the “wallflower” inside us a wake-up-call every now and then.
This is what Perks does best: in a YA setting, it offers something profound and larger-than-life. Adults often say that teenagers feel invincible. I think Charlie says it best, when he, Sam, and Patrick are driving down the freeway at night. “In that moment, I swear, we were infinite.” We hear ya, Charlie. We really do.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower opens in theaters September 14.