I have mixed feelings about novels written from the first person point of view. It seems 90 percent of the books I read these days use first person. Sure, it adds intimacy, you usually get access to the main character’s thoughts and reactions, and it makes for some interesting storytelling. But I must admit, I miss a third person narrator, someone to give me different perspectives on the story’s events. Being in one person’s head can skew the reader’s understanding of what really happened. How do I know I can trust the storyteller to tell it true? And there in lies the challenge and the twist I appreciate in this week’s novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky*.
Perks tells Charlie’s story of his freshman year in high school. The entire novel is a series of letters written by Charlie to an unknown recipient — another tactic I wasn’t sure I liked, but it really works here. We learn about his struggles, his new friends, and about childhood traumas. All of it is strictly how he sees and understands the world he lives in. We see how people react to him, but those perspectives are still filtered through his eyes, with his spin on events.
For the entire novel, I accepted this version without question. I trusted Charlie the narrator, and reacted to events accordingly. When friends abandoned him, I felt anger on his behalf; when he kissed a girl, I shared his excitement.
And then in the final pages, Charlie/Chbosky throws this nugget at me: “Maybe it’s good to put things in perspective, but sometimes, I think that the only perspective is to really be there.” (212)
And there it is. We’ve just spent 200-plus pages with Charlie, hearing his stories, feeling his troubles, hating the people who hurt him, and loving the friends that stood by him. Then he tells us, essentially, we can’t really understand what happened unless we were there, too. In other words, we can’t really believe everything he told us. Not that he intentionally misled us, but we only get to see what seemed important to him or what he understood as the truth. Had we been there too, we may have understood a different truth, seen the events in a different light. Perhaps Sam, his crush and friend, would have seemed manipulative to us, or Patrick, another friend, would appear selfish.
Chbosky wants us to question our narrator, question the perspective we’ve been given. He’s begging us to reread the book from a different perspective. How would the other characters have viewed Charlie and his reactions to the events described in the book? We are prodded to become more proactive in our reading, and not let it flow over us. We are meant to pick it up, turn it about in our hands, and examine it from each angle and in different light.
So, dear reader, when you read this book, and others, remember to distrust your narrator a little.
*Author’s note: I’m not sure if any of you enjoy this new series, but I’m sure having fun. It reminds me of my grad school days when we obsessed over word choices and authorial intent. Let me know what you’re thinking either in comments, on Twitter, or on Facebook.
Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York. Gallery Books. 1999. Print.
*Editor’s note: In the original article the author’s name was misspelled. The error has been corrected.