Monday, August 6, 2012

'We accept the love we think we deserve' - The Perks Of Being a Wallflower (Read this book!)

This is a gem of a book, often labelled as the Catcher in the Rye for this generation, but it is completely unique in its own right too. It captured hearts in the USA but its slight frame has been slightly overlooked in the UK. This book has also acted like a reading list and playlist for me – since Charlie, the protagonist, has an English teacher who prescribes books for him to read, including

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
"A Separate Peace" by John Knowles
Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
The Stranger by Albert Camus
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand 

I went on to read The Fountainhead, This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, A Separate Peace, Walden and The Stranger and they remain some of my favourite books of all time, especially the first. They are all philosophical in their own way and often reflect intensely on particular individuals.

The book also references my favourite film of all time, Dead Poet’s Society, and some great songs too, particularly ‘Asleep’ by The Smiths. So what’s the point of all this referencing? Surely this is more than a reference book?

Of course it is.

But it is a chronicling of someone who is deeply affected by culture and art, the possibility of self-expression and simple, pure feeling.  Each book, song or film mentioned is of intricate relevance to everything this book is about and everything Charlie himself is about.

This is most notably the case because of the epistolary format and the philosophical ambiguity over the recipient of the letters, their destination – is it the reader? The cathartic process of reading and writing? Or a God? Or someone else completely? Perhaps it doesn’t matter at all.

‘Dear Friend, I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. Please don’t try to figure out who she is because then you might figure out who I am, and I really don’t want you to do that... I just need to know that someone out there listens and understands and doesn’t try to sleep with people even if they could have. I need to know that these people exist… 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.’ Pg 2

The convolution of vague allusions and mixed emotions are at their strongest in this opening page, an endearing trait of Charlie’s, underlining his existential insecurity. This is underpinned by his meditations on the suicide of one of his closest friends, seemingly a turning point in his life. The epitome of Charlie’s existential struggle, and his status as a wallflower is during an exchange with his English teacher, Bill, perhaps the most fundamentally important character in the novel:

‘“Do you always think this much, Charlie?”
“Is that bad?” I just wanted someone to tell me the truth
“Not necessarily. It’s just that sometimes people use thought to not participate in life.”
“Is that bad?”

The wallflower passively exists on the peripheries of life, watchful, ever present – even reliable, but not impactful. Charlie struggles with a form of depression which is intricately bound up in this. Perhaps it is enhanced by his intense observations of life around him, his perceptiveness, and empathy but also his isolation. His observations offer the reader some gems to meditate upon:

“I am very interested and fascinated by how everyone loves each other, but no one really likes each other.” 56

Bill and one of Charlie’s closest friends/love interest Sam challenge him in many interesting ways, urging him to take part, to be more noticeable – they ask him to exist meaningfully, even selfishly. To embrace the concept of acting for him-self. Sam makes this argument in the latter pages of the book:

“It’s like you’re not even there sometimes. It’s great that you can listen and be a shoulder to someone, but what about when someone doesn’t need a shoulder? What if they need the arms or something like that? You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love. You just can’t. You have to do things.” 200

Sam her half-brother Patrick are the first, and only, friends that Charlie makes in his first year of high school. They are quirky outcasts, comfortable in their own social circle, indulging in performances of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and casual dalliances with weed at parties. Patrick has his own struggles – being in an on and off relationship with a football playing jock who’s reluctant to come out of the closet while Sam also ends up in relationships with the wrong people. Younger than both of them, they take Charlie under their wing, as does Bill, the English teacher. My favourite part of the book is this quote from Bill:

“Charlie. Please don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not trying to make you feel uncomfortable. I just want you to know that you’re very special… and the only reason I’m telling you is that I don’t know if anyone else ever has” 181

Bill’s support has a profound effect on young Charlie, professionally and as a friend because he believes in him, actively, not passively and secretly and meaninglessly. He notices him and picks him out and makes him feel worth something and shows him how to feel that way. I think this teacher-student relationship is one of the most special and understated elements of the books. It’s professional but human, maybe even parental.
I’ve highlighted many passages from this book intensely, and these following segments are very intense, muddled thoughts of Charlie’s:
“It’s kind of like when you look at yourself in them mirror and you say your name. And it gets to a point where none of it seems real. Well, sometimes, I can do that, but I don’t need an hour in front of a mirror. It happens very fast, and things start to slip away. And I just open my eyes, and I see nothing. And then I start to breathe really hard trying to see something, but I can’t. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when It does, it scares me.” 74

“And because I don’t want to start thinking again. Not like I have this last week. I can’t think again. Not ever again. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt like that. That you wanted to sleep for a thousand years. Or just not exist. Or just not be aware that you do exist. Or something like that. I think wanting that is very morbid, but I want it when I get like this. That’s why I’m trying not to think. I just want it all to stop spinning. If this gets any worse, I might have to go back to the doctor. It’s getting that bad again.” 94

“I know that I brought this all on myself. I know that I deserve this. I’d do anything not to be this way. I’d do anything to make it up to everyone. And to not have to see a psychiatrist, who explains to me about being ‘passive aggressive’. And to not have to take the medicine he gives me, which is too expensive for my dad. And to not have to talk about bad memories with him. or be nostalgic about bad things. I just wish that God or my parents or Sam or my sister or someone would just tell me what’s wrong with me. Just tell me how to be different in a way that makes sense. To make this all go away. And disappear. I know that’s wrong because It’s my responsibility, and I know that things get worse before they get better because that’s what my psychiatrist says, but this is a worse that feels too big.” 139

Charlie shares everything, unabashedly. He is honest and holds nothing back and I think that’s what draws the reader in so drastically and makes them feel part of him. Most of all I think the things he says are basic statements that a lot of people can relate to, whoever they are and however they are. We have what we have, relative to who we are and there’s no point in feeling guilty about that or diverting from it:

“So I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. 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 okay about them. I think that if I ever have kids, and they are upset, I won’t tell them that people are starving in China or anything like that because it wouldn’t change the fact that they were upset. And even if somebody else has it much worse, that doesn’t really change the fact that you have what you have.” 211

It makes no sense to simply say that someone has it a lot worse, because you can't objectify emotion. We know nothing beyond our self.

There’s something so poetic about this book, it reaches into every recess of the mind and soul, prompting you to ask questions. There is the issue of his Aunt Helen, the only person who was openly affectionate with him is particularly intriguing. The reader gathers she died in a car accident on Charlie's birthday, something which has deeply affected Charlie but also that he is repressing some memories of the way she has treated, or mistreated him (slightly ambiguous but it is implied she treated him inappropriately). A lot of this is Charlie coming to terms both with her death and his feelings about her and the fact that they can’t be straightforward. Then there is his love and idolisation of Sam, who initially rebuffs him friendlily, his attempts to be a good friend to Patrick and day-to-day family life. This is a book about an individual. We don’t need to know any descriptions of his hair, his weight, his home-town or even his real names – all we need to know is his self and everything that entails – tangible or not.

So I don’t know if the film will aptly express all this – maybe it will lack the subtlety and ambiguity of the book, a cult classic, but as long as it tries to do it in its own way I don’t mind. I’m intrigued, and slightly apprehensive, about the casting and just hope that characters like Bill get the attention they deserve. If the guy playing Charlie talks in a really obvious, serious, unemotive, socially awkward way I'll be mildly irritated because it defeats the object. And I sincerely hope Emma Watson's accent is not terrible. But anyway here's a link to the trailer:

This is a book not just about finding a way to exist, but find a way – or a moment in a paroxysm of emotion and music and literature, an affirmation – a moment in which you can swear you are ‘infinite’.

‘When we hit the tunnel, all the sound got scooped up into a vacuum, and it was replaced by a song on the tape player. A beautiful song called “Landslide”. When we got out of the tunnel, Sam screamed this really fun scream, and there it was. Downtown. Lights on buildings and everything that makes you wonder. Sam sat down and started laughing. Patrick started laughing. I started laughing. And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.

Love always,

Charlie’ 39

(n.b – my ‘feeling infinite’ song right now is Curtain Call by Aiden Grimshaw – there’s something about the soaring chorus! A beautiful song if you want to check it out.)


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your review. You noted a number of very interesting aspects of this book. Thank you.

  2. Beautifully analysed. Thank you <3

  3. I enjoyed your review as well. It's beautiful and meaningful. Thank you :)

  4. I agree with the posters above. It was well written and very through. But Aunt Helen doesnt commit suicide, she actually dies in a car accident. Awesome critique. :)

    1. Thank you - have corrected the mistake! Don't know why I wrote that xx