At nineteen, Stephen Chobsky got his heart broken. The circumstances of said heartbreak are not available on public record but what we do know is that the young writer was left with a question.
“Why do good people let themselves be treated badly?”
To answer that question, Chobsky wrote The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The premise of this coming-of age novel is simple. Charlie, a fifteen year old introvert, is starting his freshman year of high school. To help cope with the onslaught of what is sure to be a hellish time, Charlie begins to send anonymous letters to a friend of a friend. In these letters, Charlie conveys the landscape of his life. We learn that Charlie has just lost his best friend to suicide, that he is incredibly sensitive and that his prospects for friendship in high school are grim. Enter Patrick and Sam, step-siblings who take Charlie under their wing, introducing the lowly freshman to their circle of eccentric seniors, good music and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
This may sound like the premise of dozens of Y.A. novels, where the high school experience takes centre stage, but there is something distinctly different about Perks. The struggle to articulate what that distinction is is a true testament to Chobsky’s ability. What makes Perks so different rests in a number of factors. One is Chobsky’s ability to capture the feelings that we struggle to articulate in language. The thoughts and experiences that are so interior that we presume them to be unique to us as individuals. Like the visceral feeling of walking home on a sunny afternoon, listening to a song that seems to sum up exactly what you are feeling and in that moment you feel like you are exactly where you are supposed to be.
For me, Perks was the literary version of that song. It came into my life at a time when I needed it. I was sixteen and going through a break-up, one in a series with the same godawful boyfriend. My friends, whom had tolerated me during this time with equal parts love and empathy, had reached their wits’ end. They could not understand why I stayed in a relationship as doomed as it was turbulent and in truth, neither could I. Despite an ever-growing list of reasons to walk-away, to salvage my self-esteem and start anew, I stayed, putting myself through months of unnecessary turmoil. It was then that I stumbled across a battered copy of Perks in a charity shop, retired to the bath and devoured it in one soaking.
Charlie is a protagonist who lives within us all. He’s an earnest outsider, suffering through all the woes and anxieties of adolescence; alienation, loneliness, longing and the struggle to find an identity. When he meets Patrick and Sam, Charlie is accepted as a fellow “wallflower.” Chobsky’s definition of a wallflower is given to us in the voice of Patrick, discussing Charlie with Sam: “He’s a wallflower. . . . You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand.”
The gang is made up of willing outsiders, kids comfortable enough around each other to abandon social climbing and just be themselves. There’s Patrick, a charismatic gay student having a secret affair with a closeted football player. Sam, a wonderful mess with a bad reputation whom Charlie harbours an unrequited love for. Mary Alice, a hilariously domineering Buddhist. Bob, a stoner going nowhere fast and a handful of side characters that feel fully realised, despite their limited page space. In Charlie, the group find a kindred spirit and quickly develop genuine friendships that – due to the fact that the seniors are to graduate within the school year – have an expiration date.
Although Charlie is painfully aware that Patrick, Sam and the other misfits will be departing his life sooner rather than later, he never gives in to self pity. Instead, with the encouragement of his favourite teacher, Charlie attempts to participate in life rather than remain a voyeur on the outskirts. This participation leads Charlie to engage with all the ecstatic highs and crushing lows that teenage life has to offer. Through the course of the novel, Chobsky never shies away from the ugly truth. Indeed, part of what I found so compelling about Perks was the writer’s courage in facing the issues that many YA authors totally gloss over or completely ignore. Rape, sexual abuse, abortion, drugs, homophobia, bullying and violence are boldly stared down with an unflinching gaze. Although these facets of adolescence are tackled in Perks, they do not dominate the storyline. This is due to Chobsky’s understanding that our teenage years are rarely made up of handful of massive dramas, but rather a sprinkling of bittersweet episodes of elation and sheer misery.
This unapologetic tackling of real issues is why Perks, since its publication in 1999, has been routinely banned from high schools and libraries across the United States. Some censorship groups have even gone so far as labelling the cult classic ‘child pornography’ due to its stark depiction of sex. The great tragedy in banning Chobsky’s classic from the audience that it was written for is that an opportunity to discuss the issues within its subject matter – in both the classroom and at home – is lost. If anyone reading this has grown up in Ireland, then you will most certainly understand the censor’s point of view on this one: If you don’t want your teenagers to do something, then just don’t bring it up, don’t let them read it, watch it or talk about it. Stick your head firmly in the ground and pretend things like that just don’t happen. We all know how well that worked out with…oh, let’s say, sex education.
Banning books, especially Perks, which has never presented itself as anything other than one boy’s attempts to navigate the shitstorm of youth also robs the reader of one important message: you are not alone. Being fifteen is horrid enough without feeling as though you are the only person to ever bear it. Chobsky’s coming of age tale acts like a flare gun of sorts for disenfranchised, confused kids. Sending the flaming red light of recognition into dark, lonely skies, so that we may know that we are not isolated in our experience, that we will get through it and find redemption.
On another note, labelling a book as banned also gives it a certain notoriety, which can steal attention from the actual spirit of the novel. What sixteen year old me found in the bathtub the day I bought Perks was not a searing novel hell bent on corrupting my (slightly) innocent teenage soul, but Charlie, a lovable character who felt like a friend,who despite all the darkness he faces, never loses sight of hope.
Subject matter and banning aside, The Perks of Being a Wallflower was written for a reason. Stephen Chobsky wanted to know why his friends, the people whom he loved and cared for, allowed themselves to be treated badly. His conclusion to this takes place much earlier in the novel then one would anticipate. Charlie, conflicted by his obligation to keep his sister’s confidence and protect her from an abusive boyfriend, confides in his English teacher, Bill, that he witnessed his sister being hit by said boyfriend. In return, Bill delivers a line that Charlie, along with anyone who has ever read Perks, will never forget:
“We accept the love we think we deserve.”
The truth of those words hit me like a sucker punch to the gut. In that moment, I understood that part of me believed that I deserved the treatment that I endured from my boyfriend. It was a realisation that I acted upon quickly, sending a swift break-up text that was as cutting as it was poorly spelled. They are words that I have absorbed into my being, that have shaped the way I view and venture into any relationship, be it friendship or something a little more sexy. They are words that I have dispensed to friends to in times of great need, watching their eyes grow wide.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a book about family, friendship and figuring things out. It is a book that I have returned to many times, a book that I have gifted too many friends, a book that taught me that it’s okay to be weird. That, in its own right, is a testament to a great novel.
Rebecca Kennedy is a fanatical reader, writer, doodler and feminist.