The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

wallflowerWhen I’m in a certain mood, I like to entertain myself with the – totally predictable – comment threads under YouTube videos. (When I’m not in this particular mood I don’t bother reading the comments.) One of my favorite recurring comment topics is the one where people argue in connection with a song made famous by a movie, book or PC game whether the right to enjoy and love these songs is (should be) granted even to those poor unfortunates who only learned about the particular song through the movie, book or PC game, or only to those lucky souls who already knew the song before it became famous, and were therefore in the know of a secret and unique source of pleasure which will now be spoiled by all those hordes of newcomers.

A while ago I was reading a comment thread about this topic in connection with a song I – by chance – happened to already know and love. The name Charlie and references to a sense of infinity kept recurring in the comments, and I had no idea who this Charlie was and what the conversation was about. Anyway, I became interested in a book in which someone listens to or mentions „Daydream” by The Smashing Pumpkins, so I looked up the novel and read it.

And I’m glad I did because this is good novel. It’s a teenage novel / coming-of-age story (which is one of my all-time favorite genres), and fortunately it’s the regular kind of teenage novel, by which I mean that it has nothing to do with the young adult genre (I’m yet to read a YA novel which is good, and not a cheap and dishonest self-help book for teens – any recommendations would be more than welcome). The narrator-protagonist is 15-year-old Charlie who’s just starting high-school, and the book is about his first year as a high-school student. We learn the events from the letters Charlie sends to an unknown friend throughout the year. He doesn’t expect an answer, he only wants to talk, and he does talk, about everything: his nuclear and extended family; his aunt Helen, who died when he was seven, and for whose death he partially blames himself; his school friends whom he loves more than anybody or anything else; the first kiss, date, cigarette, LSD trip; his English teacher, who notices a special talent in him and assigns him extra books to read during the school year (and good books at that – such as On the Road, The Great Gatsby or Walden); and about everything else.

Charlie is an excellent storyteller. Not only does he describe the events themselves with great power and perception (yet in a very simple and honest way), but he can depict all the „teenage-emotions” behind them: the fear; the insecurity; the angst; the „screwed-upness”; the hope; the curiosity; the lust for life; the excitement of all kinds of „first things”; the serenity; the unworldliness; the feeling of the world and you being one, and the feeling of the world and you being mutually exclusive.

Not surprisingly, this novel – as every teenage novel I know – has been compared to The Catcher in the Rye, and in this case the comparison is apt, this novel is worthy of the honor of being mentioned together with Salinger’s masterpiece (if you haven’t guessed this by now, let me add that The Catcher in the Rye is my greatest favorite). Of course there are some differences: this novel is way more concrete, practical and over-explained than The Catcher in the Rye (at some points, especially in the epilogue it almost feels like a self-help book for teens), and my assumption is that it won’t become such a timeless book. The Perks of Being a Wallflower came out in 1999, and the story is set in 1992, and it definitely has a strong 1990s atmosphere to it, it is deeply rooted in that decade, and I feel that 50 years from now – if it’s still read then – this sense will be even more striking, and the book will probably feel dated. But now it is really a great book.

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We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Eva never wanted to be a mother. Until she reached the age of thirty-something, she lived quite happily as the manager of a thriving company: she spent five months abroad each year, conducted conveniently short affairs with foreign men and in the meantime constructed the picture of the ideal man in her head – the man she would be willing to marry one day. But then suddenly she married Franklin who was the direct opposite of her carefully constructed ideal man: he was a big man, truly, proudly American with brutally honest and simple dreams – a family, BBQ in the garden, doing sports with his son and sometimes going on a trip to some typical American monument.

Eva never wanted to be a mother. She didn’t feel the urge of her motherly instincts, she didn’t swoon at the thought of being a mother, she wasn’t particularly touched by the loveliness and cuteness of her friends’ children and she listened to her friends with a lot of doubt when they told her that being a mother is a miraculous, inexpressible feeling which she can’t understand beforehand but she will understand as soon as she holds her child in her arms.

However, despite all her skepticism, doubt and fear, Eva became a mother. She delivered Kevin into the world – a boy she considered a burden ever since the moment of his conception, a boy she was repulsed by from the moment he was born. And then Kevin went ahead and basically ruined Eva’s life, but not just hers, but everyone else’s nearby, apart from the endlessly naive and honest Franklin. And then Kevin grew up, and a couple of days before his 16th birthday he went on a massive shootout in his high-school and thereby changed the life of his family forever.

Two years passed since then. Kevin’s in prison, Eva visits him every week and spends the rest of her time writing long, soul-dissecting letters to her ex-husband in which she tells him about the way she sees her marriage, her motherhood, her successes in her career and her American nationality.

I didn’t mention that the post contains spoilers since what I’ve written so far is clear from the very first page of the novel, and the remaining 400 pages deal with the questions of the why and how, and the questions of responsibility. And even though we get the gist – that is, the fact that a massacre happened which changed everything – very soon, the novel features a lot more shocking and heart-wrenching details and it provides the reader with a lot to think about. However, the rest of the post may contain spoilers.

The main theme of the novel is motherhood and the relationship between mother and child. And while Eva faces her innermost thoughts and analyzes her feelings to find out why she didn’t want Kevin in the first place and why she was unable to get up a proper relationship with him, the reader is also compelled to engage in some soul-searching of their own and face their own doubts which might be very similar to those of Eva.

Of course this isn’t easy at all, since the doubts and fears Eva admits to are taboos – it’s not easy to talk about them, and it’s not easy to think about them, either. For instance, Eva has a list of her reasons why she didn’t want to be a mother. This list contains the fear that she won’t be able to travel as much if she has a child, or the fear that she will end up in an inferior social position because of her child. We might say these are selfish, ugly and often childish fears – nevertheless, they are real, and it’s better to talk about them before someone decides to have a child, because – as Eva’s example makes it clear – the doubts won’t evaporate miraculously the moment one’s child is born.

I think this novel is somewhat similar to Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road in the sense that it must be a very different experience to read this novel if someone already has a child. It may only be my own naive idea, but I think if I had a child, I would perhaps take sides with Kevin and would argue that it was only natural that he turned out this way since he sadly lacked his mother’s love throughout his childhood and sensed her mother’s repulsion and hatred and the fact that she embraced him twice a day only because she had to. I would perhaps argue that a child senses all this and answers with behaving badly just to force others to pay attention to him. (As if all this were that simple and logical.)

If I had a child, I would probably argue that all children respond to love and good treatment, that there is no such thing as a deliberately hostile and spiteful child, and that only Eva is responsible for everything that happened to Kevin and her whole family, because she was such a selfish, cold-hearted, rigid and mistrustful mother.

But I don’t have a child, I’m only an average reader, so I base my opinion on the text. And in the text I see (from Eva’s point of view, of course) that it must really have been an awful experience for Eva to be the mother of Kevin and that Kevin must really have been such an unbearable burden on Eva and on almost everybody else, apart from his father – and based on all this, I think Eva stood her ground rather well.

I don’t have a child, but I know something about the way Eva continuously feels. Of course this is only a miniature version of Eva’s sufferings but while I read the book, I was reminded of some childhood memories concerning my sister. It sometimes happened that I wanted my sister to do something for me but she was simply unwilling to do it. I could argue with her, saying that I did something similar for her just the other day so it would be the proper thing to help me out now; I could beg her to do it; I could promise her something else – but still she wouldn’t do what I asked. And in the end I couldn’t do anything at all about it, just sulk and rave with fury on my own.

And this sulk, rage and immense helplessness is what Eva has to deal with – only not for an hour or an afternoon, but for 18 years. And while she struggles with these feeling, she cannot help but ask some questions: how do you deal with a child who is not interested in anything? Why do adults think that a child is all eagerness to behave well and do something only because it’s the proper thing to do? What if a child is absolutely unaffected by everything his parents can offer him? What’s the use of promising things to a child who just doesn’t care about these things at all? And what’s the point in voicing mysterious threats/promises to the effect that „you will know how everything is when you grow up” when in fact there is no such secret which can only be learned as an adult?

Questions like these have no real answer. And the last couple of pages of the novel shock me in a way similar to how the ending of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four shocks me: in the last pages, Eva accepts her fate and starts to love Kevin. A new life is about to start for both of them – but at the same time Eva, or Eva in the way she was before, ceases to exist. And I’m not at all sure that this is such a good thing. Perhaps not every woman has to become a mother. And I’m sure it’s not good to become a real mother after 18 years of desperate struggle and after paying such a price as Eva has to pay – and here I don’t mean Kevin’s deeds but Eva’s final resignation and self-annihilation.

Priority by Iselin C. Hermann

Priority is an epistolary novel. The story is really simple: Delphine, a young Danish woman sees a painting in a gallery in Paris, and she is so impressed with it that she sends a sincere, slightly frivolous thank-you note to the painter. The middle-aged painter, Jean Luc answers her card, and then they engage in an increasingly exalted, erotic and hysterical correspondence. From the initial playful, rather innocent and flirtatious stage they quickly go on to the phase when they both become obsessed with each other’s body and soul – as they imagine these based on their letters to each other. Naturally, the idea of a real-life rendezvous is raised pretty soon, but the meeting, when it is finally arranged, has disastrous consequences.

Several bloggers who read this novel mentioned that the story ends with an appalling and very dramatic twist which leaves the reader absolutely dumbfounded. However, I was not at all surprised by the outcome of the story. This is not because I’m so clever (virtually every writer can double-cross me, and I’ve never been able to guess who the murderer is in any detective story), but because the ending is foreshadowed by several details in the novel: the comment under the title of the novel („The letters are published by X. Y.”), the style and the rhapsodical quality of the whole correspondence, and several hints dropped by one pen-friend and deliberately or perhaps naively ignored by the other – all these details strongly suggest what kind of outcome is to be expected. And in fact this is one of the reasons why I esteem this novel so highly: the author didn’t use the cheap trick of shocking the reader with some inexplicable but spectacular twist. She simply went ahead and wrote the ending which was the inevitable consequence of the preceding events.

Of course, the novel is still shocking, but it doesn’t shock me because of the ending, but because the whole correspondence is frightfully believable. The way Delphine’s and Jean Luc’s relationship develops, their increasing intimacy with each other, the gaps and silences which sometimes occur in the course of their correspondence, which are then broken by obsessively honest letters about their past and about their erotic fantasies about the other, or by self-lacerating, self-ironic or exigent epistles – all this is stunningly real.

Priority, by the way, reminded me of Joanne Harris’s novel, blueeyedboy, even though here communication is via letters and not via blog comments and emails. Both of these novels deal with the themes of role-playing, the blurring of reality and desire, and the incomprehensibility of someone’s real identity – and in this respect it doesn’t matter at all whether someone falls in love with a perfect stranger based on his or her letters, blog comments or instant messages. In these kinds of relationships, which are based on desires and fantasies, lying (or at least hiding certain facts), painting a nice picture of ourselves and at the same time mindlessly adoring the Other are even more emphatically present than in any „normal” relationship. And this is certainly the case in Priority, too. Delphine and Jean Luc develop a passionate, seemingly honest relationship which is in fact based on role-playing and is therefore exceedingly vulnerable to the attack of reality. And even though both of them are basically the figments of the other’s imagination, the image they create in their heads about the other is so real for them that reality itself becomes unimaginable and unbelievable.

While reading the novel, I first tended to think that in this relationship, Delphine is the one who really suffers, because she is the one who truly exposes herself, she is the one whose desire is stronger, and she is the one who adores the other more honestly. But finally the question of who suffers and who loses more became totally irrelevant, because, as a matter of fact, there are only losers in this relationship.