Especially following so closely on the heels of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, I did not expect to like Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower—or perhaps I should have assumed that I would like it by comparison. The two books share much: Both are the bildungsroman of young boys who live apart in some way from the rest of the world and, I would argue, have some psychological barrier that helps to skewer their perspective of and distance them from the world (Charlie’s in Perks being explained and Holden Caulfield’s in Catcher being left unmentioned by the author; potentially, though, both suffer from, for one, the unresolved grieving a close family member). Both books were recommended to me by friends and read at their insistence. Both are books that I probably ought to have read for classes (Catcher more so than Perks more because of its age than anything else, The Catcher in the Rye having first been published in 1951, and Perks having been first published in 1999). Both are written in styles (stream-of-consciousness and epistolary) that I tend to dislike.
So why did I dislike one and like the other?
I’ve talked with the friend who recommended Perks to me regarding this question: One reason she gave was simple: the writing’s better, and both of us being writers, that means something to us and certainly for me does greatly influence how I view books as a whole. The writing is better because, for one, it uses curse words infrequently, giving them the weight that was stolen from them by their blasé use in The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger also seems to have tried too hard. To pun, Holden’s narrative felt “phony.” I don’t think that I dare pass judgment on Salinger and Chbosky, but as this same friend who recommended Perks posited, Chbosky, sadly, probably, judging from the “realness” of the writing, went through what Charlie does, is probably Charlie. I wonder if Chbosky was writing out of a need for release, and Salinger was trying to write literature.
Catcher is, more than a narrative, a collection of philosophical ramblings stitched together by his probably in some way misaligned mind.
Charlie tells the reader a clearer narrative. Chbosky creates a cast of characters that remain present throughout the book, even in their absence. These characters react to the narrative. Herein is the main difference between two stories loosely framed by a stretch of time—Holden’s time living alone in New York City and Charlie’s school year.
Catcher’s cast is far smaller and far less fleshed out, and most are absent from the plot—such as it is—making them seem more like sketches than actors. I can gather that Holden is disturbed and depressed; his sister is sweet, young, and flighty; his brother is in LA trying to deal with reality; his parents are probably present but absent; he has had several good teachers who actually care for him; and there is one girl whom he considers more than just an object with which to have sex. Only his sister and very briefly a few of these teachers actually interact with Holden within the story.
Perks is more strongly plot-driven, and that may be my preference.
Also, Charlie is actively trying to connect, unlike Holden. Charlie may therefore be more likeable.
Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: MTV/Pocket-Gallery-Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Back Bay-Little, Brown-Hachette, 2001. First published 1945.
These reviews are not endorsed by Stephen Chbosky, J. D. Salinger, MTV Books, Pocket Books, Gallery Books, or Simon & Schuster, Inc, Back Bay Books, Little, Brown, & Company, or Hachette Book Group. They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.