After hearing this novel recommended by a friend, I picked it up on a whim. I haven’t read a lot of contemporary literature recently, and given the popularity – and controversy – of this one, I figured it was worth a look.
Essentially, “Perks” is a modern coming-of-age novel written as a series of first-person letters. The eponymous “wallflower,” Charlie, is a semi-reliable narrator who demonstrates some characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome. The story charts Charlie’s life and relationships over the course of one year. Many of the tropes employed by author Stephen Chbosky will be familiar to readers: identity crisis, the struggle to fit in, first sexual awakening, etc. Drawing on the teen-angst tradition pioneered by Salinger and others, it endeavors to capture the totality of the contemporary adolescent experience.
It is not, however, a throwaway piece of YA-lit drivel.
“Perks” succeeds primarily on the strength of its writing. Chbosky brilliantly captures the perspective of an introverted, socially challenged individual who observes life rather than participating in it. This may seem relatively insignificant – given the glut of “emo” novels on the market today – but Chbosky’s story strikes an intricate balance between sadness and joy. The novel is by turns hilarious, incisive, and heartbreaking – a feat difficult to accomplish in any book, but a rarity indeed in the realm of young adult fiction.
Particularly notable is the stark sense of detachment that pervades the book. Charlie’s difficulty understanding emotions evokes another critically acclaimed novel, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Given this restricted narrative viewpoint, the reader is forced to extrapolate beyond the text to understand what’s actually occurring. This element, more than perhaps any other, will be challenging to incorporate into the forthcoming film adaptation.
As evidenced by the multiple challenges raised against it (the book occupies the #3 position on the American Library Association’s list of most frequently banned books), “Perks” deals with controversial subject matter. At varying times, drug and alcohol abuse, date rape, abortion, and homosexuality factor into the plot. Generally, however, these themes are handled in a mature manner: the content may be realistic – and sometimes graphic – but never becomes sordid or titillating.
The sense of narrative detachment, interestingly, renders these elements less objectionable than in other works. Immoral actions are described matter-of-factly, with an attitude of clinical pragmatism. The novel refrains from explicitly endorsing or condemning various behaviors – but does not shy from depicting the consequences of bad decisions. Moral judgments are left up to the reader, which may be a strength or a weakness depending on one’s perspective. It’s fair to say, though, that the novel evokes no desire to engage in teenage vices.
Also praiseworthy is the surprisingly positive portrayal of family life. While Charlie’s family is sometimes fractured by conflict, his parents generally demonstrate love for their children and one another. Considering how much young adult literature deals with “emotionally scarred children coping with divorce,” Chbosky’s depiction feels like a breath of fresh air.
Is it worth reading?
As an intense (and somewhat disquieting) view of the modern teenage experience, “Perks” is an exceptional achievement. It challenges the reader on multiple levels, and simultaneously manifests a unique literary voice. It’s not for everyone – the pervasive “mature themes” will likely be off-putting for some – but it certainly offers a touchstone for serious cultural discussion.
A smartly written, thought-provoking look at modern American teen culture.