The artist as a crazy New York teen

Reviewed by Jennie Yabroff

Sunday, April 9, 2006

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It's Kind of a Funny Story

By Ned Vizzini


What if Holden Caulfield were on Zoloft? What if Gregor Samsa called a suicide hot line when he woke up as an insect? What if Stephen Dedalus had a therapist, a psychopharmacologist, a battalion of caseworkers and the latest edition of the DSM? Because Craig Gilner, the 15-year-old protagonist of "It's Kind of a Funny Story," lives in the age of post-Freudian psychobiology instead of the age of Freudian anxiety that his literary predecessors inhabited, he has access to all these mental health aids and avails himself of them with alacrity.

"It's Kind of a Funny Story" is a portrait of the artist as a young Manhattan overachiever. At the outset of the novel, Craig is in a bad place. He spent the previous year studying for the admissions test to the high-powered Executive Pre-Professional School, and describes his acceptance as the happiest day of his life. But now, a semester in, he is barely squeaking by with 93s on his tests, an unacceptable development he copes with by getting stoned with his friends and blowing off schoolwork in favor of video games, which only causes more anxiety for young Craig. He can't eat, he can't sleep and he fantasizes about a one-way trip off the edge of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Craig's situation echoes much of the noise in the media today about kids pushed to the edge of exhaustion by super-competitive schools where a mere 93 average is not enough to gain admission to a "good" college (defined by Craig as "Harvard. Yale. Duh."). Kids these days, or at least the sort of kids who make up Craig's milieu, are apparently under constant pressure to cram more homework, extra credit, extracurricular activities and athletics into their schedules in an attempt to appear "well-rounded," all the while navigating a peer group more media-saturated and sophisticated about sex and drugs than ever before.

According to the press notes accompanying the novel, Vizzini was just such a kid, and not so long ago. He began writing for pay at the age of 15, and published his first book, "Teen Angst? Naaah ... A Quasi-Autobiography," while still in high school. Now 25, he writes from the perspective of an old-enough-to know-better, young-enough-to-still-take-part chronicler of his former scene.

The book is recommended for "ages 13 and up," but like Nick McDonnell's "Twelve," about the similarly drug- and alcohol-enhanced misadventures of a group of Manhattan's young elite, "A Funny Story" will appeal to any reader curious about the secret lives of teenagers. The descriptions of Craig's friends have the delicious specificity and scandalized-yet-salacious tone of a New York magazine story about the bourgeois depravity of Manhattan youths, and frankly, they are irresistible. Gilner perfectly conveys the dialogue of affluent urban teens: part precocious world-weariness, part rap-influenced profanity, part timeless teen braggadocio. Though his alter ego Craig is a naif in this world, having never so much as kissed a girl, Vizzini has just enough perspective to know which details to emphasize to inspire horrified fascination, especially in readers whose own adolescence has receded into the misty haze of nostalgia.

There's another reason adults will like this book: Unlike so many young male protagonists, Craig harbors no resentment toward the people who brought him into this world. He loves his family, and he doesn't blame them for his troubles. Rather than being phonies, the adults in "A Funny Story" are all right. It's Craig's peers who are screwed up.

This dichotomy becomes more apparent in the book's second part , when Craig stops taking his Zoloft, contemplates suicide and checks himself into a psychiatric ward. Because of a technicality he winds up on the adult ward, Six North, where his fellow residents have the sort of severe, chronic mental illnesses that prevent many of them from holding jobs or living on their own.

A note at the end of the book informs readers that Vizzini spent five days in an adult psychiatric facility in Brooklyn, and wrote "It's Kind of a Funny Story" in a month immediately upon his release. Yet the chapters in Six North are the hardest to believe. Vizzini's descriptions are as specific, and as lively, as in the previous chapters, but his cautionary tale becomes a sort of fable, with Craig playing Dorothy to a group of schizophrenic and manic-depressive Scarecrows, Tin Men and Cowardly Lions.

Most of his fellow residents are portrayed as adorable, if not downright cuddly, their nonsensical ramblings cutely enigmatic. The staff is patient and enthusiastic, cheerfully doling out Ativan and extra cookies, and the one other teen resident, a girl who cut her face with a pair of scissors, is more grounded and mature than most average adults. In such a nurturing environment, it's not surprising that before long Craig recovers his appetite, sleeps through the night, discovers his passion for arts and crafts, and displays such natural talent in music therapy that he gets invited to join the band.

There is something darkly appealing about the idea of a privileged, hypereducated 21st century teen finding true contentment playing cards for buttons with profoundly mentally ill adults twice his age, and a more daring novel might have had Craig decide he didn't want to leave Six North. But Vizzini is too optimistic a writer to envision such a dystopian scenario, so Craig, despite his social success in the hospital, remains convinced that there's no place like home, where, armed with the phone number of the scissors girl, a new Zoloft prescription and the realization that he is an artist, not an executive pre-professional, he is certain he will thrive. Before he leaves, he bestows upon each resident a special gift, like Dorothy passing out hearts and brains.

It's a sweet idea, that Craig can heal his Six North mates with love, but it betrays a naivete about the nature and treatment of mental illness that is all the more surprising considering Vizzini's own experience. And it raises questions about the difference between Craig's circumstances, as a high-functioning adolescent with a supportive family and plenty of safety nets, and the circumstances of people who truly cannot function in the world and whose only options are Six North or the streets. A cynical reader might think, as Craig goes literally skipping down the street, "Teen angst? Yeah ... and nothing more."

Nonetheless, the growing academic pressure on kids, coupled with an increasing reliance on pharmacological solutions to life's problems, is a fascinating subject, and one that's rarely explored from the viewpoint of the kids living it. As Craig says near the end of the book, "My friends are all calling me up now: this one's depressed, that one's depressed ... there are studies that show that, like, one fifth of Americans suffer from a mental illness, and suicide is the number two killer among teenagers and all this crap. ... I mean, everybody's messed up." Vizzini, it seems, is uniquely qualified to address this issue, and the fact that he keeps his story so limited to Craig's experience, and shies away from larger, less rosy implications, is less a shortcoming of the book than a missed opportunity.

Jennie Yabroff is a writer living in Manhattan.

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