Adolescent fiction, as it has been canonized, has its roots in romanticism and modernity though it was not fully formed until after the Second World War. This perhaps marks the entire genre as a postmodernist one. However, adolescent literature deals with the older romantic and modern concepts of identity associated with the transition between childhood and adulthood within a postmodern context. This leaves postmodern adolescent protagonists struggling with contradictions in forming an identity. In Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the protagonist, Charlie, deals with issues of nostalgia and authenticity. When Charlie tries to adhere to older formations of self, he becomes alienated and dismantles any sense of identity or agency he has. Charlie only finds an identity in his postmodern construction of an identity, uninterested in authenticity or hierarchization, finding unity in the potentially overwhelming postmodern world of intertextuality. These issues are also at work outside of the novel, for the reader—who is left questioning their own nostalgia and the importance of originality.

    Roberta Seelinger Trites identifies Young Adult (YA) literature as a construct of the twentieth century, following the earlier social construct of the adolescent, a result of the Romantic Movement’s investment in youth (location 191-4 of 2501). She points to the publishing of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye in 1951 as one of the accepted “turning points” of YA literature (206 of 2501). It is not surprising then, that Salinger’s seminal novel is seen as a template for most of YA novels. Significantly, the back cover of The Perks of Being a Wallflower quotes a USA Today blurb comparing Chbosky’s work to Salinger’s. Marketed by MTV books, Perks is the Catcher of the nineties. And, in rather shameless postmodern fashion, it is.

    The Catcher in the Rye, as David Castronovo and Louis Menand point out, is a locus of much nostalgia. Adult readers are nostalgic not just for their adolescence, as exemplified by Holden Caulfield, but are also nostalgic for the experience of reading the book for the first time. Adolescents who read it are nostalgic for Holden’s simple, idealistic view of childhood, as well as an American 1940’s that resides somewhere in the mythical imagination eager for the “vintage.” The continual canonization of the book perpetuates this nostalgia ad infinitum, placing the book, along with its associated nostalgia, in the “shared experience of a vast number of people in the second half of the twentieth century” (Castronovo 1). It is unsurprising, then, when Charlie’s teacher and mentor, Bill—and his mother—gives him Catcher as requisite adolescent reading along with a long book list of other canonical texts in the same vein. And unsurprisingly, Charlie’s book list was our book list. Bill, his teacher, gives him these texts, no doubt, because he is nostalgic for his adolescent past—the one Charlie calls to mind. Bill is excited to introduce these texts to Charlie in the same way that countless adults have passed on their copies of The Catcher in the Rye to “ignorant” teenagers, filling them in on what it means to be an adolescent as understood by an adult.

    The Perks of Being a Wallflower was published in 1999, though Charlie’s letters are dated for the 1991-1992 school year. This is not unlike the publishing of Catcher in the Rye in the early fifties, despite its forties setting. It is not unimaginable, then, that even in those few years, readers could have developed a nostalgia for the early nineties. What’s more is today’s “hipster” youth has reappropriated the already ironic garb of the early nineties, Doc Martens and plaid, though of course most of them were in utero (ironically enough, the title of a Nirvana album) at the time. So perhaps these readers are nostalgic for a mythical early ninety, one before their memory, one found in the pages of Chbosky’s novel. This is not far from Jameson’s “nostalgia for the present” he takes such issue with in postmodernism.

    In the novel, Charlie struggles with his own problems of nostalgia. Like Holden, he has idealized his childhood, as well his life before the deaths of his aunt Helen and friend Michael. Early on, Charlie establishes Aunt Helen as the person he identifies with most in his family, going so far as to say “my Aunt Helen was my favorite person in the whole world” (Chbosky 5). He laments the nights they spent watching Saturday Night Live when Charlie’s parents were out, wondering if “maybe it’s sad that these are now memories. And maybe it’s not sad. And maybe it’s just the fact that we loved Aunt Helen, especially me, and this was the time we could spend with her” (16). But his nostalgia keeps him from realizing that this idealized family member is actually central to his repressed trauma. He does not remember, until the very end of the entire novel, that Aunt Helen had sexually assaulted him as a child.  Nostalgia is problematic, then, because it does not represent the past as it happened, it instead represents a fantasy of the past. We invent the past we are nostalgic for, because no one can possibly be nostalgic for such a traumatic past. Chbosky uses the YA trope of trauma in order to point to the postmodern problem of nostalgia—that we will ignore our traumatic pasts in order to participate in nostalgia.

    Memory has taken precedence in his life, to the point that others like Bill and Sam plead for Charlie to “participate.”  When Charlie first meets Mary Elizabeth, she tells him about her ventures in becoming Buddhist, and he gathers that “Zen is a day like this when you are a part of the air and remember things” (Chbosky 43).  He goes on to explain a childhood game dubbed “smear the queer,” hardly an ideal memory.  It is not just Charlie’s obsession with memory that creates a problematic kind of nostalgia for him, but also his urge for repetition and recycling of these memories—a postmodern impulse. When trying to describe how beautiful a photograph of Sam is, he describes it in the terms of the beautiful memories he repeats again and again in the course of the novel:

  1. if you listen to the song “Asleep,” and you think about those pretty weather days that make you remember things, and you think about the prettiest eyes you’ve known, and you cry and the person holds you back, then I think you will see the photograph. (48)

There is perhaps no greater representation of postmodern nostalgia than the photograph. Though this photo is not old, Charlie has idealized it, and even describes it in terms of nostalgia—it is a day you remember things, it holds you back. He cannot even see this photo without understanding it in terms of memory and nostalgia, removing him from the direct experience of art. This is a great postmodern dilemma—nostalgia. At once we are stuck in the collective narratives and stories that came before us as we navigate the narrative that we currently occupy. How do you understand your own, current identity if your life is always in terms of the past, the past self as well as others in their pasts? Nostalgia, especially in the postmodern world, is always formed in terms of a mythical past that never existed historically or personally, which in the case of Charlie and his trauma hinders his formation of identity.

    Postmodernism problematizes the formation of identity in a number of ways, displacing the modernist “sense of unified, centered self” with “a sense of fragmentation and decentered self [and] multiple, conflicting identities” (Berger 102).  Identity, though, is the central theme of the YA novel—YA protagonists are constantly defining who they are. This is especially difficult for the postmodern adolescent protagonist. It is not just the self that becomes contentious in postmodernism, but also the essence of that self. Modernism was concerned with originality, as it related to a deep sense of an inner “true” self. Postmodernism, however, rejects the idea that any reality is knowable in the illusory world of hyperreality, and so identity is based neither in truth nor in originality (Berger x). The postmodern problem of authenticity, like nostalgia, is explored in The Perks of Being a Wallflower both inside and outside the text.

    At the most basic level, this struggle is reflected in Charlie’s language.  As individual person’s identities are not based on intrinsic meaning, so is the meaning of signs. Signs only gain meaning in relation to the other signs around them, in a nonhierarchical manner.  This frees up meaning—it is never—ending, through perpetual hypertextuality. Meaning, then, becomes less stable in postmodernism. And yet postmodern subjects still participate in systems of grammar and semiotics. Postmodern adolescents are tasked with these problems in trying to express themselves, and Chbosky’s Charlie is no exception. In his very first letter Charlie tries to quote himself, from a conversation with the guidance counselor after Michael’s death:

  1. “Well, I think that Michael was a nice guy and I don’t understand why he did it. As much as I feel sad, I think that not knowing is what really bothers me.” I just reread that and it doesn’t sound like how I talk. (4)

Charlie is hung up on knowing—though there is little indication that he will ever find out exactly why Michael killed himself, and in the postmodern world, it doesn’t matter since there is no one truth. Charlie also has the problem of depicting himself, which he finds he cannot do accurately.  Charlie is concerned with his mastery of language, partially thanks to his mentor Bill who encourages him to excel, as he tells Charlie that he has “a great skill at reading and understanding language” (9). But Charlie often masks real problems with his concern over his grammar:

  1. It’s funny, too, because boys and girls normally weren’t best friends around my school. But Michael and Susan were. Kind of like my Aunt Helen and me. I’m sorry. “My Aunt Helen and I.” That’s one thing I learned this week. That and more consistent punctuation. (7)

Charlie doesn’t realize that he is potentially pointing out his relationship with Aunt Helen is abnormal; he is too wrapped up in correcting his own grammar.

    But language is so complicated in the postmodern world Charlie navigates that it is inevitable that he experiences a discursive breakdown. It is noteworthy that this breakdown occurs when Charlie has dropped acid—the surreality of hyperreality is magnified on the hallucinogenic drug. There is a disjunction of language and meaning:

  1. My brother…football…Brad…Dave and his girlfriend in my room…the coats…the cold…the winter…”Autumn Leaves”…don’t tell anyone…you pervert…Sam and Craig…Sam…Christmas…typewriter…gift…Aunt Helen…and the trees kept moving…they just wouldn’t stop moving…so I laid down and made a snow angel. (98)

Charlie makes associative leaps, forgoing the correct language connecting the signs—which are all mashed together, at the same level—no single phrase makes sense without the others. This discourse is dependent on a postmodern sense of language in which meaning comes from the relationship between, and differences thus created, between words (Berger 32).  Sam explains this as a result of the drug, “the whole big picture swallows and moves around you […] it was usually metaphoric, but for people who should never take acid again, it was literal” (Chbosky 102). For Charlie hyperreality affects him not only metaphorically, but it manifests in a more literal way, inhibiting his linguistic and physical functioning.

    Charlie finds valuable discourse once he is free from connecting meaning to authenticity. He finds liberty in a postmodern embrace of non-authenticity. At the Big Boy, Charlie, Craig, Sam, Patrick and Brad discuss problem in postmodern discourse. Craig points out that “everyone is always comparing everyone with everyone,” and Patrick says “the problem [is] that since everything has happened already, it makes it hard to break new ground” (Chbosky 104). Charlie finds comfort in how their conversation repeats one he remembers in This Side of Paradise; he “supposed the same kind of conversation could happen in the Big Boy. It probably already did with [their] parents and grandparents. It was probably happening with [them] right now” (105).

    This outlook offers solace to Charlie, who could use the confusion of postmodern discourse as an excuse to dissociate himself from language, and by extension, identity. Instead of giving up on discourse, deconstructing language into his LSD-induced daze, he takes it back in order to tell his delightfully non-original narrative. He expresses his joy in knowing that rather than stripping his narrative of meaning, instead the non-authenticity of his life connects him to others—renders meaning infinite:

  1. all the books you’ve read have been read by other people, And all the songs you’ve loved have been heard by other people. And that girl that’s pretty to you is pretty to other people. And you know that if you looked at these facts when you were happy, you would feel great because you are describing “unity.” (95)

This is a refreshing embrace of the postmodern mode. Instead of the self, as with language, being denigrated by its connection to everything else, ad infinitum, it is exalted. Hypertextuality heightens his sense of identity and pleasure in discourse rather than creating empty simulacra.

    In the spirit of postmodernism, The Perks of Being a Wallflower itself is not concerned with originality—it does not mind being a Catcher rewrite. The comparison is easy, in the epilogue Charlie even writes about his recent months sent in a psych ward, not unlike Holden’s narrative position in the sanitarium. Charlie even reads The Catcher in the Rye per Bill’s canon, and receives a copy from his mother as gift. As he begins to feel himself falling into depression, Charlie admits, “reading the book isn’t helping either” (Chbosky 75).  He is aware that Holden was falling apart in the same way he is, and it isn’t helping him hold it together. The fact that the novel is so like Salinger’s and that it adheres to YA tropes that dictate the need for an outsider, artistic narrator who has experienced trauma, could, for some, warrant it being tossed aside as stereotypical—but that is what is so great about The Perks of Being a Wallflower, like Charlie it celebrates its place outside of the semiotics of authenticity.

    Beyond discourse, Charlie thrives in the construction of his postmodern identity—one aware of its nostalgia and its un-originality. Charlie and his friends partake in the most identifiable postmodern activity: the creation of playful pastiche. But Charlie’s amalgamations, assemblages, and eclecticisms are joyful creations that help him construct his postmodern identity. This is perhaps where Chbosky’s novel excels most, in depicting teenagers trying on identities as they please. In hyperreality, surfaces are everything. So postmodern subjects modify their superficial appearances in order to create an identity (Berger 5). This gives the postmodern adolescent, like Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, agency. In the age of the “death of the author,” subjects seem to have little power in the overwhelming world where everything shares the same level of validity—or perhaps more accurately, lack of validity (29). The act of creating collage-like assemblages of texts empowers the adolescent in the confusion of hyperreality. These acts of pastiche are perhaps the most satisfying moments for Charlie in the novel.

    Of course the canon Bill gives Charlie is a kind of pastiche, a list. Charlie reads each book, which instantly becomes his favorite, until he reads another book (Chbosky 9). Postmodernism breaks down the values that separate high and low arts, departing from hierarchies  (Berger ix). Charlie does not rank, only lists. Charlie’s mix-tapes are his own postmodern assemblages. The tape he makes for Patrick for secret Santa is a hybrid of Patrick’s and his own taste—including music easily identified as part of gay and popular culture on one side, and of the more “alternative” culture on the other (Chbosky 61). This creation is not original, it is a collection of music written and performed by other people, but the creative act of assembling it is artistically fulfilling for Charlie, who has “an amazing feeling when [he] finally held the tape in [his] hand” (62).

    Postmodernism has its problems, as Jameson contends, but it does not have to disenfranchise youth as Kimberly Reynolds warns. Reynolds States that “the young are not just consumers, but also active creators of culture,” though perhaps she does not understand the power that entails. She identifies adolescent bodies as “sites for creative activity” but does not go into the agency that enacts (Reynolds 69). Charlie and his friends actively construct their identities, giving them postmodern cultural agency in a way that little else does. Charlie and his friends participate in showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and produce a fanzine Punk Rocky. Of everything he has in high school, at this point Charlie likes the Rocky Horror-related activities “the best” (Chbosky 47). 

    The Rocky Horror Picture Show itself is postmodern work—a combination of horror, mystery, sci-fi, musical comedy and B-movie conventions—a masterpiece of camp. That he and his friends love Rocky Horror at all points to their postmodern leanings. Showings of the films are also postmodern combinations of film and live performance, where Charlie’s friends act along with the projected images. The zine—a post-punk DIY manifestation—in which friends contribute found materials, is another collage. Charlie has found a distinctly postmodern group of friends who help him construct his identity. They push him into appropriate roles, as when Craig is missing and they need someone to play the eponymous Rocky. Charlie does not think he can fill this role, but before he knows it, he is “wearing nothing but slippers and a bathing suit, which somebody painted gold.” Though he was unsure of his competency in playing the part, Charlie has “the best time [he’s] ever had in [his] whole life” (Chbosky 110).

    Even more significantly, when Charlie expresses interest in becoming a writer, his friends help him achieve the necessary look of a writer. Appropriately, he is given this requisite gear piece by piece in secret Santa—socks, slacks, tie, shirt, belt, and shoes—before the big Christmas party (Chbosky 64). He knows that the jacket is what he will receive on the big day, but he does not know why. At the party he is surprised to find that Patrick was his secret Santa, as he presented with the jacket. Patrick has to tell him that “writers used to wear suits all the time” before Charlie can understand what this surface is supposed to mean. It culminates in Sam giving him the “new old typewriter,” completing the collection of items that will, in postmodern terms, make him a writer (69). He has expressed interest in writing himself, but he needs others to give him the appropriate surface in order to become one (46).

    Chbosky’s novel itself is a kind of pastiche, a collection of letters compiled by an anonymous pen pal. This lends The Perks of Being a Wallflower an episodic quality that is rather postmodern. Unlike The Catcher in the Rye, Charlie’s letters enable him to tell his stories closer to when they happened, making the past tense of them less retrospective than Holden’s point of view at the sanitarium. Pastiche is involved not just in collecting and constructing identities; it involves a kind of recycling. Charlie recycles the works and images of others, especially those easily recognizable popular culture surfaces, but he also recycles his own work. Again and again he repeats moments in which he feels “infinite.” Infinity itself is cyclical, never-ending. What is interesting is that at the end of the novel, in the epilogue, he explains trauma as working this way. He has identified the recycling of trauma in postmodern families, an undesirable reproduction of the past—horrifying nostalgia. He admits that if he wanted to blame his aunt, he “would have to blame her dad for hitting her and the friend of the family that fooled around with her when she was little. And the person that fooled around with him,” going all the way back into obscurity. But, he tells us, that isn’t the point, he isn’t “the way [he is] because of what [he] dreamt and remembered about [his] aunt Helen.” He tells us, “even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we have the power to choose where we go from there. We can still do things” (Chbosky 3010 of 3061).  Unlike other YA novels, trauma does not paralyze Charlie’s future; he still has the ability to construct his own identity. He has power in just being, and that alone is “enough to make [him] feel infinite” (Chbosky 3044 of 3061).

    Postmodernism is problematic for the adolescent, who is tasked—by their societal construction—with finding an identity. Identity itself is contentious in postmodernism. But Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower explores these problems and emerges with a sense of postmodern identity rooted in powerful creativity. Some argue that postmodernism is vexed by its obsession with artifice, but the act of crating an identity is fulfilling to the adolescent, who has been rendered somewhat powerless by the social constructs which repress him.  Chbosky’s protagonist finds solace not in nostalgia for childhood, as so many other YA heroes have, but instead in the unity he finds in a postmodern sense of self that connects him to everyone else. This understanding of the postmodern, as working towards infinite meaning, is performed within the text and outside of the text for the reader, as it becomes another text in our own hyperreality.











Works Cited

Berger, Arthur Asa. The Portable Postmodernist. Walnut Creek, CA:

        AltaMira, 2003.

Castronovo, David. “Holden Caulfield’s Legacy.” New England

        Review 22.2 (2001): 180. 1-7.

Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Kindle Edition.

        New York: Gallery/MTV, 1999. eBook.

Menand, Louis. “Holden at Fifty: The Catcher in the Rye and What

        It Spawned.” New Yorker 77.29 (2001): 82-87.

Reynolds, Kimberly. “Useful Idiots: Interactions Between Youth

      Culture and Children’s Literature.” Radical Children's Literature:

        Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction.

      Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 68-87.

Trites, Roberta Seelinger. Disturbing the Universe: Power and

        Repression in Adolescent Literature. Kindle Edition. Iowa City:

       Iowa UP, 2000. eBook.

 


“And that was enough to make me feel infinite”:

Postmodern Adolescent Identity in Stephen Chbosky’s

The Perks of Being a Wallflower


Maisie Maupin