Unrealistic Expectations: (Meta)Narrative in Andrew Smith’s [Winger]

Front cover of Andrew Smith's Winger (2013)

Front cover of Andrew Smith’s Winger (2013)

Warning: The following post contains major spoilers for Andrew Smith’s Winger. 

After reading Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle, I immediately knew that I had to read other works written by this author–and Winger seemed like the obvious choice. I finished reading Winger a couple of weeks ago. Typically, I write analyses and reviews of books soon after I read them, but for this novel, I needed time to process many things, including the novel’s “unexpected” twist and its narrative framing. I guess it’s also important to mention that I reacted quite viscerally to the novel’s ending. At first, I approached the death of Ryan Dean’s gay best friend, Joey, as narratively pointless. I was frustrated that so little attention was given to this event in the novel’s conclusion, and I was upset that the death seemed like a dramatic and rushed way of ending the narrative. I read other reviews of this novel, and many other readers approached the ending in a similar fashion. Although I had a stark reaction to the novel’s ending, I felt as if there was a major element that I was missing when approaching Smith’s work.

I ultimately messaged the author, and asked why the novel had such a dark twist. Andrew Smith kindly responded to my question, and he pointed out how careful attention should be given to the novel’s use of metanarratives–which in the case of Winger, refers to the moments in which the narrator discusses the purpose or function of reading, writing, and literature itself. Although Winger can be approached as a coming-of-age novel, it is also a work that self-consciously explores the nature of narrative, and its relationship to truth and to the formation and understanding of the self. With this in mind, I decided to revisit the novel, paying close attention to the ways in which metanarrative aids the reader in better understanding the novel’s conclusion and its narrative framing.

When approaching Winger, it’s important to keep in mind that the novel is structured into many sections. The novel opens with a small section that depicts the protagonist, Ryan Dean, being bullied by two classmates. Afterwards, the novel can roughly be divided into four major parts: Part One (the overlap of everyone), Part Two (the sawmill), Part Three (the consequence), and Part Four (words). Each one of these parts has a main thematic focus and structure, but I will focus my attention on parts One and Four in this discussion. Part One opens with a prologue–which can be considered an introduction to the literary text that is not necessarily connected to the work’s main narrative arc. This prologue helps frame the rest of the narrative, in that it shares key points that allow the reader to grasp the novel’s core themes. Even more so, the prologue, to some extent, foreshadows the novel’s seemingly dark twist towards the end:

Joey told me nothing ever goes back exactly the way it was, that things expand and contract–like breathing, but you can never fill your lungs up with the same air twice. He said some of the smartest things I ever heard, and he’s the only one of my friends who really tried to keep me on track too. And I’ll be honest. I know exactly how hard that was. (Smith 7)

When closely reading this prologue, there a couple of things that we can infer:

  1. Joey’s thoughts and views of the world are used to open the prologue. This demonstrates that Joey is a person who significantly influences how Ryan Dean thinks, and also influences how he writes. Joey’s discussion of expansion and contraction can be connected to the novel’s major focus on the theme of change, and more precisely, the inevitability and irreversibility  of these changes.
  2. Note the verbs that Ryan Dean uses when referring to Joey: “Joey told me […] He said […] really tried to keep me on track too.” Through the use of these past-tense verbs, we are indirectly informed that Joey is no longer present in Ryan Dean’s life. We are initially given no clues to understand why he is absent. Thus, the prologue, through its use of language, foreshadows Joey’s death.
  3. Although Ryan states that Joey tried to keep him on track, the text implies that Joey’s efforts have failed. Furthermore, Ryan understands how difficult it was for Joey to watch over and guide him.

With these factors in mind, it becomes clear that the crafting of Winger‘s narrative is approached as a way for Ryan to revisit, relive, and understand the past through the process of writing. However, Ryan recognizes the futility of this endeavor to fully help him understand himself or the events that he faced. Just as he is unable to breathe the same air twice, he is unable to relive events in exactly the same fashion. The novel thus commences with the protagonist’s recognition and awareness of his own failures, and how these failures will determine what he shares and how he decides to share it. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the prologue epitomizes the central role that Joey plays in this developmental narrative, even though he is a secondary character.

The role of metanarrative in the creation of Winger becomes overt later in Part One, where Ryan Dean discusses his penchant for drawing, and the relationship between knowing a story and expressing it aesthetically. As can be seen in the following drawing found on page 21 of the novel, Ryan Dean stresses the difference between knowing a story, and representing it: img_00002_2_crop Ryan Dean’s discussion of drawing, narrative, and representation makes it clear that the novel should be approached as a carefully constructed and meditative text. The text is not presented as a work that’s produced as Ryan copes with particular events (as seen in novels such as Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower), but rather, it presents itself as an artistic impulse to represent a story that has already been lived and experienced. The fact that Ryan mentions that he knows “the ending of the story” implies that as an artist, Ryan is struggling to identify the ways to represent the events that led to the outcome that he knows.

With this in mind, the combination of words and images in Winger can signify not only the futility of art to replicate a particular memory or event, but it can also be approached as a concretization of Ryan’s struggle to convey ideas that even he doesn’t completely understand. When Ryan attempts to depict Joey’s death in Part Four of the novel, we notice how the novel undergoes an effect of narrative dissolution or entropy. Part Four begins with a handwritten letter, in which Ryan discusses how life never follows the course that one plans, and how life’s unpredictability is capable of destabilizing the linearity that we perceive in life. Here is the letter that Ryan shares with his reader, found on page 411: img_00003_2_crop (1) It is in this letter that Ryan recognizes the futility of narrative in creating an accurate and realistic portrait of life: “I tried to make everything happen the same way it did when I was seeing it and feeling it.” Furthermore, the letter is a comment about the nature of narrative itself. When reading works in a certain genre, we have expectations about what should happen to the characters, how the novel should end, and the overall lessons that should be learned. In this letter, Ryan (through the writing prowess of Andrew Smith) brilliantly critiques the linearity and predictability that we’ve come to expect of the novels we read, particularly novels in the young adult genre. We expect narratives to be linear, we expect characters to have happy endings–but through a compliance of these expectations, the aesthetic text merely becomes an object of conformity.

Through the use of metanarrative, Winger strives to convey a greater sense of realism through an embrace of the chaos and unpredictability found in life itself.  Thus, while it may be easy to approach Joey’s death as haphazard, rushed, or as some readers have uncritically argued, homophobic, approaching his death as so would be an injustice to the novel’s overall literary, aesthetic, and narrative aims. Indeed, Joey is one of the most likable characters in the novel–but likability does not and should not make a character or person immune to the instability and dangers of the (real) world.

Thus, the possible anger and frustration that we feel towards the novel’s ending stems not from the text itself, but rather, the unrealistic expectations that we impose on the texts we read. In terms of the novel’s ending seeming contrived or unexpected, it is important to keep in mind that Ryan writes his story as a way of trying to understand the ramifications of Joey’s death.

The novel as a whole forces us to question our reliability on words and grand narratives. While Winger “fails” to live up to the expectations that we have of linear and conventional young adult narratives (and narratives in general), it is through this failure that the text is able to push us to question many things we take for granted. Part Four of the novel, in particular, refutes many of the narrative conventions that we have come to expect in the novel itself. Images are no longer used. The chapters in Part Four are no longer numbered as they are in other parts. Pages are occupied by an increasing amount of blank space. Ryan Dean, who was able to portray events with an excruciating amount of detail, can’t find a way to express his thoughts: “I need to vent. But I can’t. The words won’t come” (430). His prose becomes increasingly fragmented. This sense of fragmentation, dissolution, and chaos is able to represent pain and torment in ways that couldn’t possibly be conveyed by traditional, linear prose.

The more I think about Winger, the more I’m able to appreciate just how smart, insightful, and riveting this novel is. It’s a novel that has haunted me since I’ve read it, and it will continue to haunt me as I think about the role of (meta)narrative in young adult fiction. Andrew Smith is continuing to shape, deconstruct, and reinvent young adult fiction not only through the inclusion of fresh content, but also through the implementation of experimental narrative form. You can purchase a copy of Winger by clicking here.

Work Cited

Smith, Andrew. Winger. New York: Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2013.  Print (Hardcover edition).

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.

 

 

Connection Failed: An Analysis of Christopher Isherwood’s [A Single Man]

Front cover of Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man (1964)

Front cover of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (1964)

Failure is found at the heart of many great works of fiction. It is a common motif used to spark an emotional connection, sympathy, and at times, anger. Failure is not only the heart of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man–is also the blood, the flesh, and the soul of this novel. Centered on a single day in the life of George Falconer–a gay professor from England who teaches literature at a University in Los Angeles–A Single Man traces the protagonist’s psyche as he tries to cope with the stagnant nature of living, and his inability to feel a sense of belonging or connection with those who surround him. Suffering from a chronic depression triggered by the death of his lover (Jim), George desperately struggles to find solace through unsuccessful attempts at forging meaningful interactions and relationships with other people.

The opening event of the novel focuses on George as he wakes up in the morning. Here, we are offered a very detailed and biological account of the processes that take place as a sleeping body is galvanized into a state of alertness. This opening scene creates a split between George’s body and George’s being–a motif that becomes quite prominent within the novel. Throughout the day the novel takes place, George undergoes experiences that separate his thoughts from the actions that his body partakes in–almost as if his body were engaging in auto-pilot mode, leaving the pilot of his consciousness free to do and think whatever he pleases. This auto-pilot mode is activated in many occasions:

  • When George drives to his university, his thoughts wander away as his body automatically drives to its destination: “And George, like a master who has entrusted the driving of a car to a servant, is now free to direct his attention elsewhere” (36).
  • When he teaches, he enters a mode where he begins to spew theory, facts, and jargon without being completely cognizant of what he is saying to his students.
  • When he drinks, he engages in reckless behavior, such as swimming in a rough sea during the night, even though his mind is aware of the dangers of doing so.

The novel’s tendency of splitting George’s mind away from his body fosters an effect in which the reader perceives him as a composition of many selves and not as a single individual–thus emphasizing the novel’s central characteristic of approach life, time, and space as fragmented phenomena. This fragmentation, while very postmodern in effect, serves to illustrate the sense of disconnection and the lack of wholeness that George feels towards his surroundings. Even when looking himself in the mirror, George is unable to see himself as an individualized unit:

Staring and staring into the mirror, it sees many faces within its face–the face of a child, the boy, the young man, the not-so-young man–all present still, preserved like fossils on superimposed layers, and, like fossils, dead. Their message to this live dying creature is: Look at us–we have died–what is there to be afraid of? (11)

While staring at his reflection, George sees the phantoms of his past lives–lives that he considers present but dead; relics of a life that he used to have but that is no longer present. George recognizes this fragmentation, and he struggles to defy it so that others perceive him as ‘the whole George they demand and are prepared to recognize” (11). George is characterized by being overly concerned about what other people think about him. When other characters are talking to him, George’s mind engages in a frantic interpretive mode in which he tries to determine what is going through the other speaker’s mind. However, the inability to know exactly what others are thinking of him leads George to think obsessively about the failure of language to convey ideas in an accurate or precise fashion. Language, therefore, is a contributing factor that adds to George’s notions on fragmentation and the lack of wholeness in his life.

George’s nationality and his sexuality are other elements that fuel his sense of self-fragmentation and his inability to fully connect with others. He constantly claims how his British identity converts him into an Other within academic and non-academic contexts. His sexuality pushes him to feel a desire that is nearly impossible to quench–thus forcing George to live vicariously through small interactions, touches, and brief exchanges that he has with other men. One of these moments takes place when he accompanies one of his students, Kenny, to a book store. Kenny offers to buy George a pencil sharpener, which causes George to blush “as if he has been offered a rose” (81). What is clear here is that George is a man who is starving for connection. He craves to feel part of whole, even if this connection with the whole is momentary. He makes it overtly clear that his nationality, his way of thinking, his sexuality, and even his age puts him in a position in which he is minority. This sense of dissatisfaction with not belonging to a majority leads him to deliver a “sermon” in class, in which he attacks people’s conceptions of minority communities:

A minority has its own kind of aggression. It absolutely dares the majority to attack it. It hates the majority–not without a cause, I grant you. It even hates the other minorities, because all minorities are in competition: each one proclaims that its sufferings are the worst and its wrongs are the blackest. And the more they all hate, the more they’re all persecuted, the nastier they become! Do you think it makes people nasty to be loved? You know it doesn’t! They why should it make them nice to be loathed? (72)

His passionate tirade against minority cultures is longer than the fragment I’ve included above, but I hope this passage emphasizes the degree of self-loathing and confusion that George feels towards himself for being unable to become part of a greater collective. He always has been and always will be a minority. His efforts to be part of something greater than the self always fail–even the connection that he had with Jim is severed with the latter dies in a tragic car accident. George even admits that he is living makes him part of a minority, while those who have joined the rank of the dead are part of a majority:

George is very far, right now, from sneering at any of these fellow creatures. They may be crude and mercenary and dull and low, but he is proud, is glad, is almost indecently gleeful to be able to stand up and be counted in their ranks–the ranks of that marvelous minority, The Living. They don’t know their luck, these people on the sidewalk, but George knows his–for a little while at least–because he is freshly returned from the icy presence of The Majority, which [his dying friend] is about to join. (103-4)

This passage is an eerie foreshadowing to the events that culminate the novel. As George is drunkenly walking towards his usual bar after leaving his friend’s house, he encounters Kenny alone at said bar. The two get really drunk, and they end up swimming together naked in the salty rough waves of the sea in the middle of the night. It is here that George feels a brief connection with Kenny that “transcends” the symbolic. Kenny returns home with George, leading into a scene that seems like an obvious exchange of flirtation between the two. However, despite the fact that George desires to sleep with Kenny, he ends up passing out, awakening alone in his bed–where he decides to masturbate as a way of compensating for his failure to connect with Kenny, sexually speaking.

As the novel comes to a close, George ends up in his bed once again. In a circuitous fashion, the novel ends with George’s mind disconnecting from his body, returning once again to the description of the biological processes that his body is going through as it begins to fall asleep. Unexpectedly, George dies of a heart attack during his sleep. George’s life is characterized not only by a failure to connect with others, but also by a failure to be part of a whole during his life. It’s thus heart-wrenching to realize that the only instance in which he becomes part of a majority is through his death.

This novel is simply beautiful, rich, and complex. There is much more than can be said about this novel, especially in terms of its approaches to time and temporality, especially when contrasting the importance of the past, the present, and the future. This is definitely a novel that I want to revisit once again after I’ve had time to process it a little more.

Comments? Questions? Suggestions? As always, please feel free to add to the conversation!

Work Cited

Isherwood, Christopher. A Single Man. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964. Print (Hardcover edition).

On the Decentralization of Truth and Memory in Achy Obejas’ [Memory Mambo]

Front cover of Achy Obejas' Memory Mambo (1996)

Front cover of Achy Obejas’ Memory Mambo (1996)

Achy Obejas’ Lambda Award-winning novel, Memory Mambo, is a text that simmers and lingers within the mind long after it is read. I initially decided to read this novel because it centers on the life of a Cuban-American lesbian who administrates a laundry service in the Midwest, however, it is a much more complex and rich read when compared to your average LGBTQ novel. True to its name, I would say that this text is ultimately an exploration of the strengths and fallacies of memory, especially when it comes to understanding and interpreting of truth. Even more so, Memory Mambo, at least in my view, is a novel that is first and foremost about decentralization–or in other words, the redistribution of power and control away from a central unit or “command” center. In the case of this novel, decentralization is focused mostly on the self, and it illustrates how the self is unable to account for the totality of memory and the totality of experience.

Similar to Sandra Cisnero’s 1984 novel entitled The House on Mango StreetJuani, the novel’s protagonist, is not only characterized through her own experiences and trials, but she is also characterized through elaborate stories concerning her relatives and her extended family. The novel is difficult to summarize due to its fragmented and chaotic focus. It begins with Juani questioning the nature of memory as she looks back at her childhood in Cuba. As a child, Juani and her parents escaped to the United States on a boat in an effort to leave behind the social and political climate of the island. The narrative segues into an exploration of Juani’s close family members, such as her mother, her father, her siblings, and her cousins. The first chapter focusing exclusively on her father is very revealing in terms of the novel’s aims and themes. He is described as a fabricator of stories. For instance, he claims to be the inventor of duct tape, and he also accuses the CIA of stealing his invention. The father tells this story to every person he encounters, and every time, the father bends the truth to suit his moods and to appease his audiences’ tastes. The father’s tendency to fabricate and alter stories reifies the novel’s aim of highlighting the flexible and malleable nature of truth, in addition to illustrating how truth and memory are dependent on others besides the self.

Although the novel has multiple story arcs, there are two in particular that stand out:

  • The tumultuous relationship between Juani’s cousin, Caridad, and Caridad’s husband, Jimmy. Jimmy is a chauvinistic, sadistic man who abuses Caridad emotionally and physically–doing things such as beating her, preventing her from going out, and going as far as to buy Caridad a washing machine even when her family owns the local laundry-mat. Juani and Jimmy loathe each other, mostly because Jimmy perceives Juani to be the same way he is. Jimmy perceives Juani’s lesbianism to be a threat, and he is constantly trying to sexually harass her, claiming that she is nothing but a victim of penis envy. One of the novel’s highest poinst of tension occurs when Jimmy covers up a violent incident that Juani is involved in, in order to make Juani feel as if she is indebted to him. Because of this “debt,” Jimmy tries to persuade Juani to cover for him after he is caught sexually molesting Rosa, the baby of Juani’s cousin, Pauli.
  • The “main” arc of the novel would be Juani’s unstable relationship with Gina, a Puerto Rican socialist and activist with strong political convictions and views. Gina is approached as a hypocrite by other characters because although she claims to be a feminist and an activist, she is deeply closeted and refuses to show any signs that she’s going to come out: “Gina wasn’t out, didn’t have any plans to come out, and wasn’t in a hurry to even consider it. For Gina, what we had was wonderful, but passing; thrilling, but temporary; an adventure, but only for memory’s sake” (121). Juani finds herself in a position in which she significantly has to change who she is in order to please Gina–she changes everything from her taste in music to her taste in clothing in order to appeal to Gina’s environmentalist and feminist sensibilities. Gina’s closeted sexuality in addition to her radically different political ideologies, lead to the escalation of tension between her and Juani. This tension explodes with a brutally violent fight between the two women, which leads to broken noses and bitten breasts. Their fight is the incident that Jimmy helps to conceal in order to assure that Juani’s family doesn’t get upset with her.

This novel, as can be seen above, is very violent and charged, but the deep and almost philosophical musings that take place in the narrative certainly compensate for the presence of many shocking and disturbing scenes. Seeing as the novel centers immensely on the notions of memory and truth, I was often captivated and intrigued by the difficulties that Juani had when it came to understanding and accepting events and realities in her life. The first chapter of the novel eloquently opens with a questioning of memory as a distinct, individualistic, and unified phenomenon–leading Juani to question whether her memories are constructions based on the stories told by other people. Because of this, the divides between fact and fiction, and lived reality and narrated reality, collapse from the get go. Even more so, Juani seems to approach memory as an entity that is shared amongst many people–memory, in this case, is approached as a decentralized phenomenon:

Sometimes I’m sure that I couldn’t have heard the stories about the memories anymore than lived through them–that both of the experiences are false for me–and yet the memory itself will be so fresh, so fantastic and detailed, that I’ll think maybe my family and I are just too close to each other. Sometimes I wonder if we’re not together too much, day in and day out, working and eating side by side, sleeping in the same rooms, fusing dreams. Sometimes I wonder if we know where we each end and the others begin. (9)

What I find fascinating about this passage is that memory, rather than being approached as a hard drive or a disk, seems to be depicted in a fashion that is more reminiscent of an internet network, in which memory is shared, interconnected, fragmented, and alterable. In Memory Mambo, it is clearly shown that most of the novel’s major tensions and issues surface when truth, like memory, is approached as an individualistic and solitary force, when in reality, most of these problems could be solved if only the truth were shared and decentralized in a similar fashion to memory. This notion is exemplified with Juani’s discussion of her lesbian cousin, Titi, who has tried to escape Cuba, unsuccessfully, several times. Although Titi does have affairs with other women, these affairs must remain private within the insular confines of Cuba. Juani believes that Titi’s desire to escape Cuba is fueled by her longing to express truth beyond the confines of the private. As Juani asserts, all of Titi’s lovers are unable to satisfy her need “to be loved in daylight–to walk down the street arm in arm with her lover without the pretense of a mere friendship, to be utterly and ordinarily in love” (76).

Titi’s issues mirror Juani’s own issues when it comes to her sexuality. Juani admits that she creates a divide between her family life and her sexuality, deliberately maintaining borders and distance in order to assure that her family isn’t disrupted or disturbed by Juani’s non-normativity. Juani walks the balancing line between complete honesty and secrecy–tethering truth to the unstable power of language. What I mean by this is that although Juani’s family knows about her lesbianism, they do not speak about it because it would reify certain details of Juani’s life that would tarnish the family’s so-called normalcy. Juani’s father, in particular, never seeks the truth from his daughter, and he even goes as far as to help Juani conceal the truth about her sexuality when other family members are probing her. His motivations for doing so are quite selfish and heartbreaking: “His motivation isn’t to spare me discomfort but to save himself. Because he’s afraid I won’t lie, it’s vital to him that I not be provoked into the truth. In my family, this is always the most important thing” (80).

It is when Juani is provoked into truth that she realizes how fragmented and decentralized memory truly is. This moment of truth takes place when Gina asks Juani whether she would have left Cuba if she were old enough to make a choice. This question leads Juani to take a close look at her childhood, but this attempt at introspection is thwarted by her inability to recall any real or factual memories during her time at Cuba:

And I realized that I’d left Cuba too young to remember anything but snatches of color an scattered words, like the cutout letters in a ransom note. And what little I could put together had since been forged and painted over by the fervor, malice and nostalgia of others. What did I really know? And who did I believe? Who could I believe? (133)

In due course, Memory Mambo approaches truth and memory as anything but stable and individualistic phenomena. The end of the novel becomes even more suggestive as Juani deliberately tries to deny or recognize the truth of witnessing Rosa being molested by Jimmy. However, her attempt to avoid remembering this instance is ruined when she discovers that her other cousins know the truth about the incident, leaving Juani in a position in which she is unable to lie or conceal the truth. This final incident goes on to exemplify how truth and memory are decentralized agents, and how they exist in networks that cannot be suppressed or contained.

This novel is definitely worth a read. I can’t even begin to list the wide range of emotions that I felt when reading this book, and my mind is currently on overdrive trying to process everything that it is discussed within its pages. The prose is simple to read, but the structure and ideas present in this work are anything but simple.

As always, feel free to add to this conversation in the comments section below!

Work Cited

Obejas, Achy. Memory Mambo. Pittsburgh: Cleis Press, 1996. Print.

For the source of this post’s cover image (neurons), click here.

Time and Cycles in Michael Cunningham’s [The Hours]

Front paperback cover of Cunningham's The Hours

Front paperback cover of Cunningham’s The Hours

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours barely needs an introduction. Not only was it the winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but it is also the source of the Oscar-winning 2002 movie of the same name. Fortunately, I had not seen the movie and I knew very little of the novel’s plot, so I was able to enjoy the narrative in its purest, with no spoilers or outlandish expectations (with the exception of the ideas discussed by Jim Collins in his discussion of the movie adaptation).

I have described many other books as haunting, but that adjective as applied to other books seems to pale in comparison to The Hours. I could praise this book in many ways, including its masterful use of the stream-of-consciousness technique, the depth of its descriptions, or the lavish beauty of its prose, but these merits have been highlighted by many other readers before me.  Similar to the narrative technique employed in Cunningham’s first novel, A Home at the End of the World, each chapter in The Hours focuses on an alternating cycle of major characters, and their perspectives weave together in order to provide cohesion to the text. This disruption of linearity not only adds to the challenge of reading the book, but it also adds an element of surprise and discovery that is more than welcome in the literary world.

In the case of The Hours, the chapters focus on subjects who are either directly or indirectly influenced by Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway during its creation and distribution after Woolf’s suicide. The main characters of the story are Virginia Woolf, the writer of Mrs. Dalloway and an eminent figure within British modernist fiction; Laura Brown, a pregnant housewife in the 50’s who is a self-proclaimed bookworm, and who is deeply unhappy with her ordinary life; and Clarissa Vaughn (also referred to as Mrs. Dalloway or Mrs. D), who is a contemporary interpretation of the main character in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, who resides in New York City with her wife Sally and her daughter Julia (you can read a concise summary of the novel along with reader comments here). The novel is told through an omniscient third-person perspective, so the reader is aware of the thoughts of major, secondary, and minor characters.

The gender politics of this novel are very interesting, in my opinion, precisely because they exemplify a wide range of sexual orientations, which include lesbian mothers who embrace traditional characteristics of femininity, lesbian queer theorists, gay men, and bisexual women. The sexuality of most characters within this novel is in no way static; at times there are characters who feel intense desire and passion towards both sexes even though they can typically be categorized as either straight or gay. Similar to A Home at the End of the World, AIDS plays a prominent role within The Hours, which seems appropriate given the novel’s aim of challenging and illuminating topics such as gender, death, life, and most of all: time/temporality.

Time, as suggested by the novel’s title, is indeed the central issue within the narrative, and it is a motif that not only inflects the content of the novel, but also its structure. The three main characters of the text all share a similar story and face similar struggles, however, the nature of this struggle changes according to the social conventions of the time in which they manifest. Woolf, who is trying to cope with mental illness, depression, and suicidal tendencies in the 1920’s, mirrors the character of Laura Brown, who feels trapped by the pressures and expectations of most 50’s housewives. Both characters express a desire to escape from their world, but are unable to do so because of the people who surround them. Cunningham’s depiction of Laura Brown was particularly captivating, mostly because he effectively illustrates her failure to achieve the perfection that others expect from her, and that she expects for herself. For instance, her inability to bake and decorate a flawless and pristine cake for her husband’s birthday clearly denotes her inability to comply with the unrealistic expectations that she sets for herself as a wife and a mother.

Time also plays a role in terms of how the characters cope with their sexual urges and romantic desires. Both Virginia Woolf and Laura Brown express some degree of desire for the same sex through a kiss: Woolf through a kiss she gave to her sister, and Laura through a kiss to her neighbor who ostensibly is showing signs of imminent illness. These kisses haunt the characters, mostly because they represent a desire that could not possibly be expressed without the expected social consequences. Whereas Woolf has writing as an outlet for this desire, Laura Brown has little to no way of expressing it, thus fueling her desire to escape from her current condition.

The third main character, Clarissa, has created a home with her partner, Sally, but she is shown to oscillate between happiness towards her current condition and the anguish caused by the certainties and uncertainties of life.  What makes Clarissa so appealing as a character is her paradoxical and indecisive nature. One moment, she seems to lament the follies of materiality, the fabricated nature of her home, the investment of money in superficial and useless items. Nonetheless, she invests a lot of time and money in a party to show how much she cares about her friend Richard, who is dying of AIDS. She embraces and rejects the comforts of materiality. She struggles with her need to please others while sacrificing her own pleasures and needs. She worries about the extent to which others enjoy the gifts she gives without thinking about her own appreciation to the gifts she is given. This sense of hesitation, which involves the struggle of the self with the demands of the outside world, is something that Clarissa shares with both Woolf and Laura. This, in due course, it what I liked most about the novel: it forced me to struggle in terms of interpreting the world through the lens of solipsism or interpreting it as a space where knowledge exists beyond the self. Do we define ourselves by the roles that other people assign to us? Are the people around us merely projections of our own thoughts and desires? What agency do we really have as individuals?

I’ve decided to end this post with the most haunting paragraph in this novel, which provides the comforting yet strangely bleak idea of enjoying the hours that provide us with comfort, happiness, and glory, simply because these hours are always followed by darker ones:

We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep. It’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out windows, or drown themselves, or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us are slowly devoured by some disease, or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) know these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more. Heaven only knows why we love it so. (Cunningham 225-226)

 I can’t help but question if this novel is ultimately presenting life as an endurance test. What I am certain of is that the novel approaches life as ever-shifting and ever-changing, and any intent to make the self stable through the passage of time is indeed a futile effort. Life is presented as a series of cycles and repetitions. The cyclic nature of time and history is best represented with the suicides that occur within the novel in that both Woolf and Richard depart the world by affirming virtually the exact same statement to their loved-ones before killing themselves:  “I dont’ think two people could have been happier than we’ve been” (Cunningham 200). Whether or not Richard was familiar with this exact statement made by Woolf in her suicide note is unclear, but the repetition of this phrase by two different people in two different time periods is indeed an eerie thought. I guess some people are better at coping with cycles. Others desperately try to change the direction of these cycles, or halt them altogether. Others willingly or unwillingly embrace them fully. And as Cunningham firmly put it, only heaven knows why.

Source:

Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998. Print (Hardcover Edition).

Sample Chapter of my Young Adult Novel, “Deviant”

What I have here is a young adult novel that I’ve been working on for a while. The title of this work is Deviant, and in essence, it is my ultimate dream project because it combines all of the genres I adore: dystopia, science fiction,  coming-of-age, and yes, romance. The themes of gender, humanities and the arts, and politics are very prominent throughout the entire work.

This novel takes a different approach to the coming-of-age genre. Although it has three main characters, the novel is peppered with preludes and interludes that tell the separate yet complementary stories of other characters. This constant deviance from the main plot serves to highlight the flaws and issues of the dystopic society without compromising the action and budding romance present in the main plot. The prelude and the interludes simply enhance the reader’s understanding of the tensions and problems that the main characters face.

As of now I only have about four chapters left to finish. But what I’m desperately looking for right now is some good (constructive) feedback. In this post, I’ve shared the first chapter/prelude of my young adult novel. It is not the final version of the chapter, and it is still subject to change. Do you think the novel seems interesting and/or worthwhile? Does this first chapter grab your attention? Does it make you want to read more? Any and all feedback is more than welcome.

Deviant Cover

Chapter I: A Prelude

Amethyst

I rest behind the garbage bin, trying to catch my breath. I don’t know what’s more brutal… walking barefoot through the snow, or running through a city in the middle of the night with nothing but a hospital gown on. My feet are blistered. Shades of periwinkle overlap the bruises and scabs peppered all over my legs. I can’t remember the last time I had sensation in my toes. I huddle my legs against my chest in an effort to retain the little body heat I have left. Either I’ll die out here in the cold, or they’ll catch me. Either way, I don’t think I’m going to last much longer.

I take a deep breath, look up, and exhale. A large cloud of steam escapes my mouth. The cloudy wisps tango into the air until they dissipate. If only I were like the steam. If only I can disappear into thin air. I gently turn around and bend on my knees. I wonder if they managed to keep up with me. I grab the corners of the garbage bin with my fingers and I slowly tilt my head to the side. The three figures stand ominously across the street. Damn. I was too desperate to cover my footprints in the snow. I led them right to me.

I blow some steam into my hands, hoping to give them even a few seconds of heat and consolation. It’s useless. My fingers are a sickly shade of purple. I see a darkened alley nearby. Maybe if I make a run for it, they won’t catch me. I grab a crushed soda can near the bin. This is it. I launch the can towards the opposite direction of the alley. I hear the metallic clash a few meters away.

I run. Well, I stumble. I’m beginning to lose my ability to balance myself. My feet are warning me that they can’t handle much more pressure. I feel a beam of light hit the side of my face as I head towards the alley. So much for my distraction.

I head towards the alley and reach a fence. Seriously, a fence? I thought fences in dark alleys were only used to make escape sequences dramatic in action films. The movie’s hero is chased by the villains and he or she dramatically climbs the fence and jumps over it. That’s not happening here. Between my frozen feet and my frostbitten fingers, it would be a miracle if I could climb half a meter. I frantically look around. The windows of the adjacent buildings are also too high for me to climb. I’m trapped.

I sit on the ground, knees against my legs. I lean my back against the cold brick of the one of the buildings. Flurries continue to fall from the heavens. I can hear footsteps approaching. Bursts of bright light invade my pupils. I cover my eyes, shielding them from the gleam of the three flashlights. My back presses firmly against the grimy wall. The rough texture of the brick perforates my skin. Sweat pours down my soiled hair.  My chest heaves back and forth. A continuous flow of steam escapes my mouth. My carnation pink hospital gown offers little protection from the wind and the snow. I always knew that they would find me, but I didn’t expect it to be so soon.

“I d-don’t care w-what you d-do or say. I’m n-never going b-b-back there.”

I’m not afraid. I’m freezing. Too bad my stuttering makes me seem like a coward. I have to show them that I’m not afraid. I stand up. My fragile body shivers and quakes as I try to straighten up my body. I shake my head side to side, dusting off the snowflakes that have accumulated over the crown of my head. I take another deep breath. This time, I pronounce the worlds loudly and clearly without stuttering.

“Did you hear me? I…am never…going back.”

Two of the flashlights turn off; the other points directly at my face. Two men in black suits and cerulean ties grab me by each arm. The remaining light is soon consumed by the darkness.  Even without the flashlights on, I can see their faces quite clearly. It seems that even the moon has a luminous interest in this recent development of events. The moon shining. The snow falling. What a lovely night this would’ve been under different circumstances.

There she is, staring at me with her cold, calculating, eyes—one glows with a yellowish hue, like the eyes of the panther. I can’t distinguish the color of the other eye, but it is much darker than the one on the left.

She loosens up her ponytail. Auburn hair begins to flow freely. Her flawless alabaster skin reflects the moonlight, and her bright pink dress suit, on the verge of a neon tone, could be spotted miles away in pure darkness. She reminds me of those brightly colored frogs that live in the Amazons, distinguished by their dazzling colors that serve as a warning to other creatures. Even animals know not to mess with beasts that don extravagant, bright-colored coats. Who knew that someone so beautiful could be so… menacing. Yet the beauty is a lie. Inside of that captivating shell, all that resides is ugliness. She’s a mummy within a jewel incrusted sarcophagus. I’m not one to be fooled.

“Well, Amethyst, it seems like you thought you could escape the Hub yet again. But as you very well know, nobody escapes. Deviants such as yourself can never leave, at least not until reparations are finalized. I must say, however, that your attempt to escape was quite a… noble effort. Ineffective, but very noble indeed.”

“There’s s-s-still p-plenty of time for me to es-ca-ca-cape.” No. I started stuttering again. The woman chuckles. Seems like she’s amused.

“Did you hear that, boys? Amethyst still thinks she has a shot at freedom. Little girls and their big dreams. Dreams are for weaklings, darling.”

“At least I’m c-capable of dreaming. M-monsters like you never dream.” Even with the two guards grasping my arms, it’s still getting harder to stand by the minute. I can’t collapse on the floor. I can’t let them see any more signs of weakness.

She steps towards me. Her eyes scan me top to bottom, basking in the pathetic visage in front of her. My bloody face. My bruised knees. My shivering body. She must be enjoying this spectacle. She leans toward my face. Her mouth is about two inches away from my own. She softly closes her eyes and whispers, “True. But that’s because monsters inhabit the realm of nightmares. And guess what, my dear Amethyst? Nightmares are still dreams. Cooperate, or I’ll make sure that you’re living a nightmare for the rest of your meager, pathetic existence.” She says this with a demeanor that is both calm and serene. Now I’m beginning to feel afraid. I try to respond, but no words come out of my mouth. Only steam does.

“Denise knows better than to try and escape. She knows that we can repair her” says the woman, still inches away from my face.

Denise. For a moment, I nearly forgot about her. I tried to let her know of my plan to escape. I wanted her to come with me. The Hub, however, is very cautious with its administration. It would be a shame to allow a relapse to occur within its premises.

My mind wanders off to my time in the Hub. I recall the cramped white room with nothing but a bunk bed, a sink, and a toilet. My cellmate was a seventeen year-old boy named Trevor. He was clearly ashamed about his recruitment to the Hub. It could be worse. Enrollment in the Hub was usually one of the lighter punishments for Deviants like us.

He would toss and turn while sleeping at night, whimpering the name of a person that I didn’t know. A person that he refused to talk to me about. When I first mentioned this name, he cupped one hand over my mouth and just stared straight into my eyes. With his other hand, he gently made a zipping motion across his lips. I perfectly understood who this person was.

Trevor and I had known each other since our first year in the Culture and Communication Center. I was seven when I first met him. Our assigned Center is the least popular of all the training centers, and we knew that. Understandably, we weren’t excited to be there, but it’s not like we have much of a choice in terms of what center we are assigned to at that age. Although we briefly talked during the first couple of years, we soon grew apart. Who knew that we would one day be cellmates at the Hub?

The transgression that led to my imprisonment happened about four months ago. All it took was one moment. One moment to obliterate years of work and effort. One moment to destroy a lifetime of possibility. When it happened, Denise and I knew we were doomed. Hopeless. Lost. The Régime doesn’t take these matters lightly—and although it’s been decades since all the cells in the Hub have been full, you occasionally see one or two new faces in the dining hall every month or so. Denise and I were the unlucky ones this time. You can never be too careful here… the Régime is always watching, in addition to listening.

The agent stands in front of me, breathing heavily on my face, with a pocket placed firmly into her hand. I know what comes next. We all do. We’ve been warned about the penalties for multiple transgressions. We all knew the protocol that Hub-Masters usually followed when pursuing an escapee. Knowing what comes next, I looked at her adamantly with a sense of valor.

“Leave…Denise… out of this.” I’m losing my breath.

“Oh Amethyst, just drop the act of courage and valor. You already look pathetic. Do you want to actually be pathetic as well?”

I can’t take it anymore. With all my might, I yank my arms away from the guards and I lunge at her, trying my best to knock her into the snow. With any luck, her head will bash into the pavement. I lock my arms around her, but she barely budges. I must be way weaker than I thought I was. Not even adrenaline can save me now. She grabs me by my hair and tosses me on the ground. I look up and see those eyes. They truly do look monstrous in the moonlight.

I black out momentarily. I open my eyes and notice one of the guard’s boots embedded within my abdomen. The other guard swings his foot. I black out once again. Yes, that’s blood dripping out of my mouth.

I spit out the blood and watch the crimson masterpiece that I created on the silver snow. I lay the side of my head on the red-tinged snow. “I can’t be repaired. I refuse to be repaired” I whisper, loud enough for them to hear me.

The woman gives me a half smile and pulls out the roll of parchment that I was expecting to see. Parchment. How old-fashioned. How traditional. One of my history instructors back at the Center mentioned that all agencies belonging to the Régime use parchment for most of their official documents. It makes them feel as if they were in touch with history. The days when Deviants were nowhere to be found. The days when the entire population upheld the virtues of purity and dignity. Strangely, with my act of defiance, I feel like I have fully embraced both of those virtues.

She unrolls the parchment and reads the proclamation in a stern and cold voice. Even the snow seems warm in comparison to that voice. I know the proclamation by heart—I saw it all the time in movies and television shows repeatedly, all telling the story of people who dare defy the fourth natural law. To add insult to injury, they even made the proclamation rhyme—a lullaby uttered right before our final sleep. It sounds just like I expect it to sound, but with my name and borough mentioned in the first verse. Rhymes used to always calm me down as a kid. This rhyme manages to finish the snow’s job of freezing the blood running through my veins.

Amethyst Jacobson of the South-western Borough,

The Régime has been clear, its stipulations were thorough.

Your defiance of nature, and a will that won’t bend,

Leaves us no choice but to uphold and defend

The revered mandate of the fourth natural law:

your sacrifice will bring order and peace to us all.”

As she finished the proclamation, she kneels down on the floor and pulls out a syringe from her pocket. She pulls out a vial with a rose-colored liquid and fills the syringe. I don’t even feel the needle piercing my flesh. I never thought I would die this way. I always thought I’d be old, surrounded by my loved ones, dying in the warmth of my bedroom.

I feel the heat draining away from my body. My chest tightens. No more steam escapes from my mouth. My eyes are open, but now, all I see is darkness. My spirit breaks as I realize that for me, there is no white light at the end tunnel.

ALL RIGHTS TO THIS POST RESERVED BY AUTHOR

Published by Angel Daniel Matos

Copyright 2013 © by Angel Daniel Matos

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)