Reading It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini is kind of like sitting down with protagonist Craig Gilner and hanging out with him for as long as it takes to listen to what he has to say. He starts off his narrative at his friend Aaron’s house, sitting with his friends and finding that he can’t really get into the conversation:
“It’s so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself. That’s above and beyond everything else, and it’s not a mental complaint – it’s a physical thing, like it’s physically hard to open your mouth and make the words come out. They don’t come out smooth and in conjunction with your brain the way normal people’s words do; they come out in chunks as if from a crushed-ice dispenser; you stumble on them as they gather behind your lower lip. So you just keep quiet.”
Except for his inner monologue and the constant reminder of the crippling depression that leaves him sitting in darkened bathrooms for a lot longer than is normal, Craig seems like a normal fifteen-year-old. He has a group of friends who hang out, and within that group are romantic couplings and best friendships and acquaintances. He goes to school, he comes home, he has a normal family that lives in a Brooklyn neighborhood. But once Craig explains something as simple as the difficulty to talk to the rest of his friends, the reader is immediately aware that this book is going to be something important. The novel was inspired by Ned Vizzini’s own hospitalization for depression as a teenager, and the close and personal nature of that situation is clearly communicated through the narrative.
Not long after this first night with his friends, Craig details a visit to his psychiatrist and his eventual decision to check himself into the psychiatric ward of a hospital. His decision comes from a telephone call to 1-800-SUICIDE, where he is kindly advised to make this positive decision for himself. The majority of Craig’s narrative takes place in the hospital, where he must stay for a prescribed amount of time before he is allowed to leave. He meets other patients in the hospital, and these individuals become the personality of the book, as Vizzini crafts a breadth of representation of characters that Craig meets on his stay. The other patients are young and old, male and female, friendly and reclusive, seemingly normal or delusional. While he is there, Craig becomes particularly close with Noelle, a female patient who is the same age he is, and Bobby, who becomes a mentor to Craig while he is in the hospital. These two relationships develop throughout the novel, and provide Craig with a network that begins to pull him towards another direction.
Craig’s goal, what he needs to do, is to make a “mental shift” happen. The description that Craig uses to talk about his depression is one of the strongest aspects of the novel. He speaks in terms of feeling a shift that has to happen to pull him out of one space and into another, something that feels both immaterial and tangible at the same time. It is his passion for art that he eventually rediscovers at the hospital that makes this shift possible. One of the reasons Craig has suffered a breakdown is the stress and anxiety accrued from the competitive nature of applying to the Executive Pre-Professional High School at the end of middle school. Craig placed all of his efforts into studying for the entrance exam for the school, only to find that it was just as difficult and as much work once when was then accepted. He didn’t have spare time or any time that wasn’t spent on flashcards and practice problems and math equations. He finds that he has regained this spare time during his stay in the hospital, time that he uses for art.
Craig’s stay at the hospital is interrupted by brief flashbacks to his life, where he brings into light the evidence that shows why he felt like the hospital was the only answer for his problems. These flashbacks contain one of my favorite descriptions, one where Craig talks about his depression arriving like the legs and tentacles of an octopus, each of which he must wrestle down before another one springs up.
I would really compare this novel to something like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar or J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, two books that deal with a sort of teenage depression told in the first person. I think Vizzini updates these classics and makes the same feelings and situations relevant and appealing to a younger reading audience. These three authors – Plath, Salinger, and Vizzini – are speaking about depression, but each of them uses a protagonist so different than the others, that the emotional state becomes tangible in a multitude of ways. Vizzini’s novel is a powerful, immediate story with a lot of humor in it, and it is definitely worth reading.