The new novel by Ned Vizzini
A non-review by J. Stefan-Cole
I read page one of Ned Vizzini’s, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and took a downbeat turn at the thought of reading another kid-on-the-ropes novel. I’d just finished Jonathan Safran Foer’s, Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud, which I’d found extremely irritating and loudly unbelievable. That kid got on my nerves, a know it all whose grief over his Dad, lost in the World Trade attack, left me unconvinced. And what’s with all the graphic aids? This comes right out of the Dave Eggers School of Staggering Genius; punching up the words with gimmicks, like words don’t have strength anymore to carry meaning on their own. When I saw the little doodad diagrams at the chapter heads in Vizzini’s teenage novel, I was ready to revolt: I didn’t think I could take another pubescent view on life and death.
I was wrong.
Vizzini’s Craig Gilner is not another Oskar Schell. He’s closer to Holden Caulfield, and the dialogue is kid snappy without being nihilistically dark. Craig spends a full year of his barely begun life cramming to get into an elite Manhattan school, Executive Pre-Professional High. “That first semester, in addition to the book list, I had this class called Intro to Wall Street that required me to pick up the New York Times and Wall Street Journal everyday…to create a portfolio of current events articles and show how they related to stock prices…” Phew, that would send me into a Republican-inspired corporate-ruled panic attack. We don’t quite learn why Craig wants to join ranks with the powerbrokers except for a vague idea of becoming president some day. Yes, of the United States.
The story opens with him coming undone from the strain. He somehow failed to grasp that the superhuman effort required to get into an elite school would only amplify once there. At fifteen, he’s on Zoloft, getting lousy grades‚Äîin the low nineties (?!)‚Äînot studying or doing his homework but growing steadily more internally paralyzed instead. His mind loops on what he calls cycling; thoughts that spin on themselves until he’s flung, mentally inert, into a corner. He can’t eat, can’t sleep and can’t think of himself as anything but a failure. I’d crack too, and it turns out a good percentage of the kids at Pre-professional are only coping with the aid of chemical interference (like Paxil and Prozac).
It’s a ferocious society that turns its kids into brain trusts instead of people. Craig’s suicidal thoughts and subsequent call for help come poignantly, and funnily, home in the face of pressures that have robbed the kid-ness out of being a kid. Who wants to be elected king of the most powerful nation in the world anyway? What’s life got to do with it? Craig’s story is populated by characters reeled in from the chaotic sea of so-called civilization; from loving, clueless parents to obliviously cruel friends, shrinks that try, and the sadly comic cast of patients in the psyche ward where he spends five enlightening days. Not so original maybe, the inmates being more in tune than the mad, mad world outside, but Craig is so vulnerable in his hour of need that we sign into the ward right behind him.
He wasn’t always a mess. Before Pre-professional Craig was a little quirky, not popular or hip, but a kid with confidence and discipline who ate and slept and got acquainted with his sexuality, alone, but, hey, he was thirteen. When he figures out he’s only average in a pool of geniuses, he snaps. This is right about the time he takes up with Aaron, a hipper kid whose bedroom in a downtown Manhattan apartment has its own entry and ventilation system. I don’t know how Aaron manages a steady supply of pot (it’s expensive‚Äînot to leave out illegal‚Äîand none of these kids is rich). Aaron has a new girlfriend, Nia, a Jewish Chinese beauty (who knows it) and Pre-professional coed. Craig inwardly yearns for Nia and turns to pot and internet sex (the parental control is where here, never mind) to soothe the ache. It’s too much, he can’t cope. His life’s been taken over, he’s not up to Pre-professional, or the other kids, or girls, or anything.
A little man moves into his gut and pulls a rope inside whenever he tries to eat, resulting in frequent trips to darkened bathrooms to throw up. All he can do is wait, hope for a mental ‚”shift”, to turn a corner that will bring back the days before Pre-professional. ‚”The Tentacles are the evil tasks that invade my life…the opposite of the tentacles are the Anchors…things that occupy my mind and make me feel good temporarily.” Riding his bike is a rare anchor, school an expanding, strangulating monster until finally one long sleepless Saturday night he figures a jump off the Brooklyn Bridge is his only way out.
‚”So why am I depressed? That’s the million-dollar question, baby, the Tootsie Roll question; not even the owl knows the answer to that one. I don’t know either. All I know is the chronology.” He’s ready to peddle to the bridge in the wee hours of the morning. He decides against leaving a note (too melodramatic) figuring his bike will tell the tale, but then worries, what if the bike is stolen and his family won’t know for sure that he jumped? This is a black moment.
Straddling the brink, Craig’s conversation with the hotline guy is very funny, even as the tension of that hopeless morning mounts.
Fortunately, Ned Vizzini is not afraid to charm. He balances angst with humor and warmth and pathos and, best of all, humanity. Craig is put in with the adults at the mental hospital because the children’s psyche wing is under renovation, and he finds himself in the right company. The other patients are off the wall, lost, seriously messed up, but truthful and they hold up just the right size mirror for Craig to get a glimpse of his tangled up brain. There is a danger here of things turning pat, a little too smooth, but Vizzini’s character has captured us and we can’t help it, we don’t want this budding kid to be chewed alive and spit back out as a tool of the power elite. Or worse, a hollow man.
What the psyche ward offers, besides desperately needed time out, is constancy. If not an anchor, being on the inside offers a simple movement through and clear conclusion to each day. Craig gets a chance to sort through his head. He mentally answers a nurse who asks about hobbies:
‚”I work, Monica, and I think about work, and I freak out about work, and I think about how much I think about work, and I freak out about how much I think about how much I think about work, and I think about how freaked out I get about how much I think about how much I think about work. Does that count as a hobby?”
One of the things Ned Vizzini does really well is catch the absurdities of normal life. Inane hobbies meant to tame the beast, blind ambition meant to cobble a power personality out of raw stuff‚Äîsucceeding in order to sell insurance (like Craig’s nice, inept Dad), using fashion to define a self (Nia’s hot-outfitted beauty). All this works without skipping a narrative beat, without ever drifting outside Craig’s fifteen year old head, written on the cusp of child into adulthood with all the hurting, hardness of growing up middle American hanging out.
Craig Gilner’s is kind of a funny journey. One made it over the cuckoo’s nest. Vizzini makes you wonder about all the other kids growing up thinking they need to rule the world; civilization creating its discontents. He’s asking if they can be sprung to explore more worthy ways to spend their lives.