It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini is a young adult novel that reads like a memoir, except that it's funnier than most memoirs. It's the story of Craig Gilner, a teen who puts all of his energy into getting into a competitive New York City high school, only to find that the pressure of the school is too much for him. Craig gets severely depressed. He smokes too much pot, and can't get out of bed in the morning. He can't keep any food down, he has insomnia, and he experiences anxiety over keeping up with things at school. Eventually, after a near suicide attempt, Craig checks himself into the hospital, and is admitted to the adult psychiatric ward (the teen ward being shut down for renovations). The rest of the book chronicles his time in the psych ward, the people that he meets, and his own mental progress.
There are so many things to like about this book. Craig's voice is authentic and compelling. He's clearly in deep mental trouble, and yet is matter-of-fact about it, too. He never loses his sense of humor or his compassion for other people. The other psych ward patients are quirky and well-drawn. Clearly the author has spent some time with mental health patients (this is confirmed in a footnote of the book). Craig's family is less well-drawn, but I like how supportive they are of him.
Vizzini is dead-on in his portrayal of depression and anxiety. Sometimes he's so dead-on that it almost resonates too close to home. Craig lying in bed, thinking of nothing, because he can't face getting up and dealing with the day-to-day things that he has to deal with, for example. Or Craig worried about getting out of the hospital because of all the email that he'll have piling up. He'll feel compelled to go through it in order, and he thinks: "then as I'm answering them more will come in, and they'll sit on top of the stack and mock me, dare me to answer them before digging down, telling me that I need them, as opposed to the one or two e-mails that are actually about something I care about." I have to admit that I feel that way all the time, like the incessant email monster is out to get me.
The book gets a number of important points across, without being at all heavy-handed about it. For example:
- Everyone has problems of one sort or another, but help is available.
- Depression is caused by a chemical imbalance, and can be treated.
- The decision NOT to commit suicide is something that you'll be glad about later.
- You have to find your own way, with the career and talents and friends that are right for you.
I personally could have done without Craig having not one but two different girls throw themselves at him, in a physical way. But I suspect that the teen make viewpoint on this is pretty accurate. (e.g. "I know that's not a good reason, but I can't help it; if a girl likes me I tend to like her back.")
Overall, I found the book compelling, funny, matter-of-fact, and realistic. I think that it could help any reader to have more empathy for people with depression or other mental illnesses. And for readers experiencing such problems themselves, It's Kind of a Funny Story could be life-saving, or at least life-changing. And it's highly amusing along the way. I strongly recommend this book.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.