Thursday, March 25, 2010

Get out there and dance, kid!

I'll say up front that I'm not a fan of Holden Caulfield and his ilk. Get over yourselves! After listening to six-plus hours of Charlie's letters to his Dear Friend, I'm inclined to say that to him as well. Charlie describes his freshman year in high school in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (generally I don't link to "unofficial" websites, but this one was somewhat interesting -- if unfinished?) by Stephen Chbosky, and it is a mostly agonizing year to get through.

Charlie is depressed -- and deservedly so, although the final revelation about this seems gratuitous to me -- and is feeling some trepidation about entering high school. He's what in my childhood was called "a sensitive boy;" a watcher, not a participant. His family is intact, but reserved and he feels little connection with his older brother and sister. Soon after school starts he meets two exotic seniors (stepbrother and sister), who sweep him up and expose him to ... shall we say LIFE (and much of what they expose him to is why this book keeps popping up on the ALA Most Frequently Challenged List -- it's a veritable smorsgasbord of drugs, sex and rock and roll)! Charlie mostly remains the wallflower, but Patrick and Sam do pull him on to the virtual and metaphorical dance floor in the course of the school year, and by the end of the novel it seems that he might be able to dance on his own. He shares the events of that year (1991-1992) in a series of letters to someone we never meet, and who I think doesn't know him. This conceit was just something else for me not to like about this book.

For me -- an adult who even as a kid didn't like to read about disaffected boys -- this book was just drenched in fake drama. Charlie was too damaged, his family too passive, Patrick and Sam and their crowd too free-spirited. And then there was that creepy English teacher, Bill, who keeps foisting literature on poor Charlie (who passively accepts it without every offering an opinion) and insisting that he write essays about them. (And what did he do for his regular classwork, one asks [see more questions like this below]?) It's clear that Charlie speaks to a lot of young readers, though, and by god! I will defend to the death (well not really) their right to read what Publishers' Weekly calls this "bath of bathos."

I will add here that I have never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show (I should though, I like Tim Curry), which may explain everything!

I found this book by actually browsing the library shelves, something I do so rarely I have to mention it. I was picking up holds (DVDs, natch), and -- with the freedom of no committee assignments -- wandered over to the audiobook shelves. (Of course, I already had a load of audiobooks at home!) Perks was there, I had heard of it as a challenged book (not as a nephew of Holden Caulfield), so I checked it out ... on my personal card (not my work card)! When I went to renew it, though, it had a lot of holds, so it moved up the queue and here we are.

The experienced Johnny Heller reads Charlie's letters, and his high-register, slightly breaking, boyish voice is actually pretty perfect for Charlie. He captures Charlie's sadness particularly well by slowing down his reading and adding a very effective quaver that does indeed sound like he's on the brink of tears (Charlie cries a lot). The intimacy of hearing Charlie's letters read aloud is quite effective, it's as if the listener is that unknown recipient. Despite my not enjoying this as literature, it's one of those books where I'm glad I chose listening, insteading of reading.

But because I'm compulsive, I have a raft of continuity and detail issues about this book: 1) how can an obviously intelligent boy like Charlie turn 16 during his freshman year? 2) At one point in the book, we flash back to 1983 when we are told that Charlie is 7, when -- according to the book's chronology -- he is really 8. 3) High school students just head out for a lunchtime smoke on the school's front steps? I don't think so. 4) Aren't Charlie's parents the least bit concerned by the fact that his two friends are seniors? Or that he occasionally doesn't return home at night? 5) Would a Teach for America teacher be working in a middle class community like Charlie's? Etc. This conversation alludes to "subsequent publicity and attention" over MTV publishing this book in 1999. But what I want to know is ... where are the editors at MTV/Pocket Books?

When J.D. Salinger ("literary recluse") died recently, I said ... hmmm, maybe I should reread A Catcher in the Rye (alas, there does not appear to be an audio version ... yet!). But now, I don't think so.

1 comment:

Abby said...

ZOMG we loved this book in high school. It may have been the only book I ever gave to my first boyfriend. :)

But I haven't read it in 10 years or so and I bet I'd have a different view of it if I read it now. ;)