My article on The Perks of Being a Wallflower is now available online!

I’m pleased to announce that my article entitled “Writing through Growth, Growth through Writing: The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the Narrative of Development” can now be found in The ALAN Review‘s digital archives. Here is a brief abstract of the article, which won the Nilsen-Donelson award for best article published during the volume year:

This paper calls attention to the issue of social and personal development in Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, focusing on how the novel appropriates and transmutes the conventions of the formation novel, formally known as the Bildungsroman. Although the novel is written in an epistolary fashion, focusing on a series of letters sent to an undisclosed recipient, I argue that there is much value in approaching the text as a formation novel for it highlights the evolving nature of the Bildungsroman genre. The overarching themes of Charlie’s musings are focused on creating a social space in which the protagonist can record, evaluate, and deliberate his own position within his social context. These epistles also provide clarification of the pains and tribulations of achieving reconciliation between personal desire and social demand. Through a close-reading of the novel, I point out the role of writing in Charlie’s personal development, and how it influences and shapes his perspective of the world.

Click here for the PDF version of the article:

https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v40n3/pdf/matos.pdf

Click here for the HTML version of the article:

https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v40n3/matos.html

Queer Time in Edmund White’s [A Boy’s Own Story]

Front cover of Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story (1982)

Front cover of Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story (1982)

Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story is a coming-of-age novel centered on the sexual awakening of a queer teenage boy in the Midwest during the 1950s. The novel discusses topics such as the corruption of innocence, the pressures of masculinity in the lives of young boys, the emergence of childhood sexuality, and the exploration of humanity through the lens of homosexuality. The unnamed narrator of the novel quickly addresses the issues that he has in terms of his body and his sense of masculinity. He feels as if his “feminine” qualities–such as his voice, his mannerisms, and his overall attitudes– not only prevent him from bonding with other people, but that they also prevent him from obtaining any of the power that promised to those who embody the masculine myth. The narrator notices that everything from the way he sits to the way he acts marks his body as Other, and he even goes as far as to point out that he often fails small and meaningless quizzes used to assess his masculinity:

A popular quiz for masculinity in those days asked three questions, all of which I flunked: (1) Look at your nails (a girl extends her fingers, a boy cups his in his upturned palm); (2) Look up (a girl lifts her eyes, a boy throws back his whole head); (3) Light a match (a girl strikes away from her body, a boy toward–or perhaps the reverse, I can’t recall). (9)

The structure of this novel can seem slightly confusing, especially since it deviates from the traditional linear narrative that we have come to expect when reading coming-of-age novels. The first chapter, for instance, begins when the narrator is fifteen years-old. In this chapter, he painstakingly describes a relationship that he has with Kevin, the twelve year-old son of a guest that visits his summer home. In this chapter, the narrator describes how he paradoxically wants to be considered heterosexual while still being loved by a man. His relationship with Kevin slowly but surely starts to teach him how sex is not only a physical act, but how it is also a discursive act–leading him to realize that sex is also “a social rite that registered, even brought about shifts in the balance of power, but something that was discussed more than performed” (198). Because of this realization, he notices how performance and discourse shapes and forms his relationships with other men. For instance, he approaches Kevin as the “older” and more “dominant” person in the relationship because he is the more confident person of the two, and because he controls what happens during sexual intercourse:

I was chagrined by [his] clowning because I’d already imagined Kevin as a sort of husband. No matter that he was younger; his cockiness had turned him into the Older One (23).

The first chapter concludes by depicting how the narrator and Kevin part ways, and the second chapter goes back an entire year, allowing the narrator to discuss events that shaped who he is in his present day. Subsequent chapters go back in time even further, depicting events that the narrator encounters when he was twelve and seven years-old. The jumping back and forth between the past and the present not only disrupts the linearity of the coming-of-age narrative, but it also presents, as Elizabeth Freeman would put it, a manifestation of queer time. 

In Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Elizabeth Freeman describes queer time as a “hiccup in sequential time” that “has the capacity to connect a group of people beyond monogamous, enduring couplehood” (3). Furthermore, queer time allows queer subjects to envision alternative structures and forms of belonging, precisely because it deviates from the linearity and “productivity” of chrononormativity–in which human bodies arrange their time and bodies towards maximum productivity. In A Boy’s Own Story, queer time manifests through this combination of the past and the present, precisely because the narration deviates from the productive and generative elements that are closely associated with narratives of personal development. White, rather than depicting growth and development as sequential events, the narrator approaches them as fractured and disjointed processes. Rather than offering readers an equation, in which event 1, event 2, and event 3 equal the narrator, White disrupts temporality by beginning with event 3, going back to event 1, and covering the decimal points (small or micro events) that occur between these numbers. I think that this novel embraces queerness through it’s denial of both chronos (sequential time) and kairos (significant time), in favor of small non-sequential and non-significant time. This is particularly clear in the fourth chapter of the novel, in which the narrator breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader:

in writing one draws in the rest, the forgotten parts. One even composes one’s improvisations into a quite new face never glimpsed before, the likeness of an invention. Busoni once said he prizes the most those empty passages composers make up to get from one “good part” to another. He said such womanlike but minor transitions reveal more about a composer–the actual vernacular of his imagination–than the deliberately bravura moments. I say all this by way of hoping that the lies I’ve made up to get from one poor truth to another may mean something–may even mean something most particular to you, my eccentric, patient, scrupulous reader, willing to make so much of so little, more patient and more respectful of life, or a life, than the author you’re allowing for a moment to exist again. (84)

I believe that this passage is quite significant, because it highlights the role that queer time plays in the novel’s political agenda. By disrupting linearity and by painstakingly focusing on minor events, the reader must develop patience and spend more time concentrating on the narrator’s words rather than on major events. The narrator affirms that by reading his words, the reader becomes not only more respectful of the narrator’s life, but the reader also brings the narrator back into existence. Therefore, through the act of reading, one gives the narrator a sense of legitimacy that was denied to him during his childhood. This interpretation gains even more validity when taking into account that most of the novel is focused on the narrator’s struggle to survive in his society, and even more so, his struggle to be approached and categorized as a legitimate human being. The narrator, for instance, acknowledged that he has little time to focus on “theory” or “philosophy” because he is too busy focusing on pragmatic aspects of his life such as survival. This notion is evidenced when the narrator compares himself to his jockish friend, Tom, who spends most of his time daydreaming and philosophizing:

Ironic, then, that [Tom] was the one who did all the thinking, who had the taste for philosophy–ironic but predictable, since his sovereignty gave him the ease to wonder about what it all meant, whereas I had to concentrate on means, not meaning. The meaning seemed quite clear: to survive and then to become popular. (113)

Although popularity may at first be approached as a self-centered and selfish goal, it is important to keep in mind that the narrator believes that popularity will give him the recognition and the legitimacy that he has been denied in his life, not only because he is queer, but also because he is unable to situate himself within the frame of traditional masculinity that his father upholds. Popularity would give the narrator the means to become a legitimate person rather than an unreal subject:

Being popular was equivalent to becoming a character, perhaps even a person, since if to be is to be perceived, then to be perceived by many eyes and with envy, interest, respect, or affection is to exist more densely, more articulately, ever last detail minutely observed and thereby richly rendered. (127)

All in all, A Boy’s Own Story is a rich and provocative novel that definitely raises interesting insights in terms of the role that temporality plays within the issues of livability that haunt all queer lives. The narrative is at times convoluted and difficult to follow, but getting lost is definitely an essential component towards grasping the novel’s central themes and agenda.

You can purchase a copy of White’s novel by clicking here.

 

Works Cited

Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

White, Edmund. A Boy’s Own Story. New York: Plume, 1982. Print.

 

 

On YA Fiction with Gay Latino Characters: Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Front cover of Benjamin Alire Sáenz's Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012)

Front cover of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012)

Words were different when they lived inside of you.

– Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (p. 31)

A few years ago, I wrote a short essay that was published in the Changing Lives, Changing Minds blogs managed by UMass Dartmouth regarding the importance of young adult literature in my personal and professional life. In this small essay, I discuss that although gay YA fiction helped me to accept myself and to understand the nuances of sexuality and sexual orientation, I always felt a “rift” between my reality as a Latino man and the reality depicted in most gay coming-of-age novels, mostly because:

the representation of the coming out process within the literature is influenced by social, cultural, and racial factors, such that the depiction of the turbulent relationship between certain socio-cultural backgrounds and homosexuality seems to be overshadowed by the ostensibly progressive perspectives of gay males portrayed in novels with white middle- or upper-class protagonists.

Now, this is not to say that there was a total absence of gay YA novels with central Latino/a characters or protagonists. Alex Sanchez’s works, such as his heartwarming Rainbow Boys series and his politically charged novel The God Box have prominent gay Latino characters who happen to be well-rounded, and who are able to fall in love and find happiness (unlike other gay Latino characters in YA fiction, such as in the case of Nick Burd’s The Vast Fields of Ordinary, who are depicted as tortured souls unable to reconcile their personal desires with the demands of their culture). And while I’ll be the first to admit that Sanchez’s works were groundbreaking, I’ve pointed out previously that they are many times perceived as overly didactic, giving them an almost instruction manual-esque character–which is unsurprising given the fact that Sanchez obtained a master’s degree in guidance and counseling. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Sanchez’s work. But I love it more for it’s emancipatory nature rather than its literariness.

Didactic is one of the last words that comes to mind when reading Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. I still can’t get over how beautiful and amazing this novel is (I know, beautiful and amazing are not “academic” judgments–but as the protagonist of this novel emphasizes, rules must be broken).  This novel is expertly crafted. The prose is simple, delicate, unpretentious, and poetic. The characters are complex, sympathetic, and real. Alire Sáenz plays whimsically with text and blank space, at times giving me the impression that I’m reading a poem rather than a novel. Finally, we have a young adult novel with a gay Latino protagonist that exudes literary merit while also keeping its soul accessible. This is the novel I wish I had in my hands as a teenager, but unless time machines are invented any time soon, I know that this is an impossibility. Alire Sáenz’s words found a way to dig deep inside of me, and as pointed out in the quote above, words mean different things when they dwell in you.

The novel centers on a fifteen year-old Mexican-American teenager named Angel Aristotle Mendoza (who is known as Ari by his family and peers) as he befriends fifteen year-old Dante Quintana, the Mexican-American son of an English professor and a therapist. Early on in this coming-of-age novel, which takes place from 1987-88, it is clear that both of these boys are very different in terms of their outlooks on life, due mostly to their different upbringings. Ari’s father is a Vietnam vet who rarely shares his thoughts of the war and who barely speaks at all, and his mother is a school teacher who maintains a strict yet playful relationship with Ari. Ari is constantly haunted by the fact that his brother, who is fifteen years older than him, was sent to jail when he was four years-old–and the family refuses to acknowledge the brother’s existence, even when Ari requests to know more about his sibling. Growing up with a distant father and family secrets results in Ari having difficulties to share his life openly with other people. Ari’s family contrasts significantly with Dante’s family, who refuse to keep secrets from each other, and who openly show affection. Dante is also an open book who shares his thoughts and emotions even when he is aware that they may offend or bother those who surround him. Despite these differences, they do share many common tastes–especially in terms of their love for language and the written word.

The development of the relationship between Ari and Dante is the crown jewel of this novel. The relationship between these two teens, who at first were friendless and  lonely, is quite intense. Their love for each other is first accentuated when Aristotle jumps in front of a car in order to save Dante’s life. Aristotle ends of breaking both legs and an arm in his effort to push Dante away from a speeding vehicle, and as he recovers in a hospital, the two boys begin to grow closer. As their relationship develops, we as readers observe how the two teens begin to deeply influence each other, and we also observe how their personalities and ideologies spark when coming into contact. I was drawn to specific moments in which Dante’s openness clashed with Ari’s reserved and conservative nature. An instance of this clashing can be seen in the following exchange between the two characters:

“I went swimming today,” he [Dante] said.

“How was it?”

“I love swimming.”

“I know,” I said.

“I love swimming,” he said again. He was quiet for a little while. And then he said, “I love swimming–and you.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Swimming and you, Ari. Those are the things I love the most.”

“You shouldn’t say that,” I said.

“It’s true.”

“I didn’t say it wasn’t true. I said you shouldn’t say it.”

“Why not?”

“Dante, I don’t–”

“You don’t have to say anything. I know that we’re different. We’re not the same.” (151)

What caught my attention in this passage was not only the differences in attitudes that exist between the two characters, but also the way Dante’s sexual orientation is handled in the novel. This passage is essentially Dante’s coming-out to Ari. Later on in the novel, Dante explicitly mentions that he has kissed boys and that he eventually wants to marry a man, but this “confession” is done fearlessly and effortlessly. Dante does have issues in terms of revealing his sexual orientation to his parents, but this is because he is an only child, and he is worried about the heteronormative expectation (especially within Latino communities) of providing grandchildren to his parents: “I’m the only son. What’s going to happen with the grandchildren thing? I hate that I’m going to disappoint them, Ari. I know I’ve disappointed you too” (227).

Dante’s belief that Ari is disappointed in him stems from the fact that he believes that Ari will break their friendship because of his sexual orientation. Ari, however, asserts that they are still friends–and they continue to be friends even when Dante overtly expresses his love for Aristotle. Despite how clear it is that Ari loves Dante, Ari constantly tries to assert heterosexuality. There is an instance in which Dante asks Ari how he is sure that he doesn’t like men if he hasn’t tried doing anything with them–prompting Ari to kiss Dante in order to test the gay waters. Ari claims that the kiss was not enjoyable. Even after Dante is (SPOILER ALERT) gay-bashed during the novel’s falling action, and even after Dante’s parents confess that theyknow Dante is in love with Ari, the latter is unable to say that the two are anything but friends:

I [Ari] wanted to tell them [Dante’s parents] that he had changed my life and that I would never be the same, not ever. And that somehow it felt like it was Dante who had saved my life and not the other way around. I wanted to tell them that he was the first human being aside from my mother who had ever made me want to talk about things that scared me. I wanted to tell them so many things and yet I didn’t have the words. So I just stupidly repeated myself. “Dante’s my friend.” (309)

Something I found remarkably groundbreaking was the fact that it is Ari’s father who helps him come to terms with his sexual orientation. During the final chapters of the novel, Ari and his father have a serious conversation regarding Dante’s feelings toward Ari. Ari points out that he is aware how Dante feels, but that ultimately he has no control over Dante’s feelings. Ari’s father responds by saying: “the problem isn’t just that Dante’s in love with you. The real problem–for you, anyway–is that you’re in love with him” (348). Ari’s father can’t stand seeing his son being consumed by loneliness and self-loathing, so rather than allowing his son to go through the difficulty of finding a way to come out (not only to others, but to himself)–the father becomes the catalyst that allows Ari to express his true sexual identity. I found this to be such a refreshing moment in this novel, for we witness an instance in which the father figure (who is typically represented as chauvinistic, patriarchal, and homophobic in other gay novels with Latino characters) disrupts heteronormative stereotypes by nurturing, rather than suppressing, his son’s homosexuality.

In sum, this is a beautiful, groundbreaking, and insightful novel, and this post really doesn’t do it any justice. I am honored and pleased to announce that I’m currently working on an essay focused on this novel for a collection of literary criticism on Latino/a young adult fiction. In this essay, I will explore how issues of futurity play a role in gay Latino/a YA fiction–and I am certain that Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe will add depth and heart to my academic inquiries.

You can purchase a copy of this novel here.

Work Cited.

Alire Sáenz, Benjamin. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. New York: Simon and Schuster BFYR, 2012. Print (Hardcover edition).

Justin Torres’ “We the Animals”: A Fresh and Animalistic Twist to the Coming-of-Age Narrative

We the Animals Cover

Front cover of Justin Torres’ _We the Animals_

When constructing the list for my doctoral exams, I wanted to include novels that discussed issues of development, coming-of-age, and sexuality from multiple perspectives. Justin TorresWe the Animals not only caught my attention because it was favorably reviewed by authors such as Michael Cunningham, but also because it contains Puerto Rican representations—and as some of you might know, these characters are quite scarce in YA fiction (especially gay YA fiction).

The novel centers mostly on the experiences of three brothers—Manny, Joel, and the protagonist/narrator—as they grow up in Upstate New York, trying to balance their humanistic demands with their animalistic urges. The two other important characters in the story are the mother, who is white, depressed, and unable to identify a shred of happiness in a domain ruled my machismo and poverty, and the father, a Puerto Rican man characterized by his rough, somewhat brutal, and at times impotent behavior. It does not help that the mother was only fourteen when she became pregnant with Manny, whereas the father was sixteen. Much of the tension within the novel surfaces when the children must assume adult roles as their parents come to grips with the fact that they were never given a chance to be children in the first place.

Part of what I enjoyed the most about this novel was its style and its honesty. The bulk of the narrative is told through the perspective of a sensitive protagonist who is seven years old. Torres did an excellent job of making the youth and the innocence of this character concrete, allowing the reader to understand and at times fall into the trap of the protagonist’s naiveté.

The mother constantly goes through heavy abuse by her husband—she is beaten, insulted, and at one point of the novel, it is implied that he rapes her. The protagonist, however, easily buys into the lies fed to him by his father. For instance, the father explains to his children that their mother was beaten and swollen because a dentist removed some of her teeth by “punching on her after she went under” (12). Other instances of naiveté surface later on, when the father drops off the protagonist at a museum, promising to be back in an hour, only to return hours later with no explanation. That being said, the entire novel is void of explanations because it is distilled through the perspective of a child, not an omniscient and all-knowing narrator.

What makes this novel so haunting is the fact that this violence and abuse is contrasted with many beautiful moments full of tenderness and genuine love. The abuse and the tenderness are further contrasted with scenes that are subtle, but that convey a frightening sense of realness and rawness to the point of invoking discomfort. Among these moments was the scene in which the mother and father were bathing the three children. The whole family is found together within a room, naked or half-naked, sharing an intimacy that I’m not accustomed to seeing in YA fiction. The father urinates as the children are bathing, the mother and father engage in sexual foreplay as the children observe from the tub… it’s a moment that may seem awkward, but that expresses a moment of unity and harmony: “no one wanted to fight or splash or ruin the moment” (45).

I absolutely loved the first 2/3 of the novel, and this love at first dwindled during the last chapters, where some very abrupt and dramatic changes happened somewhat out of the blue. Typically, within coming-of-age stories, one observes a natural, fluid, and linear progression from one point of the protagonist’s life to another. The narrative, particularly during the last two chapters, makes a jump to a future point of the narrator’s life, where he briskly lists the developments that have occurred during a large span of time: he has grown apart from his brothers due to his diverging sensitivities and intellectual interests, and also due to his sexual attraction to men. This split within the narrative occurs after two very important events: the character watches gay pornography for the first time, and after his father abandons him at the museum for a while, he is caught dancing in a feminine fashion. This leads his father to point out the following:

“I was thinking how pretty you were,” he said. “Now, isn’t that an odd thing for a father to think about his son? But that’s what it was. I was standing there, watching you dance and twirl and move like that, and I was thinking to myself, Goddamn, I got me a pretty one.” (102)

This admission on behalf of the father could be interpreted in two ways: either the father was truly admiring his son’s beauty, or, he was coming face-to-face with the fact that his son deviates from the traditional expectations of masculinity (particularly within Latino communities).

While at first I was upset with this sudden and abrupt shift of tone within the novel, it was afterwards that I realized that the actual structure of the novel was mimicking the shifts that the characters themselves undergo when trying to balance their inner human with their inner animal. Furthermore, looking back on the narrative as a whole, I couldn’t help but notice how fragmentary in nature it is, which leads me to deduce that this coming-of-age plot never had linearity as a goal in the first place.

Furthermore, this narrative puts a new spin on the act of coming-out, in which the hardships of the actual process are not depicted. Conversely, the novel centers on the events that foreshadow the character’s sexuality and the final stage of formation as depicted in the final chapters. Keeping in mind that the protagonist has the tendency to be extremely insightful, yet simultaneously naïve,  this leads me to argue that Torres’ novel is an deliberate amalgamation of opposing forces (child/adult, animal/human, before/after, peace/war) that is centered on chaotic beauty rather than on the linear and somewhat predictable exploration of grey areas.

Is it possible that the coming-of-age genre is in due course coming-of-age? What we have here is a novel typically categorized as a coming-of-age or YA text, yet it delves deeply into issues such as the construction/deconstruction of meaning, the fragmentary nature of memory and experience, all while embracing heartbreak and turmoil… making the novel (post)modern in every sense of the word. This is a work I must return to again in the future when I have the time.

Source:

Torres, Justin. We the Animals. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. Print.

– – –

“Justin Torres’ We the Animals: A Fresh and Animalistic Twist to the Coming-of-Age Narrative” was originally published in http://angelmatos.net on June 6th, 2013.

Growth and Development in Stephen Chbosky’s [The Perks of Being a Wallflower]

Update: The content of this blog post was developed into an academic article that was published by The ALAN Review. I’m thrilled to announce that this article obtained the Nilsen-Donelson award for the best academic article published in 2013. Click on the following link to download a PDF version of the full article: Writing Through Growth, Growth Through Writing: [The Perks of Being a Wallflower] and the Narrative of Development

Original cover of Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (1999)

I remember the first time that I held that bright green cover in my hands early in the morning during the Christmas of 2002. In all honesty, I had no concrete clue of what the novel was about. I just remember surfing through the web, looking for young adult books to get me through the holidays, and the title of this novel caught my attention: The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Now, it was an unusually complex title for a young adult novel, but seeing as I myself felt like a wallflower at times, something about the title spoke to me. Little did I know that I was about to read the book that led to a shift in my being… a book that affected me on levels beyond comprehension… a book that almost 14 years later continues to shape who I am.

When people ask me what is my favorite text of all time, they would probably expect me to say something that any other literary scholar would say: Shakespeare’s dramas, Milton’s poetry, Dickens’ novels, or maybe even Thoreau’s philosophies and discussions. However, my answer would undoubtedly be the aforementioned book titled Perks of Being a Wallflower, written by Stephen Chbosky. Sure, the book is not a book for everyone. Many people become “nauseated” with the protagonist’s overly sentimental musings, and others simply get angry with the protagonist’s lack of action (these were reactions that some of my past students had when first reading the novel). Others accuse the book of being a rip-off of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; true, it is unsurprising to see that Salinger’s text was indeed an influence for Chbosky’s work (it is even one of the many novels that the protagonist encounters throughout the narration), but comparing the two works would be like comparing apples and pears: they have similar textures and flavor profiles, but in the end they are different fruits that possess different forms.

I consider the novel to be one-of-a-kind. Charlie, the protagonist, is one of the most vulnerable, raw, real, and honest literary characters that I have encountered within the realm of young adult fiction (and arguably, all genres of fiction). The novel is one of the few instances in which readers have the opportunity to witness the uncensored perspectives of a male character who is not afraid to share his thoughts and sentiments. As of now, it has been the only book that has been capable of making me cry. True, I read the novel during a vulnerable time: like Charlie, I was lost, and confused, and I was looking for someone to speak to. Charlie, the protagonist of the novel, ultimately became that person. But, even when reading Perks numerous times after escaping my own period of vulnerability, it still continues to “listen” to me, and to speak to me. It still continues to haunt me. And every time I read it, it says something different to me.

The film was superbly acted by Emma Watson as the vivacious and complex Samantha, and Logan Lerman as Charlie, the film’s heart-breaking and fractured protagonist.

The reason I’m bringing this book up is because I finally was able to see the film adaptation of this novel, which was written AND directed by Stephen Chbosky himself. The movie was only being shown in select theaters, but this weekend, it finally was shown in theaters across the nation. Truth be told, I was rather afraid to see the film. When our favorite books are adapted to the silver screen, there is always the fear that the adaptation won’t live up to our expectations, and that the film will never reach the standards of the original source. However, after seeing the movie last night, I realized that my feelings were misguided. The film adaptation of Perks was endearing, touching, and thought-provoking. But even more so, the movie was crafted for a generation who grew up with the ideals and thoughts manifested in Chbosky’s original text: originality, uniqueness, and loyalty. The movie invites us to ultimately find a sense of belonging in “the island of misfit toys.”

Overall, the film has received very positive reviews. It currently has a score of 8.4/10 in IMDB, and it was certified as a fresh film in Rotten Tomatoes, with a current approval rate of 86% among critics and 95% among audience members. And in all honesty, those who don’t understand the movie, or that consider it another bland coming-of-age story either fail to sympathize with the hurdles that the protagonist had to overcome, or they find it hard to connect with the notion of being an outsider (after all, not everyone is aware of the unique perspective that one develops when “standing on the fringes of life”).

In due course, the film left me inspired, and it pushed me to submit an article that I wrote on the novel last semester to the ALAN Review, the nation’s leading journal on the study and teaching of young adult literature. Frankly, I had reservations in terms of submitting the article for review, mostly because I feel like I cannot effectively do justice to my favorite novel of all time. In addition, I am aware that the article is far from perfect. However, just like Charlie had to learn how to participate, I needed to step out of the shadows and take an academic risk. I have no idea whether or not the article will be accepted for publication, but I guess there was no harm in trying.

Anyway, to conclude today’s post, I will include an excerpt from the article that I submitted. Wish me luck!

Excerpt of “Writing through Growth, Growth through Writing: The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the Narrative of Development” written by Angel Daniel Matos:

[…]

Although Perks is certainly considered epistolary in terms of its form and delivery, its content and function are definitely attuned towards the aims of developmental fiction. Given that the protagonist depicts his own developmental process through his writing, and given that the novel is written via a series of letters, it is imperative that the reader becomes attuned to how the process of writing and the process of Bildung work together to fulfill and challenge the nuances of development within the literary scope. The process of writing in Perks manifests primarily in two ways: through the letters that Charlie writes to the anonymous recipient and through the assignments and tasks that he completes for his English class in high school. Fascinatingly, Charlie’s writing is very much reflective of his own development as a person, and the writing that we encounter in the first letters of the book is more scrambled, disorganized, and “immature” in comparison to the prose found in his final letters.

For instance, here’s an example of Charlie’s writing at the beginning of the novel: “Aunt Helen told my father not to hit me in front of her ever again and my father said this was his house and he would do what he wanted and my mom was quiet and so were my brother and sister” (Chbosky, 1999, p. 6). This sentence exemplifies the writing style that is predominant during the first letters of the novel: the prose is peppered with run-on sentences, he has not mastered the art of punctuation, and his ideas many times lack coherence and cohesion. We see that his writing style, and even the topics that he discusses in his letters, begin to evolve and mature as Charlie gains more experience with the art of writing, and as he begins to delve in increasingly complicated efforts to understand himself and the people around him. Charlie’s English teacher, Bill, assumes the role of Charlie’s mentor not only from an educational standpoint, but from a formational one as well. Charlie also takes Bill’s advice and suggestions quite seriously, and although he always gives Charlie A’s on his report cards, he always labels his essays with a lower grade as a way of challenging him:

First of all, Bill gave me a C on my To Kill a Mockingbird essay because he said that I run my sentences together. I am trying now to practice not to do that. He also said that I should use the vocabulary words that I learn in class like “corpulent” and “jaundice.” I would use them here, but I really don’t think they are appropriate in this format. (Chbosky, 1999, p. 14)

After Bill’s recommendations, Charlie’s letters increasingly avoid the use of run-on sentences, and his prose becomes much clearer and more efficient, saying more using less words. It is also interesting to note that when Charlie writes about the books that Bill assigns to him, he manages to use writing as a way of evaluating the actions of the characters in the books he reads, and he always tries to establish parallels between his own life and the “life” portrayed in the books.

This notion of comparing and contrasting becomes important in terms of the content depicted in Charlie’s letters, for it is in this instance that he begins to situate himself more prominently in the actions that are represented in the letters. At first, most of what he writes about is concerned with the observations that he makes of his family. This notion of writing “empirical” observations of the people he observes becomes the main focus of Charlie’s letters until Bill begins to notice that Charlie constantly stares at people and scrutinizes them obsessively. He then asks Charlie what he thinks about when he observes people, and after he tells Bill everything he thinks about, the teacher remarks that although thinking a lot is not necessarily a bad thing, “sometimes people use thoughts to not participate in life” (Chbosky, 1999, p. 24). This remark pushes Charlie to further assess his own life and the degree to which he participates in events, talks with other people, and tries to make friends. However, the very process of writing his thoughts obliges him to become introverted and pensive, and he continues to write letters as a way of assessing his own life: “when I write letters, I spend the next two days thinking about what I figured out in my letters. I do not know if this is good or bad” (Chbosky, 1999, p. 28). The effort that Charlie puts in trying to understand his meditations is a clear indicator that Bill was right to some extent, for so much effort is put into trying to understand, that there is little room to actually live and enjoy life.

Despite the mental effort and time required in the crafting of his letters, there seems to be a radical shift in terms of the content being portrayed after Bill warns Charlie about the perils of overthinking. The focus of the letters shifts from a focus on family to a focus primarily on Charlie’s efforts to socialize and make friends. In due course, Charlie becomes very close to a group of seniors at his school, known for not being the most popular and loved people within the premises. The first friend he makes in high school is Patrick, a gay senior with a penchant for jokes and mischief, and who introduces Charlie into the world of drinking, smoking, and the unwritten rules of sexual behavior. He also befriends Sam (short for Samantha), who is Patrick’s stepsister and on whom Charlie develops an obsessive crush. The bulk of the letters depicted after this point discuss the differences that exist between Patrick, Samantha, other friends, and himself, his strivings to understand the motivations behind their thoughts and actions, and more importantly, the arduous process of integrating himself with Patrick and Samantha’s circle of friends.

Charlie develops a clearer sense of the world through this arduous process of integration, and through his immersion in new experiences such as drug use, masturbation, visits to the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and through his exposure to different literatures. His analysis of the content of his letters, and the feedback he gets from his essays at school, demonstrate that Charlie is developing the ability to make his writing more concrete and understandable due to the fact that he is undergoing experiences that provide him with a substantial analytical platform. Even more so, Charlie’s development of his writing prowess leads him to the discovery of the craft he wants to hone as a professional endeavor: “I have decided that maybe I want to write when I grow up. I just don’t know what I would write” (Chbosky, 1999, p. 46). Although at first the letters prevented him from participating due to their introspective and slightly amateurish nature, it is when Charlie combines his writing skills with the experiences that he has obtained that allows him to develop a richer image of who he is and who he wants to be. Interestingly, the more Charlie writes, the more he understands himself, and the easier it is for the recipient of the letters to develop a more defined snapshot of Charlie’s mind. In other words, the more Charlie begins to understand himself, the more others also begin to understand him.

It is unclear whether Charlie keeps copies of the letters for himself; however, Charlie consistently makes reference to past letters. Charlie compares and contrasts experiences illustrated in his letters, and he also revisits previous points of discussion in order to reevaluate his thoughts using the knowledge that his experiences have thrust upon him. For instance, Charlie once reads a poem to his friends titled “A Person/ A Paper/ A Promise Remembered,” written by Patrick Comeaux and given to him by Michael (the friend who committed suicide), which portrays the growth of a boy into a man, and concludes with the speaker’s suicide due to his disillusionment with life. At first, Charlie is unable to understand the poem clearly, and he is unwilling to understand why a person would commit suicide. But, during New Year’s Eve, Charlie writes a letter in which he confesses that a particular experience has unfortunately helped him to grasp the intended meaning of the poem:

I just remembered what made me think of all this. I’m going to write it down because maybe if I do I won’t have to think about it. And I won’t get upset. But the thing is that I can hear Sam and Craig having sex, and for the first time in my life, I understand the end of that poem. And I never wanted to. You have to believe me. (Chbosky, 1999, p. 96)

It is important to note that in this instance, Charlie is using writing for a new purpose: rather than using the letters as a means of interpreting himself and his world, he uses writing as a way of distancing himself from his thoughts, as if writing were a way of draining his worries away from his mind. Even more so, it is through looking back at his own writing that he is able to comprehend how he loses innocence, and how he is able to understand concepts that used to escape his cognizance. It is after this point that Charlie becomes a “rebel” in many aspects: he begins to smoke and drink more than ever; he begins to explore his sexual identity by hanging out more often with Patrick and kissing him every so often, and he secretly offers his sister assistance when she believes she is pregnant.

Charlie begins to realize that life does not have to be lived according to others’ expectations, and if he is to achieve any degree of happiness, he has to find a way to balance his desires and social demand. This stepping away from society’s parameters also manifests within Charlie’s writing, seeing as he begins to experiment with different styles of writing and of conveying ideas: “I wrote a paper about Walden for Bill, but this time I did it differently. I didn’t write a book report. I wrote a report pretending that I was by myself near a lake for two years. I pretended that I lived off the land and had insights. To tell you the truth, I kind of like the idea of doing that right now” (Chbosky, 1999, p. 128). Thus, rather than complying with a formula or a set of rules on how to tackle his literary interventions through writing, he delves into an experimental endeavor in which he filters the information he decodes in the book through his own set of experiences. Rather than simply being a sponge that absorbs and regurgitates ideas, Charlie begins to view the act of writing as a mediation between a conversion taking place, turning him into an active writer rather than a passive one. Thus, the parallels between emotional and mental development, or Bildung, become increasingly tied to the act of writing throughout the progression of the novel. Furthermore, notice that Charlie seems rather pleased with this new direction that he is taking.

Charlie’s progression from a passive to an active participant is not an overnight change, but rather, it is a very difficult and gradual process. Despite his small victories and attempts, Charlie still remains a wallflower towards the concluding letters of the novel. However, in the climactic letter of the novel, Samantha confronts Charlie and obliges him to face the consequences of his lack of action. Sam has broken up with her boyfriend because he was cheating on her, yet Charlie never made an attempt to date Sam now that she was newly single. In a fit of frustration, Sam confronts Charlie with the truth after he confesses that he did not take action because he was more concerned with her sadness than with trying to be with her:

It’s great that you can listen and be a shoulder to someone, but what about when someone doesn’t need a shoulder. What if they need the arms or something like that? You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love. You just can’t. You have to do things. (Chbosky, 1999, p. 200)

And rather than replying to her accusations with words, Charlie approaches Sam and starts to kiss her. They soon end up on the bed, kissing passionately, but just as they are about to go all the way, Charlie begins to have a nervous breakdown. To make a long story short, Charlie slowly but surely remembers the fact that he was sexually abused as a child by his diseased aunt Helen, which explains why Charlie was so repressed and had difficulties participating in life. After a few months in the hospital after his breakdown, Charlie begins to come to grips with his repressed past, and he proposes to move on and change the direction of his life. […] Indeed, the surprising and unprecedented moment in which Charlie reawakens his repressed past is indeed heartbreaking and difficult to tolerate emotionally, but it is the moment in which Charlie truly begins to feel free from the unbearable burden of trying to figure out why he is the way he is, and why he so desperately craves to understand the world around him. And although action leads him to achieve his moment of breakthrough, it is the act of writing that helps him put his life into perspective, and that provides the missing puzzle pieces that complete the image of the self.

[…]

The main characters of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” From left to right: Charlie (Logan Lerman), Patrick (Ezra Miller), and Sam (Emma Watson)