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20 Years After ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower,’ Stephen Chbosky Has a New Novel


IMAGINARY FRIEND
By Stephen Chbosky

Twenty years after his smash hit novel, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Stephen Chbosky returns with a 700-page doorstop, “Imaginary Friend” — an ambitious tale narrated through multiple perspectives, mashing together horror, fairy tales and the (rewritten) Bible. It is about the strength of small communities and good versus evil. And evil there is in abundance: suicidal clowns, teeth scattered as sprinkles on ice-cream cones, a hissing lady who wants, we are told, to destroy the world. But Chbosky’s true skill is in turning a book of absolute horrors — both fantastical and real — into an uplifting yarn.

“Imaginary Friend” features a 7-year-old protagonist, Christopher, whose mother has fled an abusive partner and moved with her son to a small town in Pennsylvania. Heartbreakingly mundane concerns of poverty, bullying and fears of the violent ex finding them soon give way to a fantastic evil as Christopher begins to converse with “the nice man” who disguises himself as a plastic bag and warns about a malevolent “hissing lady.” Christopher goes missing for six days, and when he inexplicably reappears the coincidences roll in thick and fast — his mother wins the lottery; Christopher’s learning difficulties disappear. This isn’t so much coincidence as fate; somebody evil holds the strings. It is left to Christopher to confront these terrors.

“He would be bigger for her. He would protect her. For his Dad,” Christopher decides, and he is true to his word. His consistent goodness is both heartwarming and a little implausible. The later biblical overtones — first subtle, which work well, and then spelled out, which add less — partly explain this. But by then it might be too late for readers who have struggled to believe in him.

It is some relief, then, that Chbosky does not narrate the novel solely from Christopher’s perspective. He is excellent on communities, and he picks apart this small town chillingly. These different accounts not only add real pace to the narrative, but convey how closely entwined, how claustrophobic small towns can be — especially when the horror screws are being tightened. The other characters work because they are flawed; their inconsistencies are explained, often movingly.

Almost everyone, it seems, has a tragic history, but Chbosky has his eye firmly on humanity. The abuse is layered on so thick because he wants to explore how chains of abuse repeat themselves. It is in exploring the horrors of reality that Chbosky is most effective — “girls sold to pay for rice and men disgusting enough to buy them”; a murdered girl with “painted nails” whom the sheriff wishes he could have saved.

Right next to the real horrors are the fantastic, fairy-tale horrors, which are dialed up to 100 in places — an ice-cream truck delivering Popsicles that are actually “frozen deer legs,” luridly conveyed torture rooms, babies that crawl across the floor “like little spiders.” This horror, however, can feel too monstrous and nebulous to be believable.

And because the darkness is so prevalent, Chbosky seems anxious to amp up the sentimentality, too, to make sure that this is what triumphs. In writing a book about so much — fate, destiny, redemption, power — the plausibility of characters and narrative can sometimes be lost to this loftier thematic aim. Chbosky is best not when he looks at the extremes of good and evil, but when he looks at the gray in between — at everyday people, their trauma, their interactions, and the hundreds of human inconsistencies and desires that can make a community fall apart and knit itself back together again.


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