People are just people, they shouldn’t make you nervous: It’s Kind of a Funny Story

It’s Kind of a Funny Story
Ned Vizzini
Miramax Books/Hyperion, 2006

review by Tessa

Characters
Outside of the Hospital
Craig Gilner, can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t talk, can try to smoke pot to self-medicate since he took himself off of his real medication, Zoloft
Dr. Minerva, an understanding psychologist
Aaron, Craig’s bestie, but doesn’t know about Craig’s problems but does tell Craig in explicit detail about his sexual exploits with…
Nia, girl of Craig’s dreams, dating Aaron
Sarah Craig’s younger sister

Inside of the Hospital
Smitty – day manager
Bobby & Johnny – biggest meth addicts in New York (in the 90s)
Jimmy – It’ll come to ya
Noelle – cute note-leaver with self-inflicted facial cuts
Humble– bald, suspicious of yuppies and yuppie-like behavior
Muqtada – Craig’s roommate. Mostly sleeps and wishes there were some Egyptian music he could hear.
Armelio – “The President”, announces when meals occur.
Solomon – keep it down, he’s trying to rest
Ebony – wears velvet pants
The Professor – convinced her home is full of insecticide (and it may well be)

Hook
Craig Gilner works hard to achieve his one goal of teenagedom: getting into an elite prep school. Then he gets so anxious and depressed he wants to kill himself. What then?

Worldview

Craig Gilner lives in the real world. And in the real world you find the best path to being successful and follow it. For him, that’s getting into the Executive Pre-Professional High School, in Manhattan. Getting in there guarantees a wealthy, healthy life. So Craig studies his ass off and gets in. And then the Tentacles start wrapping around him…

Tentacles is my term–the Tentacles are the evil tasks that invade my life.  Like, for example, my American History class last week, which necessitated me writing a paper on the weapons of the Revolutionary War, which necessitated me traveling to the Metropolitan Museum to check out some of the old guns, which necessitated me getting in the subway, which necessitated me being away from my cell phone and e-mail for 45 minutes, which meant that I didn’t get to respond to a mass e-mail sent out by my teacher asking who needed extra credit, which meant other kids snapped up the extra credit, which meant I wasn’t going to get a 98 in the class, which mean I wasn’t anywhere close to a 98.6 average (body temperature, that’s what you needed to get), which meant I wasn’t going to get into a Good College, which meant I wasn’t going to have a Good Job, which meant I wasn’t going to have health insurance, which meant I’d have to pay tremendous amounts of money for the shrinks and drugs my brain needed, which meant I wasn’t going to have enough money to pay for a Good Lifestyle, which meant I’d feel ashamed, which meant I’d get depressed, and that was the big one because I knew what that did to me: it made it so I wouldn’t get out of bed, which led to the ultimate thing–homelessness. If you can’t get out of bed for long enough, people come and take your bed away.” (14-15).

photo by flickr user kevin dooley

Craig is so anxious and depressed and swallowed up by the chain of events that hypothetically ensure that he ends up homeless that he can’t eat. He can’t usually talk.  He can smoke weed, but sometimes he doesn’t, to see if it improves things.

He can also watch jealously as his best friend hooks up with the seemingly perfect Nia, a girl with shiny hair and impeccable outfits along with a love of sex, and then tells Craig aaaall the gory details.

It’s too much. Craig decides he’s already failed at life and should kill himself.

But instead of doing that he checks himself into the hospital.

What is the book’s intention & is it achieved?

If this book’s intention is to give its readers an accurate view of depression and to show that normal people have it and struggle with it, and how that struggle can go and be a slog but still be hopeful, then it is certainly achieved.

“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.” (3)

Craig’s a great voice, and if you want to get granular, he’s also a great teenage boy voice.  He’s got facets.  The book opens with him at his worst. When the book opens, he’s at his lowest point. By the reactions of his friends and family it’s easy to tell that he looks blank to them. But because we’re in his head, we hear the self-flagellation of a depressed person. The anguish and the self-deprecation, and all the things Craig would like to say if he could make himself.  The loneliness of not being able to say things.  The hopelessness of feeling like each decision is a bad one. The frustration of not being able to do something so simple as feed yourself.  But couched in black humor–Craig’s funny and he has a loving, supportive, dry-witted family.

That’s the first part of the book.  Then Craig checks himself into an adult mental ward (the youth wing is being renovated) at the hospital a few blocks down from his apartment in Brooklyn.  And finally meets people who admit that they’re struggling with similar things.

“I look at Bobby’s deep-sunk eyes. I get the feeling–I don’t know how I know the rules of mental-ward etiquette; maybe I was born with them; maybe I knew I’d end up here–but I get the feeling that one big no-no in this place is asking people how they got here. It’d be a little like walking up to somebody in prison and going ‘So? So? What’s up huh? Didja kill somebody? Didja?’’

But I also get the impression that you can volunteer the reasons you got here at any time and no one will judge; no one will think you’re too crazy or not crazy enough, and that’s how you make friends. After all, what else is there to talk about? So I tell bobby: ‘I’m here because I suffer from serious depression.’

‘Me too.’ He nods. ‘Since I was fifteen.’ And his eyes shine with blackness and horror. We shake hands.” (198-9).

That’s where things begin to change for Craig. By putting himself somewhere with simplified choices, he frees himself up to experience a little happiness again. Some spontaneity.  He re-learns that there are other options in life, and he discovers how to be creative again.  (See Rebecca’s People Creating Things list for other books with this plot point.)  All this, even though the people in the ward can be a little weird and unpredictable, and the whole thing is scary.  He still manages to find a cute girl to have 15 minute dates with.

creative representations of thought! this is apropos, just trust me. photo by flickr user foolish gold.

And that’s why It’s Kind of a Funny Story is such a wonderful book. It has balance.  In the first part the extremely realistic knowledge of severe depression is balanced by the natural humor of Craig’s voice. At the hospital the hardness of mental illness isn’t shied away from. Craig’s roommate Muqtada never showers and can barely get out of bed. Craig’s friends find out he’s in the hospital and tell him so in an extremely unsympathetic phone call. Jimmy, a man who was admitted with Craig, is so messed up he only repeats certain phrases, until he debuts some new ones that reveal how terrible his life must have been.

But Craig doesn’t get a terrible plot arc that ends up with him relapsing once he leaves the hospital, or staying on the ward for months and months–we see it in other characters, so it’s in there, but this isn’t YA Problem-Fest. Jimmy’s problems don’t become the maudlin emotional climax of the book. Instead, it’s built like a really great pop song.  In fact, in its denouement the rhythm and bittersweetness of the prose reminded me very much of certain Regina Spektor lyrics. Compare:

“I haven’t cured anything but something seismic is happening in me. I feel my body wrapped up and slapped on top of my spine. I feel the heart that beat early in the morning on Saturday and told me I didn’t want to die. I feel the lungs that have been doing their work quietly inside the hospital. I feel the hands that can make art and touch girls–think of all the tools you have. I feel the feet that can let me run anywhere I want, into the park and out of it and down to my bike to go all over Brooklyn and Manhattan too, once I convince my mom.  I feel my stomach and liver and all that mushy stuff that’s in there handling food, happy to be back in use. But most of all I feel my brain, up there taking in blood and looking out on the world and noticing humor and light and smells and dogs and every other thing in the world–everything in my life all in my brain, really, so it would be natural that when my brain was screwed up, everything in my life would be.” (442-3).

“No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else’s heart
Pumping someone else’s blood
And walking arm in arm
You hope it don’t get harmed
But even if it does
You’ll just do it all again” – On the Radio, Regina Spektor

 

Readalikes

Honestly? Will Grayson, Will Grayson. And not just because we just discussed it.

Otherwise I’m drawing a blank. Anyone have any good suggestions?

 

Disclosure/Digression

This is what Craig’s dog looks like: 

I don’t intend on seeing the movie adaptation of this. Normally I don’t care if the movie and the book are different, but nothing about any of the characters reminded me of Zach Galifianakis. As much as I love his other stuff. I don’t want him invading this book with his personality.

I got this book from the library, in ebook AND paper form

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6 Comments

  1. ok, clearly i need to read this book AND see the movie.

  2. fatgirlreading

     /  May 16, 2012

    So, I love this review. I think you’ve nailed everything about this book that makes it ache so well and feel so real. Craig is one of those characters I STILL think about, years later. He is that real to me. And whenever I want to lure teenagers in, I read the last pages of the book, where he talks about what he wants his life to be. And their eyes get big and wide and they are HOOKED FOREVERMORE. Thanks for writing this.

    AND NOW LET ME PLEASE PITCH YOU THE MOVIE. I too was NEVER going to see this. But there I was at the Toronto International Film Festival and I had a morning slot open and I thought “I can’t see one more movie about rape in Bosnia. I just can’t do it.” AND SO I went to see this just to relieve some film festival pressure and – I FELL IN LOVE. It is NOT the book, of course not, but it is a beautiful, moving, charming young adult film. This is a film for teenagers through and through! The super talented filmmakers wanted to make an homage to John Hughes and they DID because they caught that feeling, that way Craig feels out of place and wrong but also like maybe there’s something more out there and – it’s moving and sweet and *this* was the moment I fell in love with Zach Galifianakis because … yes. He knows. Just like everyone involved with this film? They get it. SEE IT. SEEEEEE ITTTTT. You won’t be sorry. 🙂

    • you make a very compelling case for seeing the movie. I will seriously consider it! 🙂

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