Ned Vizzini’s 2006 YA novel tells the story of Craig Gilner and his depression. The plot covers something like a week or so, but we get ample flashbacks right away to fill things out. Craig, a teenager, worked his butt off to get into Manhattan’s premier high school (Executive Pre-Professional High School) and has not been doing especially well since getting in. At the opening of the story, which is a little hard to sort out because Vizzini is doing this weird present/past mirroring thing right away, Craig is miserable with his place in school, unhappy with his friends, and very seriously depressed. After a night of contemplating suicide, Craig checks himself into a mental hospital, and it’s here that we spend the best parts of the book (even though Craig is only there for 5 days-ish). In Six North, Craig meets a cast of characters, one of them a pretty girl named Noelle, and you can probably imagine how the rest of the story goes from there.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story has a lot of potential, and there were moments where I thought Vizzini was able to capitalize on that, but the book didn’t really work for me overall. As I’ve suggested, the best part of this book (and the part Vizzini is clearly working toward) is Craig’s time in Six North, but it takes us almost 200 pages to get there, and almost everything we get before this is pretty static, treading-water kind of stuff. Craig explains his situation, which is necessary but not especially compelling; Craig tells us about his interiority, which is necessary and interesting, but it also gets pretty repetitive after a little bit (and like a lot of descriptions of mental sickness, doesn’t really benefit from a whole lot of narrative rationalization); Craig hangs out with his friends and smokes pot, which is almost as interesting as when someone tells you about the dream he or she had the night before (which is to say not at all). The build-up and setting are absolutely necessary, but I’m not totally sure that they are 180 pages of necessary.
The other thing is, once we get to the mental hospital, things feel sort of cliché. And this doesn’t have to be a bad thing, because we have standard narrative forms, even standard forms for specific kinds of characters/locations/etc, so I have no problem with the kind of narrative involving a mental hospital (narrator enters the place, thinks everyone is TOTALLY CRAZY but learns, after some strange encounters, that they’re all, like, actual people with feelings and a sense of morality.) I was expecting that going in, and I wasn’t disappointed. The problem occurs when you pair this standard narrative form with flat, stock characters, which Vizzini definitely does here. I don’t say any of this to imply that this is a bad book or anything like that; the whole thing is just very safe, walking over well-traveled paths predictably. And in a book that is theoretically about a kid finding his individuality and belief in his own uniqueness, that’s not a very good thing.
Finally, and this is something that a reader will be able to ignore after the first 70 or 80 pages, this book really reads like an adult trying to talk like a kid. You know how there are things that sound normal when said but look absolutely awful when written out? And you know how a lot of those things tend to be words/phrases used by teenagers? Such as:
‘“Pass it son,’ my other friend is like.”
“‘No, yo, that’s true,’ my other friend is like.”
Vizzini fills his book with stuff like this, and it made getting into this narrative and narrator really difficult.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story has a few moments of genuinely deep and powerful expression, and there are even several funny lines/moments, but all of this is hindered greatly by Vizzini’s adherence to a standard form with relatively shallow characters. I wanted to like this book a lot; it seems to take the emotions and beliefs of teenagers seriously, and that’s important. But I just couldn’t get past all of the structural/narrative problems, and that’s why It’s Kind of a Funny Story gets 2 slices of lasagna from me.