Adolescence sucks, and then it gets worse. Skin problems proliferate; parents are hateful. Fashion lays traps, social pressures spit steam, and cracks start to appear in the trophy case erected for the putative series of successes called adulthood.
Ned Vizzini seemed to have outwitted that plan. Or that Plan—in the genre of high-school confidentials to which his writing belongs, capital letters throw up emotional signposts. (There’s apparently a cottage industry in these products at Stuyvesant High School, Mr. Vizzini’s alma mater: Four recent graduates have collaborated on The Notebook Girls, due out next month. Perhaps it’s the lingering influence of former Stuy writing teacher Frank McCourt.)
By chronicling his rocky high-school experiences, Mr. Vizzini sought to make them bearable. He one-upped the Plan. Starting at 15, he wrote well-regarded, funny, self-deprecating columns for The New York Press and The New York Times Magazine, worked up a standup act on the subject of himself and, after his pieces were collected six years ago in Teen Angst? Naaah … , developed a following on the secondary-school lecture circuit, where children of the striving, the rich and the richer turned to him as a self-help mirror of considerable comfort. He released a semi-autobiographical, science-fiction-ish novel, Be More Chill (2004), while enrolled at Hunter College. A Today Show Book Club anointing and post-high-school celebrity ensued.
But dude, crash, boom, crash. It turns out he had a breakdown and was hospitalized for five days at the end of 2004 in Park Slope’s Methodist Hospital, near where he grew up. He’s revealed as much on his Web site (of course he has a Web site); for good measure—and to great effect—he’s made his collapse the subject of a new novel.
Mr. Vizzini transplants his attempted high-five with suicide, grafting the ordeal onto a certain Craig Gilner, a freshman at Executive Pre-Professional High School. The school’s name may sound like a frivolous parody, but what Mr. Vizzini puts Craig through is not. The absurd seriousness of New York high schools is, as Craig might say, one of Mr. Vizzini’s spécialités.
Craig’s “Anchors”—the things that keep him stable—and his “Tentacles”—the haywire pressures of his own distorted ambitions—get dangerously confused. The worldview is The Little Mermaid on proto-yuppie steroids. Craig, and his insecurities, still wear a “child’s large,” and for emotional comfort he crawls into his mother’s bed.
Mr. Vizzini gives Craig a voice that’s warm, tragicomic and true, but his suicidal tendencies show up burdened with voicelessness. “It’s so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself,” he remembers. “That’s above and beyond everything else, and it’s not a mental complaint—it’s a physical thing … [the words] 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.”
Quietly, he observes the common decorating code of psychiatrists’ offices, the shared reading matter of madness, the disproportionate number of useless shrinks.
Mr. Vizzini wraps in the silence of solitary, self-effacing decision-making Craig’s unaccompanied venture to the local hospital and its psychiatric section, where due to construction snafus the only part open is the adult ward. It will come as no surprise to fans of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and other flipped lit that the language spoken on the ward is the sanity of the insane.
But the alternate society of Craig’s new compadres—which includes rather than excludes the hospital staff—escapes literary knockoff. Mr. Vizzini revels sympathetically in the indigenous Brooklyn populace: the schizophrenic, the hyperactively transgendered, the chronically homeless, the meth addicts, the docile Hasidic screamer, the sad-sack Egyptian suffering from a peculiarly Muslim mania as well as a musical longing that only Craig can sate.
To Craig, anything seems better than an outside world disembodied by cell phones and the free-floating lies they facilitate. He still worries about the deluge of untrustworthy, intrusive e-mails, afraid he’ll be smothered forever in a strait-jacket of unanswerable demands.
In teen terms, crises usually tend towards friends, sex and sex. Silence, like the kind afflicting Craig, is not the best way to untangle hormones from feelings, misunderstanding from deceit. Count on two girls—Nia the ninth-grade heartthrob and Noelle the pretty patient—to help him express himself, however haltingly and with the price of disappointed innocence thrown in.
This charting of life lessons propels Mr. Vizzini, tapped as a representative voice of his generation, to a moment that jolts the tale of gentle Craig. Boys, he tells Noelle, are arrogant because they “tend to have things a little bit easier than girls. And we tend to assume therefore that the world was built for us, and that we’re, you know, the culmination of everything that came before us. And then we get told that having a little bit of this attitude is called balls, and that balls are good, and we kind of take it from there.” So much for the idea that this age group is solving the battle of the sexes.
Yet there’s a tenderness hiding somewhere in almost all of Craig’s male contemporaries, heightened in his case—thanks to a good-egg family, the familiar self-deprecation and an open intelligence—into a desire to cheer up the world.
In the hospital, Craig rediscovers the delight he once took in drawing imaginary maps inspired by New York’s natural and manmade geography. He levels this passion at his fellow inmates (some of whom he insists he’ll be able to remain friends with): He maps their personalities. The prompt joy this delivers for him smacks a little too much of art therapy, and even the most unsophisticated teenager (are there any left?) will be unstartled to find that Craig’s life will now take a new turn. But the map that It’s Kind of a Funny Story traces of one reluctantly sweet kid’s mind and the extremes it bounces back from is well worth consulting.
Celia McGee is an arts writer and book critic in New York.