Literary Genre Syndrome or How The Elegance of the Hedgehog Ruined The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Cover of "The Perks of Being a Wallflower...

Cover of The Perks of Being a Wallflower

This is my experience of reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower; it’s not a review and there will be spoilers.
The last “literary” book I read was The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery in 2009. A friend loved it, she gave me a copy. To be a good friend, I read it. It was slow going at first, but I liked Paloma, I liked the references to Japanese culture and I even got some of the philosophy references. Then the end happened, like, well like getting hit by a truck. Or rather, the other main character, Renee, was killed in a car accident, just as she was escaping from her dismal isolation and learning to enjoy life.

And once again I felt betrayed by the literary genre’s insistence that a sad ending (usually death) is the only true ending of worth there is.

What does this have to do with The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky? Quite a lot, at least in my mind.

See, there are quite a few mentions of car crashes in Perks. The death of Charlie’s aunt in a car crash when he was young affects him throughout the book. In the middle, there’s some risky behavior involving standing in the bed of a speeding pick-up truck while driving through a tunnel. (My adult self says “risky”; I wouldn’t be surprised if my child self is shouting “Yes! Fun!) Towards the end there is some discussion of whether various characters are sober enough to drive and my genre signals got crossed. (A little. Perks has been called a “modern classic” and we all know how much they love sad endings and death too.)

My pattern-seeking mammalian brain was shrieking “Someone is going to die in a car crash, maybe even the main character!” and I dreaded that anticipated ending so much I barely saw the story that was there. A “literary” book almost demands death; a classic approves of death; but commercial books are the best at planting clues so the reader can guess and anticipate and feel invested in the story. (I know my biases are showing, it’s my blog.) Death seemed inevitable.

I guessed wrongly and I didn’t get the payoff of investment in the book until very late, almost too late: the last two chapters actually, when I figured out that what was going on had nothing to do with car crashes and everything to do with abuse.  Maybe this was intentional slight of hand on Chbosky’s part. “Look over here while I do something tricky over there with the cards.”

Unfortunately I was distracted by a few other things. Recently, as in after this book was originally published, there have been a few books with main characters with Aspberger’s so I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if that was what was happening with this book. I did not get the “intellectually gifted but maybe emotionally damaged” vibe I think the book was going for. (Maybe this is a terminology problem? Wallflower for me doesn’t equate with Charlie’s extreme lack emotional interaction with others.) And early on, there is a scene with another character that Charlie interprets correctly as rape. Adult, educated feminists often stumble over identifying coerced/forced oral sex as rape so it struck me as very odd that a 15 year old boy would do so. Especially since his fumbling towards feminism older sister doesn’t (unless I’m getting confused with a different scene).

All this adds up to me feeling a little sad that I formed so little connection to a book that so many people love and frustration that I was thinking about The Elegance of the Hedgehog and trying to decipher signals instead of reading the book in front of me.