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SkinnyDippingIntoBooks

Skinny Dipping Into Books

I like the rain. I want to have a spring bookworming rain party full out with wellies—but not those Hunter Boots; absolutely not—, with yummy airy things like puffed pastries, meringues, mini fluffy cheese cakes, mousse dessert, macaroon, biscuits, crepe, and Earl Grey tea, definitely Earl Grey tea.  and Tillandsia. We'd have lots of "air plants". Lots! And We'd read, but not anything structured. We'd bring books, trade books, read out-loud, pass books around between sentences and paragraphs. We'd leave with books we hadn't discovered.

 

I like books like I like my Jazz; euphoric, dangerous, occasionally a bit manic, sorrowful, bleak, raging, mood-incongruent, mournful, unforgivingly ragged, symbolic in a quiet way, warm apple pie for the soul. Give me a Plath style. Yōko Ogawa, M. Roach,


Criteria: Not rated on likability of characters. Not objective. I like Moxie Soda; chances are you don't.


time spent in that before bed reading slot:

5-until blurry eye 4-Later than I intended, but I still kept to my extended, extended reading time 3-I really should have been to bed an hour ago  2-customary 30 minutes. 1-book. side table. eyes closed.


How are common themes handled?

5-With an aesthetic that repurposes everyday themes into something fresh. Think of Hole Celebrity Skin covered by Cat Power  4-there is a comfortable air of familiarly.
3-Deja Vu 2. No deviation from its mates  1. Devastatingly trite, redundant, and stale.

Where would you keep it post-reading?

5-Next to my bed.  4-it's the center piece of my favorite bookshelf 3. On my other favorite bookshelf, but it's a bit dusty over their 2-Great cheap bookends 1-It never made it out of the box marked 'moving'.


Emotional response-

5- Where is my teddy bear? Emotional-hangover 4- If I wasn't so emotionally stunted I'd cry.
3. Did James Cameron co-wrote this? Artfully contrived. 
2- calculative emotional manipulation. This was literally written by James Cameron.1- I…feel…..nothing.

Mechanics (plot structure, voice, presentation, word choice, sentence structure, characters, writing style, pacing, and consistency):

5-Chanel 4-Prada 3-J-Crew 2-Gap 1-Old Navy

Currently reading

The Complete Stories
Flannery O'Connor
I am No One You Know
Joyce Carol Oates
Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls
Alissa Nutting, Alissa Nutting

“Things change. And friends leave. Life doesn't stop for anybody.”

The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky

This book has been compared to The Catch and the Rye. These two books are only similar in the way a paper bag and a plastic bag are used to carry groceries. Yes they both have a teenage protagonist. Yes they deal with all the commonly glorified themes of teenage life. And… that’s it. Interestingly, Perks has a portion of dialog discussion the ways art, in this case music, loses individuality:

“Problem with things is that everyone is always comparing everyone with everyone and because of that, it discredits people…”

So, you know, lets stop that.

There is an overt agenda on behalf of the author to make Charlie the modern day Holden. This is no more apparent then in the adoption of a familiar writing style, and the numerous references to The Catcher and The Rye, specifically with Charlie and Bill’s endless admiration for the book…. Again…. Just stop. You are confusing people.

Lastly, reviewers please stop using the label autism unless you are both a counselor/social worker and in a clinical setting. It is an incredibly lazy analysis, and to a large extent disrespectful to persons of non-typical development. In general stop using clinical diagnoses.

In a style that is disjointed, rather fragmented, and often erratic/frenetic, 15 y/o Charlie gives us an intimate portrait of his first year of high school through letters to himself (yah you heard me. Will explain later).

Confined to his social awkwardness, Charlie is not bullied directly—well, ok lie. He is sometimes bulled but it isn’t a centerpiece—, but is subjected to the vast emptiness of isolation. We don’t really get a clear understand as to why he is in this predicament, other than the fact that he is emotionally vulnerable, and recently lost a friend to suicide.

It becomes quickly apparent that Charlie is not only constricted by his social environment, but by some lingering mental health issues. The roaring underbelly of past trauma is woven throughout the novel. The echoes of the trauma are demonstrated during periods of tearfulness, aggression, and heightened startle response. The book is also particularly successful in highlighting one of the key components of trauma, numbness. Early on we witness his difficulty with attachment, which is tied directly to childhood trauma. This is his baseboards… trauma.

I had two problems with how mental health issues were conceived. Firstly, the endless and randomness of his crying did become a bit whiny and annoying over time. Secondly, I had a hard time with the way the author chose to integrate and explore the ‘why’ part of Charlie’s behaviors.

Charlie wasn’t wholly closed off emotionally or socially, and had numerous instances where he tried to rekindle old friendships or initiate new ones; all but one was successful. Charlie meets Sam and Patrick, which, to Charlie is the equivalent of a teenager’s trip to Willie Wanka’s Chocolate Factor (see what I did there? Charlie and Charlie?). He is thrown abruptly into a word vastly different from his solo lunch days.

He meets the gravitational center of the island of misfit teenagers and at its core the edgy Mary Elizabeth and the pothead Bob. It is a welcoming contrast from Susan, the nice girl with braces in middle school, now turned bitch without braces in high school, closet-case Brad, a host of bullies that crowd the school’s hallways, and a lot of conformists. This is also the beginning of the struggle of recognizing that he is noticed, and that his perception of self is his own. He wants to be that person, but he really isn’t ready; it’s all very Mr. Jones.

Bill, Charlie’s English teacher also enters into the story around this time. Bill is fundamentally important to Charlie’s gains in self-respect, integrity, and self-esteem. Bill steadies himself between the role of a teacher and friend. Academically, he supports a student he perceives as struggling with writing skills by assigning additional work. He takes this opportunity to strengthen Charlie’s writing skills while also emphasizing his assets. He also perceived him, and rightfully so, as struggling psychologically as well as socially. Consequently, he creates a strong teacher-student bond, which ultimately benefits Charlie.  

Meanwhile, Charlie fiendishly thrives on his new life, and for a moment almost avoids his previous self. He exudes a peculiar adorable combination of innocents, confidence, and awkwardness. He fits well among his new friends, and this becomes his new home of sorts. His past, along with the novelty of friendship does present some problems, but for the most part his new friends are remarkably supportive.

However, the past is not easily suppressed, nor is a brain mangled by the weight of psychological fragility. His relationship with his friends is scattered with emotional disregulation and the weight of self-doubt. His emotional underpinnings are vastly different than those of his cohort, and the contrast is a formidable hurdle, and one that inevitably breaks past his shield. He is unable comprehend the consequences that that follow his actions.  Drama ensues. Yet again his friends rally around him and are even more supportive after one particularly harrowing scene.

Eventually Charlie must use the foundation established by his friendships and integrate them into further exploration of his past, as well as present challenges. As Dr. Seuss said, “Onward up many a frightening creek, though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak. Oh! The places you'll go!” Charlie may be ready for this, he may stand steady yet a little weary, and he may even falter, but he will always cherish that freshman year, and he is lucky, because freshman year sucks. It is really sad stuff around this part.

The whole experience is shockingly realistic, and if it weren’t for the childish narration the entire book would meet the expectations of a MTV’s publication. Rather than a reflection of MTV’s deft understanding of teenagers, especially in the case of My So Called Life, it settles somewhere between MSCL and One Tree Hill. Charlie’s character was just incredibly juvenile and under-developed (?. still on the fence with this one). The emotional punch was diminished because I was personally unable to relate Charlie to the characteristics that typify adolescence. His language and cognitive abilities were similar to a ten y/o rather than a 15 y/o. There was something about him wavering between having only a surface registry of human behavior and then compassion towards others, for example, during his sister’s health related issue and Patrick’s rocky relationship with Brad. But Sam did speak frankly of his inability to express his individuality, as well as his emotions. And maybe there is something to be said about him struggling with English composition, which would result in a younger voice.  If this were the case, I would have expected significant gains in his English skills as he and Bill continue their work together. Likewise, it was particularly distracting that Charlie’s emotional intelligence developed substantially, while his mental intelligence remained stagnant. But, then again, when was the last time I read a 15 y/o’s mail… like ever?

The epilogue is also successful—and you ALL KNOW I HATE EPILOGUES—, if viewed through the lens of Charlie finally participating in his own life. The whole idea of this study of self, the quest to discover and heal via writing letters was to find his own footing in his life. The space between the second to last and final letter maintains the consistency of the rest of the book.

I do have to applaud the author for including topics of incest, abortion, abuse, homosexuality and its partner in crime confusion, family dynamics, bullying, and concepts of normality in a manner that was neither derivative or contrived. These concepts were large in scale, and with the exception of a few areas of faulty execution, were rather successful.

I will forfeit some of my criticism, given that I am reading this from an adult’s orientation. I do think that the trend of adults reading young adult literature somewhat diminishes the genre’s credibility when we find ourselves terminally unable to dismiss our inclinations to analyze from an older point of view.

Finally, I can understand its utility for a younger audience, and would champion it as a valuable asset for younger teenagers, perhaps with the caveat that they may not be able to identify directly with Charlie, but with his experiences. So, as Bill said, “Try to be a filter, not a sponge”.

So, the big mystery of the ‘who is Charlie reallllyyyyy writing to?’ It’s rather important stuff. You need to remember that he is an unreliable character and can do whatever he darn pleases with the storyline.

I believe a psychiatrist using DBT/CBT/and-or mindfulness urged Charlie to start writing letters to himself. It seems akin to a retrospective analysis of past events, a notion reinforced by the common thread of ‘participating in ones life’, as well as Charlie mentioning why writing letters is better than journaling. The use of fake names would have relevance to this POV too, with that whole confidentiality thing.

Furthermore, quotes like, “So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I'm still trying to figure out how that could be.” And “ When I write letters, I spend the next two days thinking about what I figured out in my letters. I do not know if this is good or bad”, as well as others, suggest that this is a post-trauma therapeutic exercise.

Another quote helps piece together that Charlie is writing to himself:

 “And I saw a girl in class, who didn't notice me, and she talked all about you to a friend of hers. And even though I didn't know you, I felt like I did because you sounded like such a good person.”

Lets take it apart…

If this is retrospective in nature we don’t actually know when he overheard this statement. For all we know it could have occurred mid or end stage of Charlie’s experiences when his visibility and popularity had increased. It could literally be a stranger, talking about him as Charlie’s social world expanded and thus his exposure to the broader school community widened. Again, he is an unreliable character after all.

The excerpt “even though I didn't know you, I felt like I did” almost introduces the idea of splitting regarding two different perceptions of self—note, I am not using this in any clinical sense. Charlie’s later statement during the same period that the ‘friend’ deserves “a very nice life, because I really think you deserve it”, only serve to reiterate the image of splitting. It is almost like he is speaking to himself as people saw him, from the vantage point of the way he saw himself. This further reverberates the overlapping theme of Charlie attempting to merge ‘traumatized Charlie’ with ‘Healthy Charlie’. There is also a really raw feeling of intimacy that I think only could derive from a relationship with oneself, or a significant other.

The beginning quote, “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”, is the synthesis of events from his own life and the conversation he overheard. Referring to oneself in the positive is a hallmark of the writing exercise I believe Charlie was engaging. Therefore, it is a logical starting point to begin his story as other people viewed him. It also cements the assumption that Charlie is re-examining past experiences. Either he overheard the conversation in 8th grade and is mailing the letters to someone in his own grade, which would be far too risky given the level of detail they contain, or he overheard it during the course of his first year of high school, and is utilizing it in the way I suggested.

The statement above is rather indicative of when he started to build self-love—and if you remember he started after he built his relationship with others, endured the trials and tribulations of friendship, and listened to his friends talk about him in a positive way. Rocky Horry shines through here too—, and without that tiny glimmer of hope, he wouldn’t be able to make these statements, write some profound and insightful letters, or show emotional development as the letters continued. Therefore, I believe this quote, situated at the end of the novel, amplifies that he is writing to himself. I also believe if he didn’t frame it with a positive statement about himself at the onset of writing, that he would, at least to some degree, rebound.

 


Dear, Friend,

“I said hey listen to me. Stay sane inside insanity….”

I wish you well,

Jason