This book is a refreshing departure from more regular coming-of-age stories both in style and approach. Stephen Chobsky takes a literary risk in requiring his readers to follow the narrative in epistolary mode – the central protagonist communicating entirely through his letters to an unnamed confidante. The risk pays off once the reader gets the cadence and language of the first-person writer and from there the voice becomes very natural for both the character and the story.
Clues like Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and the popular practice of boys making music ‘mix-tapes’ for girlfriends, put the action in the early nineties. The wallflower is Charlie, a mid-teen schoolboy without friends until he ventures to approach fellow students Samantha and her gay stepbrother Patrick. They are two years ahead of him in school but they find Charlie’s naivety endearing and undertake his introduction into mainstream society. It becomes apparent that in spite of appearances all three friends have issues to surmount. With Charlie it appears to be a learning difficulty and social inhibition. Patrick’s lover cannot accept his own homosexual tendencies and Sam involves herself in risky behaviour with drugs and sex. Their turmoil is added to as they encounter suicide, alcohol, violence, bullying, infatuation and lust amid the gravitating pressures of education and parents.
As the trio become close, Charlie develops a crush for Sam. She lets him down gently but his attraction stays just below the surface, though he tries to accept Sam’s new boyfriend. In spite of this, her bond with Charlie is such that she gives him his first kiss, telling him that it’s important that he ‘knows that he was genuinely loved by the first person that kissed him’ (unlike her own disturbing experience). Charlie responds to this with the customary internalising of his emotions that causes him further anguish. He eventually gets his first girlfriend but loses her quickly through his innate and crippling lack of tact. Patrick’s lover breaks up their relationship violently and the scene is witnessed by Charlie who surprises everybody (and himself) by physically taking the older boy down. This marks a major step in that it is Charlie’s first perception that he has strengths and well as weaknesses. It also improves his friendship with Patrick as he helps his friend get over the breakup. In the meantime Sam is now single again so she and Charlie share more of their time and inner thoughts until she initiates intimacy with him, but he finds he is ‘not ready for that yet’. Once again Sam becomes supportive of the shy boy and shows her customary loyalty to him. Despite these themes, they do actually have fun along the way going to parties, hanging at the local fast food joint, driving around and each character displays their sense of humour, lending levity to the otherwise heavy atmosphere.
Throughout these events Charlie’s English teacher identifies a talent in the otherwise poor student and encourages him to write. Over time Charlie comes to develop a literary expression to the point where he can see himself a future writer. In this, he has identified yet another of his strengths. He now has friends, a reputation and has even taken part in some rites-of-passage pertinent to teen culture. But there’s still an undefined disturbance in his psyche. It is emerging from his memories and into his letters and it finally reveals its ugly head in the closing pages when Charlies has to face a monstrous realisation. Following this odious exposition, his letters finally identify their mystery recipient – indicating that his need for that outlet has now passed and he can speak openly. The closing lines display a shift to a more adult rationalisation and end with an eye focussed on a dim light at the end of the tunnel. Not a happy ending, but one that foreshadows a more balanced outlook on life with the awareness that contentment may not be as elusive as originally thought.
As noted at the outset, particular praise is due to Chbosky for his gamble in writing with the unusual exposition technique. Apart from some sequential time-lapse I cannot fault the structure. His mastering of the teenaged dialect of the day is authentic, playing a major part in the rendering of emotion and spirit. It is a thoughtful examination of a litany of various social and personal issues and anxieties that this demographic cohort can face at that particularly influential part of their lives. It is also reflective, sad, inspiring, human and even funny. Older readers will be able to identify with issues equivalent to those experienced by Charlie, Patrick and Sam.
Written in 1999, the book has reappeared in the light of the author’s decision to make it into a movie and as Chbosky himself has since become an experienced film director, it may become one of the better translations from flip to flick.
And finally Mr Chbosky, your choice in music is peerless and profound.