I would like to believe that somewhere out there in this world of trite television shows and insipid teen novels breathes an author possessed with supernatural insight and celestial mastery of the written language. An author who will one day expound upon all the cruelties and sorrows of youth in a riveting three-hour read that will provide solace to troubled young souls with its profound meaning and introspection.
Stephen Chbosky is not that author. His book, Perks of Being a Wallflower is part of the problem, epitomizing the shallowness of pop culture in dealing with the problems of society.
My god, I hated this book. And the fact that a movie is being adapted from the novel, which will only market the book further, only adds to my general astonishment and disgust that people find this story worth retelling. Are we talking about the same novel here? This sad little self- important book that claims to be the Catcher in the Rye of our generation?
The novel oozes desperation to be profound. In about 200 pages, Chbosky races through the issues of loneliness, isolation, bullying, rape, suicide, domestic abuse, underage drinking, teen sex, abortion, drug use, drug addiction, homosexuality, homophobia, depression, post traumatic stress and molestation. It’s as if he’s running at gunpoint on a race to see who can cram in the most taboo subjects into a teen novel.
How on earth has this book enjoyed so much success? Because it brings up a laundry list of taboo issues, only to caricature the issues and treat them with jaw-dropping insensitivity?
Charlie takes on so much physical and emotional baggage that I wondered, as much as I hated his insipid little wisdom-spouting self, what sort of heinous murders he must have committed in his past life to deserve this abuse. Comfort comes to him in the form of hipster seniors who listen to the Smiths — all the cool kids listen to the Smiths, apparently — reenact The Rocky Horror Picture Show and ponder statements like “I feel infinite.” I feel nauseous.
Yes, there are little moments of clarity and fresh humor that feel like little breaths of air within this general muck. Those moments do absolutely nothing to redeem the book, which has astonishingly little to say on an astonishingly long list of topics, and when it does, it says things that are better left unsaid. It feels like a book written by a seriously confused, middle-aged man whose memories of high school have been befuddled with television clichés.
Television clichés. This brings me to Glee, which I occasionally have trouble stomaching for the same reason that forms the root of my undying hate for Perks of Being a Wallflower: It brings up dark issues of real world poignancy, congratulates itself for its progressiveness, winks at its audience with the promise of profound introspection and then renegs on it. Instead we get a finale with kids in slick little matching jackets warbling to us to not stop believin’.
Usually, I’m okay with Glee though, because it makes it very clear we’re not supposed to be believin’. Glee doesn’t try to be taken seriously, or do too much. When it does try to cover serious issues, it covers them only a few at a time, like little after-school specials. And it clearly doesn’t intend to be taken seriously, throwing in familiar, beloved fictional clichés like the flamboyant gay, the idiot jock and the high school bitch. Glee tries to be feel-good and cathartic by allowing us to see issues dealt with in ways we understand would never work in reality. And that is a hundred times better than trying to be the next great messiah on all teen issues, and failing so miserably at it.
It does make me kind of sad though, that more than 10 years have passed since the publication of Chbosky’s atrocity, and we still don’t really deal with certain issues in an upfront and honest way.
Remember Holden Caulfield discovering a “fuck you” sign outside the Museum of Natural History, reflecting on how you could erase all the “fuck you” signs in the world and by the next morning they’d all be there again? Remember Holden pointing out that there are certain cruelties in life that we can’t really fathom, much less stop, in a world that still has good things to look forward to, like the history museum? This message in its simple honesty is more applicable and reassuring than any message that Perks of Being a Wallflower ever sends.
That scene sticks with us, too. We can all relate to those angsty teen years where all the sadness of the world welled up within us, and even a little jab from a profane sign was enough to make that sadness flow. It allows us to comprehend the extent to which we become hardened to the quiet cruelties of life as adults. All of this, Salinger manages to accomplish with a “fuck you” sign, with the type of insightful genius that Chbosky so completely, utterly lacks.
I’m no critic. I’m your average Joe Schmoe of an audience with a bag of Doritos reacting to books and T.V. shows in emotions. Now that my hatefest towards Chbosky and his book is out of the way, all I have left to say is this: It would be nice for other works of popular culture to connect to us in Holden’s kind of simple, frank honesty as opposed to groveling before the audience with taboo topics already beaten to death in Lifetime movies.
Patricia Kim is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Better on Paper appears alternate Thursdays this semester.