Quoted in more than a few college application essays, Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 novel “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is a moving and heartfelt portrait of teens suffering the indignities of high school.
The hit film adaptation starred Emma Watson and was produced by John Malkovich. Since then, Chbosky has directed a TV show, “Jericho,” and also the film “Wonder.” Now, after two decades, he’s released a much-awaited second novel.
At the center of the sprawling horror story “Imaginary Friend” is Kate and her son Chris, who is only 7 but already has witnessed his father’s suicide and been forced to move to a small town in Pennsylvania to escape Mom’s difficult boyfriend.
Chris isn’t a believable character. He is inspired to action by a cloud that is shaped like a human but not a man or woman, a “nice man” who tells the boy what to do, and (no joke) a talking white plastic bag. Driven by these laughable creatures, which confuse more than they entertain or stir, the boy enlists fellow 7-year-olds Matt, Mike and Special Ed to build a magical fort, which they locate on a tree that Chbosky describes, impossibly, as a “crooked hand ripping out of the earth’s cheek like a pimple.”
Also: It’s a tree of knowledge, a refuge from evil, and later maybe it’s the cause of evil?
If Chbosky’s debut was a crowd-pleasing account of bullying and love, heartache and being different, “Imaginary Friend” is a convoluted, deeply unappealing Christian-ish allegory that struggles to say something profound about good and evil.
On a basic level of style, the writing stuns with its amateurish flatness. When someone screams? It’s a blood-curdling scream. When evil is on the move? The temperature in the room will drop several degrees. On just one page, you’ll find the cliches “not all wounds leave marks” and “He knew it in his guts.” Women in the story are beautiful, one so beautiful “she might have taken his breath away.” In a critical scene a woman’s Alzheimer’s disease is reversed, and her nurse calls it a “Christmas miracle.” And then on the next line, in italics, Chbosky writes: “Or was it?”
Parsing the final 300 pages of this 700-plus page book, what had been just dull palaver becomes almost camp in its unserious effort to bring about a stirring conclusion.
You could imagine a trim, well-edited version of this novel, with a moving portrait of what it’s like to take a stand against injustice, brutality and greed. It’s not the genre’s fault: Horror can cohere, it can rally around a compelling idea of good, and it can make clear for us a notion of courage or sacrifice. But here, an author who wrote an odd and affecting debut has followed it up with an undisciplined mess. “Imaginary Friend” should have stayed in Chbosky’s head.
Grand Central Publishing: 720 pages, $30
Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.”