It seems that no matter how old you get, and how removed from school you are, September always feels like a new beginning—a fresh start of sorts, a promise of exciting new possibilities. That newly crisp chill in the air says “new year, new me” way more than New Year’s Day, when I’m typically lying on the couch with a headache and regrets. It’s a time for new shoes, new clothes, new stationary supplies. At the same time, I return to hallowed fall rituals, like rewatching Gilmore Girls and baking apple crisps. One of my more personal traditions is re-reading the YA classic The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which to me is the embodiment of autumn-tinged nostalgia; a blend of looking back in fondness and looking forward in anticipation. Usually, I feel inspired and emotionally fortified by this re–read. But this year, it went a little differently.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, published in 1999 by MTV Books at a time when MTV was still an important part of youth culture (Daria was still on the air at this point, very formative for little me). The plot is simple: Charlie is a high school freshman coming out of a dark period, who vows to turn his life around in high school by really living. Quickly making friends with seniors Sam and Patrick, Charlie’s first year of high school is an emotional ride full of love and trauma. The book is told in epistolary format, entirely composed of Charlie’s letters to a mysterious “you.” Who he is writing to is never made clear, nor does it matter. Since 2004, Perks has made scattered appearances on America’s Top 10 Most Challenged Books Lists for a bevy of typical reasons, namely “drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group.” This doesn’t even mention the exploration of mental illness and suicide. So basically, all the things that would attract young readers trying to figure out the world and their place in it.
The beautiful thing about this book is that it ages well. It’s situated in the early 90s, but it’s vague enough in period details and honest enough in its humanity that it appears timeless (well, except for the mixtapes, but who doesn’t love a mixtape?). For younger readers, Perks is like a warm, reassuring hand, guiding them through the most confusing and sometimes the most difficult years of their lives. For adults, it can be just as powerful; like holding in your hands a physical manifestation of memory. I didn’t read the book until my university years, and it still hit me like a truck. Though Charlie is technically only 15 by the book’s end, he has the wisdom of a much older, highly observant adult. “This moment will just be another story someday,” he says, commenting on a football player who just scored a touchdown, and later, “Maybe it’s sad that these are now memories. And maybe it’s not sad.”
The book is not for everybody, of course. Charlie’s letters have a Hemingway-esque sparseness that might grate on some readers (jury’s out on whether we’re supposed to interpret Charlie as autistic or not, though he is certainly stunted). But the magic of author Stephen Chbosky’s writing is how deceiving it is: in all its perceived simplicity, his insights hit you like a sneak attack. Some readers might find the book a bit too precious, or over-quoted. If you were on social media a lot in 2012 when the film adaptation was released, you might never want to hear the words “we are infinite” again. Some readers might find it too Very Special Episode for their enjoyment (“Oh my god,” Patrick says in the film, bruised from an altercation with his closeted boyfriend, the high school quarterback, “my life is officially an after-school special.”). But though it covers enough issues to fill an entire season of Degrassi, the issues aren’t the point; it’s the growth and the overcoming that matters. “But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from,” Charlie notes, “we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.” It is, at its core, a book about optimism—life-affirming and comforting. It says yes, things can be ugly, but you’ll make it to the other side if you just keep driving through that tunnel (with a little help from David Bowie).
Which is why, I think, I had such an overwhelming reaction to it this year. I always pair my re-read with a re-watch of the film (one of the best book-to-movie adaptations, in my opinion, owing to the fact that it was written and directed by Chbosky himself). The film tends to make people wax sentimental about their own lives; just look at the user reviews on Letterboxd. The movie is saturated with nostalgia, from its low-fi aesthetic to its shoegaze-y soundtrack, which just compounds the effects of the novel—in fact, it’s way more fun than the book. Each moment of the gang on screen—the tunnel scene, the parties, the Rocky Horror Picture Show (I would kill to see Ezra Miller-as-Patrick-as-Dr. Frank ‘N Furter do “Sweet Transvestite”)—feels lived-in and real. Not to mention it gives us “Come on Eileen” fans the representation we deserve. The movie is marked by its sense of togetherness—and let me tell you, in this year of COVID-related social isolation, I was a wreck through the entire thing. Because all our normal, socially-based rituals and coping mechanisms have been ripped from us. In the spirit of waxing sentimental, my friends and I used to frequent a grungy old rock’n’roll bar and our only goal was to get there before they played “Come on Eileen” (the best song ever recorded). That bar recently announced its permanent closure due to COVID. The hits, they just keep on coming this year.
In a weirdly meta way, COVID-related life restrictions are now brushing “regular life”—the average, taken-for-granted pre-virus days—with the same nostalgic yearning that Perks gives it readers. Think of all the things canceled this year: birthdays, holidays, summer, Halloween—maybe even school. And think about how these cancelations have completely restructured our understanding of ritual, enjoyment, and even time itself (isn’t it still March?!). When I look through my camera roll and see photos of a New Year’s Eve party (celebrating the arrival of 2020—how innocent, how naïve), or photos from a live music venue in February, I get the same feeling that re-reading Perks used to give me in normal times. Remember when you could just, like, go to someone’s house?
I realize I titled this post “The Perks of Revisiting Old Favourites”, and so far I haven’t said any perks. They’re hard to find! But I think if we try, we can find a silver lining. Maybe we didn’t appreciate the small stuff enough. Think about how exciting it will be to safely sit on a friend’s couch to binge a TV show, or to pop into a restaurant without extensive planning, when (if ever) things go back to a “normal” we recognize. But at the same time, this is an opportunity to shed those aspects of our lives that we didn’t even realize weren’t making us happy. All that stress! All the commuting! All those crazy crowds everywhere that we just accepted as fact! This summer, I, like everyone I know, took refuge from boredom by exploring the outdoors—beaches, forests, hiking trails. Not my usual go-to activities, but ones I always wished I did more of (but was always, somehow, too busy). Lockdown was like hitting the reset button for a lot of us, allowing us to reevaluate what is important. It was a reminder that a lot of modern life is just window dressing—and we shouldn’t ever assume the status quo is permanent. And even if things become memories, maybe that’s sad—and maybe it’s not sad. Like Charlie says, “Things change. And friends leave. And life doesn’t stop for anybody.”