Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)

--The blurb--
"The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a story about what it’s like to travel that strange course through the uncharted territory of high school. The world of first dates, family dramas, and new friends. Of sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Of those wild and poignant roller-coaster days known as growing up."

--The review--
In order to simultaneously reassure teens that others out there feel as they do, and reassure themselves that they still remember how it feels to be there, several writers have chased adolescent angst through the media of novels and film, from American Pie to Adrian Mole. The worldwide success of Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which has been published in 31 languages, has added to this arsenal and yet also raised expectations. So, perhaps contrary to its 'wallflower' title, how does it fit in to this canon? And is the hyperbole surrounding it justified?

As a newcomer to the genre, Perks fits in perfectly - even if it lacks the humour of classic teen angst protagonist Adrian Mole. It combines trivial events with more serious incidents, has a somewhat quirky narrator go through the standard teenage experience of obtaining a driver's licence and engage in the clichéd rebellion of beginning to smoke cigarettes, and juxtaposes sex and drugs with the value of true friendships and relationships. It opens up issues that young people may otherwise feel afraid to discuss and is poignant and superficial by equal turns. It makes for compulsive reading as the reader waits to see how protagonist Charlie develops and gains in confidence, and compels one to root for him as he loses his friends, is put upon by siblings, and experiments as he searches for his true self. These are things that teenagers everywhere are doing, meaning that Perks offers a universality that justifies the hype. Despite the book's clearly American setting, Chbosky's depiction of this (even arguably slightly unhinged) teenage narrator evidently appeals to young people worldwide, which transcends the specifics of the United States laws and school system.

These qualities even transcend the book's major negatives. Due to all of the above, the Aunt Helen plotline is greatly superfluous. Teenagers don't need an excuse for their screwed-upness: it's just par for the course when it comes to adolescence. By adding a subconscious motive for Charlie's behaviour, Chbosky elevates Charlie's teenage quest for identity and acceptance to something more serious (and even clinical) than it needs to be. Furthermore, the 'wallflower' of the title seems contradictory to Charlie's personality and behaviour. While he is more introverted than extroverted and experiences dips of unpopularity, on the whole he is presented as living a rather wilder and more rebellious lifestyle involving underage smoking, drinking, and drug consumption, attending and enjoying all-night parties, participation in random Rocky Horror performances, and hanging out with students two or three years older than himself (incidentally, this represents one of Chbosky's weaknesses: the tendency to portray the teens in the story as older than they really are in terms of aspects of their behaviour). None of this screams 'wallflower' to people who expect wallflowers to not only be so unpopular as to rarely/never be invited to parties, but also people who dislike them on the rare occasions that they do have a chance to go.

Nonetheless, it is not unreasonable to assume that because of Charlie's clear blossoming before our eyes, and the elements with which many teens will be able to identify (even if they are genuine wallflowers), Perks will remain part of the 'adolescent angst' canon, alongside such classics as Catcher in the Rye, The Fault in our Stars, and yes - even Adrian Mole.

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