Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Chekhov's Gun and Perks of Being a Wallflower

One night last week I read the first 200 pages of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and the next night I finished it. I liked it a lot; it was an easy, engaging read. I thought it was heavy-handed with some of the scenes of drug use and homosexuality, maybe being released on an MTV imprint the author, Stephen Chbosky, felt pressure to push that envelope as far as it could go (or maybe the publishers for the MTV imprint found a work that suited them; the book is also all over the place with cultural references to movies, music and books).

But my impetus throughout the novel was to solve the opening mystery.

The novel opens with the main character, Charlie, writing:
"Dear Friend: I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn't try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have."

At that point, the mystery solver in me is hooked. Who is Dear Friend? Who is she? What person (interesting androgyny, "that person"), what party, when, and why not sleep with him/her?

These questions, it seems to me, are unanswered.

I am not, I think, a militant adherent to the theory of Chekhov's Gun, in which the playwright famously suggests: "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." But in my post last night about things I love about Chuck, I touched on the idea of the importance of a self-sustaining world. The best works are self sustaining. Perks... shows us a gun (Dear Friend), and we spend the rest of the novel waiting for it to be fired (to see the party, hear the girl talk about her friend, see Charlie make the decision to write). In the best books (Huck Finn, Lolita, American Pastoral), the narrators' omissions are as telling as their claims; "the gun" can be fired by silence if the author is talented enough.

Perks..., then, is sloppy by comparison. It wastes a fantastic literary moment, a big reveal that could be layered or buried, could have shown us more of Charlie's life, or connected Charlie's world with the wide, scary world of someday. Instead, "Dear Friend" is just a literary device, a crutch that allows the work to exist epistolarily.

I want to say that this one fault doesn't undo the magic of the novel... I want to say that the novel's many shocks and twists make it a page turner, because they do and it is... but, in the end, all of the book's payoff depends on our seeing the world only through Charlie's eyes, and there's no reason for us to enjoy that view except that a character we can never meet suggests that a person we can never meet can "listen and understand" in a scene we can never see.

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