I haven't been a big reader of realist YA fiction since my Judy Blume
days, but Ned Vizzini's IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY
landed in my path and I decided to give it a test. Not surprisingly, it relies on the usual coming-of-age narrative conventions--character learns lessons, individuates from his family, resists dangerous friends, has a crush on someone worthy and musters the courage to...you get the jist--but this reader loves those narrative conventions, so I happily went along for the ride.
Did I mention it takes place in a mental ward? Oh yeah, that. The fifteen-year-old hero, Craig, suffers from depression and anxiety, triggered by his hard-won admittance to NYC's famous "Executive Pre-Professional High School." (Could this be the same as "Competitive High
" in the kickass memoir, GIRLBOMB
?) Craig is unprepared for the new pool of students, most of whom seem to ace their classes without trying. He struggles with the workload and feelings of inferiority. Zoloft helps, but then Craig stops taking it, loses his ability to eat and sleep, has a bad night of suicidal ideation, and checks himself into the psychiatric unit of the hospital down the block.
Here is where the story starts to enter fresh territory, for this reader. Far from the torture chamber psych wards we so often see in film and fiction, Vizzini's hospital is a place of compassionate routine. He captures well the patients' simultaneous need to stay and urge to leave--the locked doors cage them in, but also provide comfort, keeping the sources of anxiety outside. Craig compares the ambiance to preschool, a quality he both needs and resents. And after a week (Craig's is a mild case, compared to the other patients), he has found a few coping tools he can take home with him.
As a cultural document, Vizzini's novel functions on two major levels. On one, it demystifies the interior of a psych facility, with authentic detail and gentle humor, which makes it a not-scary place for kids to seek needed help. But the other, bigger undercurrent is an indictment of the pressure put on kids to be "gifted," to succeed early, even in families where the parents exert no pressure at all. The pressure comes from somewhere, but where? Can we shelter our children from it? Should we? How do we teach kids to be gentle with themselves but also survive, in a world that demands perfection?
The story is told in a first-person teenaged vernacular that might initially be off-putting to some adult readers ("'Don't bug Craig,' Ronny is like."), but I found it akin to reading anything in dialect (Mark Twain
, Irvine Welsh
)--once I started to hear
it, it grew on me and enhanced the story, making moments like this sing with a kind of disarming wisdom:
...Even at my most functional, I wasn't someone you'd pay a lot of attention to; you wouldn't see me in the halls and go "There he goes, Craig Gilner--I wonder what he's up to." You'd see me and go, "What does that poster say behind that guy--is the anime club meeting today?"
And too, there are moments of sophisticated lyricism, like this first meal in the ward, which made me really start rooting for Craig:
...I eat because that's what people do. And somehow when the food is put in front of you by an institution, when there's a large gray force behind it and you don't have to thank anyone for it, you have the animal instinct to make it disappear, before a rival...comes along and snatches it away. I think, I think as I chew, my problem might be too much thinking.
I'm so jealous of that "thinking" sentence I can't stand it. I'll stop here. I won't talk about the author's age (you can Google this youngster
yourself), or how much I envy his diligence and focus. I won't bitch about his early success being an ironic, implicit endorsement of the pressure-cooker in which his narrator suffers. Forget the story-behind-the-story. It's a worthy read, regardless of its author's age, not because of it. And, despite references to pot smoking and teen sex, it's safe to give to your kids.