“The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming of age story that operates in the extremis. That is to say, as many issues as humanly possible are dealt with in it’s 230 pages, giving the entire narrative something of a heavy gait. This in itself is no bad thing, for being stuck on the margins as a teenager is a difficult experience, fraught with social anxieties and figuring out your place in the world. In that regard, Charlie, our protagonist would seem a fine choice through whose eyes to navigate the rigours of teenage life. Having just moved to a new school he feels alone and adrift, a fact that is compounded by the recent death of his friend. It’s a good setting, however nobody seemed to explain the concept of overkill to Stephen Chbosky. Due to this oversight in his education at times the entire story seems nothing more than a series of unfortunate events, tied together by Charlie’s faltering neurosis. Physical abuse, homophobia, molestation, mental illness, teen pregnancy, suicide, they all make an appearance within the space of 230 pages. It just feels like too much in too short a time. In truth it’s all a little melodramatic, although maybe the author thought that’s what teenagers would relate to best.
Oddly, however, this overload is not the books greatest weakness. In truth some of the issues are dealt with very well, the difficulties of maintaining a gay relationship when one partner is still closeted for instance was both intense and moving. No, what really put paid to the narrative was, Charlie. His reactions and behaviours are so far outside of the norm that they transcend the simple explanations of him being a loner, or even the revelation of his molestation. His sheer peculiarity, especially his propensity to cry or feel the need to cry every few pages removes much-needed gravitas and the ability to empathise with him. This again is the product of Chbosky’s need to overdo his world, relegating the nuances and difficulties of mental illness to the sledgehammer like portrayal that Charlie exhibits. It feels like a learners introduction to depression, or mental health, and could have been dealt with in more detail had the author removed a few of his less important dramatic events.
A great deal has been said about the writing style and structure of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, invariably being praised for its simplistic approach and letter format. In this regard it does excel at making its message easy to understand, no matter how convoluted, however in the process it contributes to the overall dumbing down of the story. It even feels a tad patronising at times and certainly contributes negatively towards Charlie's development as a character. This shows through most obviously when Charlie is meant to be improving in school, becoming a more gifted student. There is simply no symmetry between Chbosky's description and what the reader is shown. His letters seem to be written by a much younger child, and this all culminates in the story seeming overly simplified and disrespectful of the intelligence of it's readers. On the one level it seems that the author was trying to make the story easily accessible, however in the process had the effect of relegating the story to a second rate presentation. It's a pity, for Chbosky's goals were admirable, if a little off centre.
In conclusion The Perks of Being a Wallflower never really capitalises on it's ideas, mainly due to the authors notion that the book must be short and utterly comprehensive in it's selection of life lessons. He seems to assume that teenagers lack the ability or commitment to stay with a more detailed story, a fact which the many trilogies and booming market of teenage literature seems to disprove. In doing so he incontrovertibly damages the book before it even begins, severely weakening the main protagonist. The issues covered are just too numerous for 230 pages and would have benefited from greater attention, perhaps even a sequel. In the end The Perks of Being a Wall Flower comes across as a story in love with it's own tragedy, yet completely lacking the tools with which to examine or present itself adequately to the reader. It is not a great work of fiction, it is not well written and it is definitely not, a Wall Flower.