Books That Built Us: ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ by Stephen Chbosky

Wednesday, February 7, 2018 - 4:46pm

“Even if we don't have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there.”

It was the summer before ninth grade.

I was lounging next to a pool at a Hawaiian hotel, encumbered by my perpetually anxious thoughts, when my sister handed me a book and said, “You should read this.” I took a good look at it: The cover was attractive and minimalist, a mix of pale green and forest brown, and it felt skinny enough that reading it didn’t seem like much of a challenge (spoiler alert: It wasn't). I spent the next three days engulfing myself in the text, flipping through every page without hesitation. When I finished Stephen Chbosky’s “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” I knew instantly it was not only my new favorite book — before it had been, naturally, J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” — but that it had reassured almost every single fear I was facing about high school up until that point.

Coming-of-age stories have always been my favorite subgenre of American literature — and narrative art in general — but there hasn’t been a coming-of-age story I’ve read quite like “Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Set in the early ’90s, the novel is presented in a series of soulful, intimate journal entries written by the protagonist Charlie, a perceptive introvert from suburban Pittsburgh who wrestles with childhood traumas and a fear of rejection as he enters his first year of high school. Soon, however, Charlie befriends step-siblings Patrick and Sam, both ambitious, extroverted upperclassmen who help push Charlie out of his comfort zone and realize his potential. As he experiments with LSD, creates melancholic mixtapes and revels in watching glitzy live performances of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show ” — you know, classic high school stuff — Charlie comes closer to his true self, even as he confronts his darkest memories, the ones that attempt to lure him back into isolation.  

“Perks of Being a Wallflower” aches with a tenderness and vulnerability I have yet to see in other novels. Every sentence, every careful observation from Charlie, oozes with an unbridled adolescent angst that’s devastatingly honest in one moment, honestly devastating in the next. In some ways, the book narratively and thematically mirrors its spiritual predecessor “Catcher in the Rye,” but Charlie is never as misanthropic or self-aggrandizing as Holden Caulfield. Instead, Chbosky embeds an uncommonly genuine kindness into Charlie, as well as an alluring cultured taste — his character takes a liking to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise,” The Smiths and “The Graduate.”

The book is a stunning portrait of what it’s like to feel so uncomfortable with yourself, so lost in the burrows of your past that the only way to overcome such pain is through the people who matter in your present — whether it’s your friends, family or teachers. Charlie learns this in the defining moments that make and break his freshman year: He reluctantly begins his first romantic relationship with Sam and Patrick’s punk-rock friend Mary Elizabeth, takes his older sister Candace to an abortion clinic, gets into a rough fight with some bullies and admits his love for Sam in one of the book’s most elegantly written scenes.

With each trial and tribulation that dictates his high school experience, Charlie starts to become a better version of himself. He starts to “participate,” as he would call it. Charlie’s coming to terms with disturbing truths about his youth may have led to a harrowing — though ultimately optimistic — conclusion, but the fear he once had about wanting to fit in and be accepted for who he was quietly subsides over the course of the book. In the final pages, I could feel a renewed confidence, a joyful wisdom emanating from Charlie that I have carried with me ever since.

High school can be such an intense emotional experience. Every day can feel like the end of the world, a seemingly never-ending cycle of soul-crushing misery propagated by social alienation, academic pressure, unrequited love, a lack of independence, severe boredom and idealized expectations from society and family. Inevitably, we turn to music, film, literature and our own friends to guide us toward a sense of clarity, and perhaps to also fill the void of despair and rage that seems to ravage every teenager who has ever existed. Before I started high school, I was frightened by the prospect of experiencing a repeat of middle school, a time that was beset with the manifestation of my worst insecurities. Fortunately, high school helped me prevail against that current of dread — and then some.

And though my high school experience may not have been as exciting or as chaotic as Charlie’s, “Perks of Being a Wallflower” was a great compass for immersing me into a world I was myself scared to enter, but eventually learned to embrace.