by Stephen Chbosky
Grand Central Publishing, 2019
A whole gallery of wary, ambitious hacks have for a century commented on the sharp ambivalence of stumbling into writing a bestseller. On the one hand, the royalty checks will suddenly go from depressing curiosities to sources of joy. But on the other hand, the entire arc of a writing career is now carved in a template, toiling in a shadow it can’t ever shake. Plenty of popular writers have had cause to find themselves quietly lamenting that one book against which they’ll be measured forever. They might have a million different creative ideas, but they know that no matter what they write, their obituary is going to start with “Popular Writer, author of the bestselling XX.”
This ambivalence gets even sharper when the bestseller in question is also that most elusive and unpredictable thing, a cult favorite, and both those things happened in 1992 when Stephen Cbosky published his slim debut novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It caught on, slowly and steadily, in an upward curve that’s never tapered off, and Chbosky only increased that spotlight when he himself wrote and directed the 2012 movie adaptation. As far as debut novels go, The Perks of Being a Wallflower was a genuine phenomenon. First novels are tough enough to overcome under normal writing circumstances; a genuine phenomenon can stomp all over a career.
Chbosky has taken twenty years off, toiling in the vineyards of Hollywood as a screenwriter and director, and now he’s back with his second novel, Imaginary Friend, a 700-page behemoth that could swallow his cult classic’s 200 pages without even noticing it. A gap of twenty years is more than long enough to make this second novel feel like a first book by an entirely different author.
It’s the story of a single mother named Kate, who’s pulled herself and her seven-year-old son Christopher out of an abusive relationship and transplanted them to the small town of Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. The hope of the move is peaceful anonymity, the dream of friendly neighbors you know by name. Why anybody would associate that dream with small town life after half a century of Stephen King books and movies is anybody’s guess; in the broader fictional universe bequeathed by writers like King and re-popularized by more recent cultural phenomena like “Stranger Things,” if your town has a sheriff instead of a chief of police, you’re drop-dead certain to encounter a vampire clown or a cannibal alien or Slender Man before you finally decide to put the charming clapboard back on the market.
Kate has barely unpacked the good china before Christopher disappears. He’s gone for six days, after which he’s found simply wandering out of the woods, apparently unharmed but hearing voices. Despite her own dodgy background, Kate is just happy to have him back:
He hugged her so tightly she felt it in her spine. The doctors told her that there were no signs of trauma. No sign of sexual or any other abuse. Physically, he was fine. So what if her son needed some father figure or imaginary friend to make him feel safe? Considering that some people sometimes saw Jesus’ face in a grilled cheese sandwich, her seven-year-old boy could believe anything he needed to believe. Her son was alive. That’s all that mattered.
But would it be all that mattered? Even in a moment of intense gratitude, wouldn’t Kate pretty much immediately think about the dark life she left behind and the possibility that it’s found her and her son? Would she really be thinking about people seeing Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich?
Perhaps it’s redundant to observe that a book so heavily redolent of Stephen King novels would be full of thin characters and starkly improbable behaviors, but The Perks of Being a Wallflower was so sure-handed on both those specific fronts that moments like this one, which crop up all through Imaginary Friend, feel as galling as they are disappointing. If this second novel really is going to feel like it was written by an entirely different author, readers would just naturally hope it’s a more talented author.
Instead, the prose keeps getting in the way. At one point a tree is bizarrely described as “a hand ripping out of earth’s cheek like a pimple,” for instance, and Christopher’s adventures with his new friends devolve immediately into re-heated moments from It or Stand By Me. “It was never said that Christopher was in charge,” we’re told. “But nobody questioned him. Not even Mike, and he was the strongest. Somehow, children always know who the leader is.” In most of Christopher’s scenes, Chbosky’s clear intent to write from a child’s point of view devolves into writing at a child’s level, as in an early chat with the (you guessed it) sheriff:
“In the woods … did anyone hurt you?” the sheriff continued.
Christopher shook his head. No. The doctor hit the button and the blood pressure machine made a grinding noise, strangling his arm. When it was done, the doctor took the Velcro off with a r-r-r-ip and jotted down some notes. Christopher heard his pen.
Swish swish swish.
The fact that pens don’t make a ‘swish-swish-swish’ sound when they’re crossing paper is beside the point here; what’s most striking is the indebtedness of so much of the prose and plot. Imaginary Friend reads at almost every point like a bloated screenplay, lounging by its pool saying “Just green-light me, babies, and I’ll shed these extra pounds quick as lookin’ at you.” The fixed verdict awaiting all cult classic authors might be cruel, but in this case it’s also nothing but the truth: this is sure no Perks of Being a Wallflower.
—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.