on June 8, 2012
Of course I loved the book. It's so much more than "young-adult combing-of-age". For me, it was deeply moving, an often gripping story, particularly at the end, and it opened a window not just into teenagers, but into life at all stages -- this while being extremely well-written and without calling attention to its well-written-ness. What I found most striking, was showing life through a different kind of mind, what's sometimes called Asperger's Syndrome or High-Functioning Autism. AS/HFA isn't a disease, but an important difference, important to us all. What makes AS/HFA an important difference is its talents, particularly its special "perceptiveness", though not "perceptiveness" in the usual sense. More as a deep meaning to what Robert Burns wrote, "And would some power, the Gods give us, To see ourselves as others see us!"
(Know this book deals directly with many painful topics including abuse, suicide and violent bullying. It's not for "more sensitive" readers.)
Reading several reviews, I'm not surprised that some reviewers found the lead character, Charlie, "too sweet" and "improbable". In this, understandably, they miss Charlie's "diffferent" mind and more, his "different" way of being. I'm a psychotherapist, specializing for several decades in people for whom therapy has failed, often people, like Charlie, who've been hospitalized. And a dozen years ago, I discovered that maybe a quarter of my clients were in the autism spectrum, almost always AS/HFA -- often highly intelligent and able to relate to the neurotypically-structured social world, though relating "differently" and needing much more conscious struggling with the basics. After working several years with AS/HFA, I found these people had remarkable powers, and the usual "unable to relate or care" descritpion of autism just wasn't true in the ordinary sense. Most were neither uninterested nor uncaring -- in fact, quite the opposite. They desperately wanted to relate and, in some ways, they were over-caring, extremely sensitive to others. They related differently, not only to others, but to themselves and their world and, in particular, to language. Often not badly, but just very differently.
Writing in first person gives the author no place to hide. You MUST have an extremely interesting character, and you MUST know that character with ruthless clarity. Chbosky does, and he does so well that I suspect he may have a touch of autism himself. Or at least it runs in his family. Disclosure: after several years working with AS/HFA children, teens and adults, I noticed that I was unusually drawn to them; I could almost use that diagnostically. With that awareness, I figured out that autism runs in my family. And with that, the disease faded away and the differences began to shine through. Let me note a few points from "The Perks" to illustrate. Charlie's speech, thinking and relating, at first blush, seems to be almost child-like, more charcteristic of six years old than sixteen. He has an astonishing honesty, a naive not-understanding, and his use of words frequently has that unintended poetic feel of children. But look more carefully: Yes, there are situations he doesn't get in ways shocking for a middle-teen. But as he thinks about them and questions them, he often goes right to the heart-of-the-matter, and a heart-of-the-matter that's usually missed or forgotten by those of us, especially adults, who "just get it" and go on. Let me give an extended quote from the book's end:
"Later, [my friends, Sam and Patrick,] came by in Sam's pickup truck. And we went to the Big Boy just like we always did. Sam told us about her life at school, which sounded very exciting. And I told her about my life in the hospital, which didn't. And Patrick made jokes to keep everyone honest. After we left, we got in Sam's pickup truck, and just like Sam promised, we drove to the tunnel. About half a mile from the tunnel, Sam stopped the car, and I climbed in back. Patrick played the radio really loud so I could hear it, and as we were approaching the tunnel, I listened to the music and thought about all the things that people have said to me over the past year. I thought about Bill telling me I was special. And my sister saying she loved me. And my mom, too. And even my dad and brother when I was in the hospital. I thought about Patrick calling me his friend. And I thought about Sam telling me to do things. To really be there. And I just thought how great it was to have friends and a family...."
"But mostly, I was crying because I was suddenly very aware of the fact that it was me standing up in that tunnel with the wind over my face. Not caring if I saw downtown. Not even thinking about it. Because I was standing in the tunnel. And I was really there. And that was enough to make me feel infinite."
Starting out, it seems almost primitively black-&-white, until "And Patrick made jokes to keep everyone honest." In the context of all that literal-ness, it's startling. Charlie doesn't just note that "Patrick is telling jokes". Humor is often a struggle for AS/HFA, and so they need to work at understanding it. Through his work, Charlie is seeing not only Patrick's style of humor, but its function. Since AS/HFA often doesn't instinctively grasp "what" to do, they approach others and their world more basically through "why it's done" and "what it means". Because Charlie struggles to see the function of so much, he remains very much in touch with a stripped-down sense of that function's truth. Again, "And Patrick made jokes to keep everyone honest."
Then Charlie's "telling" returns to seemingly smple description. But read again: the description is less "simple" than "primary". And in many ways, this is the importance for us in AS/HFA relating. Attention to detail, of what simply "is", is consciously, clearly combined with an almost-primary way of relating to themselves, to others, to their world, as well as a primary relating to language. And when we see ourselves, our world, our lives through Charlie's AS/HFA "primary" lens, we not only see afresh. We see what is "primary", what goes to the heart-of-the-matter, what is the stripped down function, and so what is truly important. Not preachy, but very experiential -- "truly important" very much as-lived.
And Charlie winds up poetically pointing to primary experiences, connections and always-available potentials within and around us all: "And that was enough to make me feel infinite". And he got there through self and love and family and friends. Frankly, as a therapist who works most-of-all with severe trauma -- war PTSD, attachment disorders, sexual abuse, and deep grievings -- that's a short list, in those two paragraphs, of what gets lost in trauma and of what it takes to heal.
OK, I'm probably probing more than interests most potential readers. As you can see in other reviews, there are many levels to enjoy in this book. If you like, though, let yourself be touched by Charlie's "primary" description-plus-function. You may find it not only intriguging and moving, but healing. And who of us can't use a touch of healing now-and-then?
P.S. I read this on Kindle and, even on my laptop, I found it an easy read. It was particularly helpful because, now over 60 years old, I can boost up the print size, making reading more relaxing.