This article of mine was originally posted a few years ago on a website that is no longer online. It is a sort of companion for this which I wrote for Sabotage Times (its title is misleading but that is on the then-editor not me!).
So what better post to commemorate Throwback Thursday during an ongoing YA-themed month on the blog? Fair warning though – this piece has more quotes that I normally prefer to include in one, but I blame Stephen Chobsky for writing something that is so quote-worthy 🙂 (And don’t go just by the ones that have been overused to the point where they run risk of losing their significance beyond purely sounding intelligent or deep)
At some point in our lives, we’ve all felt like misfits, outcasts on the periphery of life wanting desperately to find that place and those people invoking that special sense of belonging. The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Charlie is one such socially awkward introvert trying to navigate through his freshman year of high school.
“So this is my life. And I’m both happy and sad. And I’m still trying to figure out how this could be”.
Charlie, undergoing therapy for the childhood death of his favourite aunt and more recently the suicide of his best friend, accidently befriends the eclectic duo of the flamboyantly gay Patrick and his step-sister Sam. They take him under their wing and introduce him to their gang of misfits. They make him actively ‘participate’ in things instead of always being the wallflower, silently present in the background, and Charlie has to navigate through the many a times dark world of high school, drugs, alcohol, parties, mix-tapes, relationships while at the same time, fully come to terms with his own disturbing past.
“So, I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we’ll never know most of them. But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.”
The book is in an epistolary format with Charlie writing anonymous letters to a nameless friend, pouring out his heart and soul through these one-sided exchanges instead of keeping a regular journal. We get to see a very personal side of him confiding in us his happiness, his sadness, his depression, his doubts, hopes, dreams and his struggles.
“Just tell me how to be different in a way that makes sense.”
“I just need to know that someone out there listens and understands and doesn’t try to sleep with someone even if they could have. I need to know these people exist.”
It is this journey that we undertake along with him in Stephen Chobsky’s famed bildungsroman (coming-of-age) story, a story which may have been released in 1999, but resonates with any teenager who is trying to find their identity, and with any adult reminiscing and relating with what it all really felt like to struggle and find our identity, to wonder about the future, to worry about our path, to have fun, go crazy, be silly and make memories with friends. The feeling of “being infinite” as Charlie says.
Patrick, Sam and the others show Charlie that it’s okay to be an outsider, and being one doesn’t necessarily mean being alone. Charlie feels this loneliness intensely during a period when a fight has caused a rift between everyone in the group.
“I don’t know how much longer I can keep going without a friend. I used to be able to do it very easily, but that was before I knew what having a friend was like.”
But things work out in the end (after several surprising and dark revelations about Charlie’s past) and they are Charlie’s first experience of belonging somewhere where he is meant to be, where he can be himself and be loved and accepted.
“Patrick started running after the sunset. And Sam immediately followed him. And I saw them in silhouette. Running after the sun.”
“I don’t even remember the season. I just remember walking between them and feeling for the first time that I belonged somewhere.”
As all his friends prepare to graduate high school, Charlie is gripped by the same feeling of insecurity, of not knowing what’s ahead, of knowing that though he’ll still be in touch with Patrick and Sam he’s going to have to go through the same process of making new friends for his next three years of high school. But his freshman experiences have made him stronger, and more positive.
“Please believe that things are good with me and even when they’re not, they will be soon enough”.
We all remember what it’s like to move on from something, to say goodbye to a part of our life, to grow up. It’s an instinctive human reaction to want to hold onto it as long as possible, to not let them be memories just yet.
“I know these will all be stories someday and all our pictures will become old photographs. We’ll all become somebody’s mum or dad. But right now, these moments aren’t stories. This is happening … this one moment”.
“The inside jokes weren’t jokes anymore. They had become stories. Nobody brought up the bad names or the bad times. And nobody felt sad as long as we could postpone tomorrow with more nostalgia. ”
Life is about moments, instances and the people you’ve shared them with. As a teenager it is very easy to feel that we are the only people this is happening to. It is tempting to want to feel special. It’s a driving need. One of my favourite moments in the book (and its film) is when Sam, Charlie and Patrick are in Patrick’s pick-up truck on their way back home after Charlie’s first party. As they approach a tunnel, Sam stands up at the back of the truck with her arms aloft. They go through the tunnel to the other side with the bright lights of the city down below. There is an overpowering sense of exhilaration, freedom and endless possibility.
“And finally, just when you think you’ll never get there, you see the opening right in front of you. And the radio comes back even louder than you remember it. And the wind is waiting. And you fly out of the tunnel onto the bridge. And there it is. The city. A million lights and buildings and everything seems as exciting as the first time you saw it.”
It’s a feeling that is infectious even though you may have never taken a ride at the back of a pickup truck. You cannot help but get caught up in the goosebumps-inducing moment. At the same time, moments like these mean more armed with the knowledge that more often than not, growing up is awkward and messy. The characters in the book balance this out wonderfully – they are all struggling to find their place and purpose in the world and yet we see them in enough moments of beauty, calm and hope that keep them going, and us rooting for them. Nobody is as alone as they think they are. We may be just a tiny part of the larger picture of the universe, but our experiences, hopes, dreams and fears are shared by strangers far away throughout age spans and history. It is a reassuring thought.
“All the books you’ve read have been read by other people. And all the songs you’ve loved have been heard by other people. And that girl that’s pretty to you is pretty to other people. And you know that if you looked at these facts when you were happy, you would feel great because you are describing unity”.
“You are not alone in the world. No matter what you’re going through, somebody gets it”.
The screen version (adapted by Chobsky himself) is a different but equally refreshing take on an age-old theme, even if just to remind us that
“There’s nothing like deep breaths after laughing that hard. Nothing in the world like a sore stomach for the right reasons”.
Sometimes all it takes is a reminder, a tiny paradigm shift in perception and remembering what it was like to be young, and to realise that there’s no reason why we can’t still retain that sense of wonder, hope and belief, even though we are all grown up and things are hard. It’s a thought worth holding onto.