Saturday, March 10, 2007

Funny ha-ha or funny strange? Anchors or Tentacles?

It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
4Q 3P J?/S

I'm very backed up on blog posts about books I've read over the past month (see previous post for explanation), so this one may be briefer than usual. (Cheers abound, I suspect.) I didn't take notes of any particular lines or moments I liked, for instance.

Note about the cover: It's great. It's absolutely perfect for the book. But that becomes apparent only after reading the story, so I don't know if casual browsers will seize on it.


Craig Gilner lives in New York City, which means he has the kind of opportunity most kids entering high school don't have. In most cases, kids who go to public school have very little choice about the schools they go to. All the kids who live where they live go to a particular school. Charter schools are changing this in some communities, but it's only in places like NYC where kids actually have a smorgasbord of schools to choose from. Are they interested in math? There's a high school specializing in that. Are they into the arts? Try to get into the High School of Performing Arts. And so on. Craig's a smart kid, and he wants to have a really good job when he gets out of school. He wants to be a Leader of Tomorrow. So he decides he wants to go to Manhattan's Executive Pre-Professional High School, where students get prepared for jobs on Wall Street and Fortune 500 companies. He preps for the entrance exam with the single-mindedness of bear going after honey. Forget friends. Flashcards and test prep books are his constant companions. And they work. He gets in. So does his best friend, Aaron, who gets in having done no cramming whatsoever. They celebrate by getting high and throwing a party. Maybe this is where it all begins to go wrong for Craig. Three things happen that night that start the ball rolling downhill: the pot, the realization that Aaron didn't have to sweat the exam the way he did, and losing Nia, the girl he's just realized he's in lust with, to Aaron.

It takes a while for Craig to realize that any of those three things are a problem. But it doesn't take long for Craig to realize that Executive Pre-Professional isn't the dream school he thought it was. Sure, he aced the test. But so did everyone else in his class. The truth is, he just can't hack this school. Everyone is smarter than he is. He has a 93 average, and in this school, that's barely skating by. He can't keep up, so he begins to give up. He doesn't do his homework. He doesn't join any clubs. He comes home, gets high, and daydreams the day away. And then those daydreams turn into nightmares. He is pursued by all the Tentacles in his life, the things he must do that he can't do, the things that grab at him and drag him down, tie him into knots so that he can no longer function. His Anchors, the things that keep him safe (like his parents and little sister), aren't enough to keep him above water. Little by little, Craig starts to spiral down into a deep depression. He can't sleep. He can't eat. He can't work. None of this is helped by Aaron or Nia. The more Craig sees them together, the more depressed he gets. Why couldn't Nia have chosen him?

Craig's parents are concerned and involved, and they see that he gets into therapy. For a while, it helps. Craig is put on Zoloft, and his depression begins to lift. In fact, after a while, Craig decides he's cured and no longer needs to take his medication. It's a Tentacle, not an Anchor. This turns out to be a very bad decision. This time, the depression that hits is even worse. But nobody realizes just how depressed Craig is until the day that he decides to kill himself by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. But first he's going to say goodbye, sort of. He has a last conversation with his sister, he calls Nia and asks if he ever had a shot with her, and he asks his mother if he can sleep in her bed. All night long, Craig waits for his moment. Suddenly, it's 5:00 a.m., and if he's going to do it, it had better be now. But before he goes, Craig picks up a book from his mother's bookshelf: How to Survive the Loss of a Love. He's paged through it before, but this time, it has a different meaning for him. And this time, he follows through on one of its suggestions and calls for help. The suicide hotline volunteer convinces him to head to the nearest hospital's emergency room and ask for help. He is checked into the adult psychiatric unit.

Over the next five days, Craig interacts with and observes his fellow patients and learns quite a bit about himself in the process. Among the most important things that Craig discovers is really a rediscovery. Years ago, he loved to draw. He didn't draw houses and trees and dogs; he drew maps. But over time, he left art behind. Here, in the psych ward, art becomes an Anchor. He begins to draw his maps again, but this time, they are more than maps. This time, they become brain maps. People maps. Maps that connect people. Maps that connect him with himself.

Craig isn't the only teenager in the psych ward. There's a girl here, too. Her name is Noelle, and she's in the ward in part because she attacked her own face with scissors. Noelle is not an easy girl to get to know. But Craig quickly realizes that Nia may have outer beauty, but inside, she's more screwed up than he is. Noelle may have some problems, but her head is on straight in the ways that count. This may not be the start of a beautiful friendship, but it's the start of something really important.

Craig doesn't spend a long time in the psych ward, but it's long enough for him to start figuring what he needs to do to get rid of all those Tentacles. It's long enough for him to realize that there are times to walk away from things that used to look good to and for you but are really rotten. And it's long enough for him to realize that life is worth living after all.


This is Ned Vizzini's third published book, and he's only in his mid-20s. I think he knows a little something about the pressures of living up to expectations. I know he knows something about being in a psych ward. He starting writing this book a week after he spent five days as an inpatient in a psych ward in a New York hospital and finished it in about a month. To learn a little more about Ned, visit his My Space page.

What did I think about this book? I didn't love love love it the way most reviewers did, but I thought it very well done. One of Vizzini's trademarks is his sense of humor, and that is in evidence in this book, too. Craig's observations about himself and, especially, the people around him (mostly in the hospital) are full of a humor that isn't at the expense of anyone. Craig can laugh at his fellow patients because he knows they're just human, and that he's just human, too. I also enjoyed the verbal jousting between Noelle and Craig. I thought the scenes involving Nia, Noelle, and Craig were very interesting. Which girl is the healthier mentally? Not, I think, the one you'd guess at first. I did have a problem, though, with how quickly Craig seems to recover his mental health. Here's a boy who hasn't been able to keep a meal down for weeks, but as soon (as soon!) as he checks in, he's not only eating full meals, he's having seconds. Hmmm. He also seems to lose any suicidal feelings almost immediately. I imagine that it's a huge relief for him to step outside of life for a while, and that the safe confines of the psych ward make it possible for him to pretend that everything is okay. But it seems too easy, too fast. And where is the therapy in this ward? His therapist sees him twice, I think, and no doctor (psychiatrist) sees him (other than to decide to admit him) the day he checks in. The music and (possibly) art therapy seem to be done by volunteers. There doesn't seem to be any group counseling. It all makes it seem a bit like Craig is just on a mini-vacation. I was happy to read the scene where Craig panics when he gets a call from his school principal, because that made it clear that his problems hadn't just vanished. Still, overall, this book holds together, and the ending is a rallying cry for anyone who has ever been depressed, as well as for those of us who need to be reminded regularly to cherish the little moments in our lives.

Hmmm. Did I say this would be short? I think I'm congenitally unable to be brief in anything but physical stature. Sorry!

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