Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Summer Reading Book #2 -- The Perks of Being a Wallflower

“I Feel infinite.”

I was recently discussing this book with a friend and she told me that a mutual colleague had once referred to The Perks of Being a Wallflower as if “MTV had vomited a book.”  I laughed.

And part of that is true, of course. The edition I am reading was published by MTV.  And the book is like one very long music video.

Perks is an interesting book. At times very poignant and real, and then at other times goes out of its way to make a pop cultural reference that would be lost on a lot of readers. In fact, author Stephen Chbosky often approaches the pop cultural references with a wink and a nod, as if proud to be making them. Sometimes, they seem to distract from the narrative. 

The book is set in 1991-92 and, other than the few references made to the band Nirvana, who released Nevermind in 1991, most of the references are from the mid-1980s. The book, however, came out in 1999 -- so most of the people who would have read Perks of Being a Wallflower at that time wouldn’t have been familiar with many of the references.  And in 2021, I am not sure many high school students would understand much of the context. How many even know what The Rocky Horror Picture Show was, let alone the popular midnight showings with audience participation?

Here’s the thing: the book triggered many memories for this 53-year-old-man.  Perks is set in a world that was very real to me. I attended Hersey High School from 1982-1986. The music and culture that is referenced in the book was very much a part of my life. I listened to the Smiths.  I went to midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show with friends, bringing bread and squirt guns and other props. I made and exchanged mix tapes*. Went to “art films.” Rented VCR tapes and watched them with friends.

In many ways, too, I was a wallflower just like “Charlie.” I liked to quietly sit on the side and take in what was going on around me. 

The book is structured as a series of letters that “Charlie” writes to an unknown person, only addressing the letters to “Dear friend.” Charlie is quiet, sensitive. He is dealing with some pretty tragic events: the suicide of his friend Michael and the death of his aunt, Helen. 

These two events are merely plot devices and never are realistically addressed. The book is really about Charlie and the relationships he develops with a set of friends, most of whom are in their senior year and he is merely a freshman. It’s a coming of age story, to be sure. But it is also a story that models a different kind of male protagonist: sensitive, empathetic, thoughtful. Often, even among adults, Charlie is the most adult person in the room.

And the relationship, in particular, with his sister ebbs and flows like often happens with siblings, but also grows and matures. It was really rewarding to witness this relationship deepen through the narrative and it really moved me. I think that was my favorite element of the book.

Overall, I enjoyed the book more than I should have. There are scenes that are really well-done. And others that feel incomplete or forced. 

I am not sure why the book had to be so concretely set in the early 90s (That's postmodernism for you!). But, for me, I am glad it was. It allowed me to probe my own memories and recollections. It brought over me a wave a nostalgia. However, that is only something that can be fully experienced by people in my age group, I feel.

On the other hand, there are some themes about high school and growing up that are timeless and true regardless of the time period.

That being said, below you will find a playlist featuring all of the music or bands mentioned in the novel. As I was reading, I kept a running list.

And yes, just like on Charlie’s mixtape, “Asleep” by the Smiths is on there twice. Enjoy. 


 

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*Mix tapes were a big part of my life. That was one way we communicated with each other, sometimes by making a cassette tape of music specifically for other people. I have digitized many of my mixtapes. I have them online via Mixcloud. Here is one of my favorites that I made in the early 90s, for I show I used to host called "Mix Tape Memories:" 


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