Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story hits home with many people suffering from Depression, suicide ideation, and the stigmatization of mental illness. It’s a relatable story and an eye-opener to the misinformed mass of people unbeknownst of the real, medically debilitating issues incurred through the disease. For Craig Gilner, he just wanted to get into the best school, go to the best college, get the best job, find the perfect wife, and have kids. Simple. In spite of its difficult subject, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is funny and poignant. It’s one of the more honest novels I’ve read on teenagers with mental illness.
Craig Gilner knows exactly what he wants from life: success. When he’s accepted into the Executive Pre-Professional High School, he’s beyond elated and can’t wait to start and begin on the path to a good life; his year of intense studying has paid off. At his new school, however, he’s struggling academically. The pressure to succeed overwhelms him so much that he can’t eat or sleep anymore. After a while, he decides he’s going to kill himself, which eventually leads him to checking himself into a psychiatric ward. He’s then required to stay at the hospital for five days meeting an eclectic group of people. During his time there, Craig is able to confront the source of his Depression and Anxiety and discovers more than he expected.
Story is didactic and delightful for its plot structure. It forgoes chronology for the first half and instead plunges the reader in the middle of Craig’s hardship. Eventually the story resumes a linear order, but the story telling is truly one of the more interesting aspects; Vizzini’s treatment of the narrative ties to the novel’s strongest image, the brain map. The first half filled with flashbacks reverting back to the present is a pleasure to read with the symbols of the images bolstering the story’s meanings.
A tangible and sympathetic story, Vizzini’s novel is also kind of funny. There’s a mix of humor in the book peppered with hilarity and uncomfortable not-so-funny moments. Gilner’s suicide attempt is the last thing to joke about, the least funny bit of Story; yet, I can’t help but snicker when Gilner is calling the Suicide Hotline and is flooded with other callers, so he’s transferred to the hotline to pacify his anxiety until the Suicide Hotline is available. And it’s sort of funny when Gilner is conversing with the soldier voice in his head and has to explain with great care and difficulty that he’s not hearing voices—just this one soldier guy that’s him but isn’t him. Without the deadpan humor and eccentricities of the novel, Story would end up taking itself too seriously.
But Gilner is an austere protagonist. Reading about his struggles is like watching someone tunnel his way out of a prison with a teaspoon. He takes everything he does too seriously. Gilner’s view on life is simple and circumscribed, possibly causing what he sees as “tentacles.” When things are less stressful, more stabilized, he refers to them as “anchors.” We see Vizzini discussing emotional and difficult issues through powerful images and things the narrator Gilner identities with. These literary images are quite palpable and make me appreciate the novel and its characters more.
The other characters, albeit interesting, we never really know. This book is unquestionably about Gilner’s mental health and his recovery, so the other characters don’t receive the same amount of attention, thus, are not as fleshed out. What’s significant though is the commonality between these supporting characters that is antithetical to Gilner’s life. Most of them don’t have a support network, or they’re estranged from their family and friends. The severity of Gilner’s condition is offset by his propitious, loving environment of his family. While Gilner has experienced things that the majority of us may never be exposed to, he is still in a way sheltered from the worst.
I found Story scrupulous and almost methodical in its writing and language. Vizzini proportionately writes about the decline and recovery of Gilner’s mental health in an innocent, winsome voice that is easy to follow but exceptionally mature. What I’m mostly impressed with, as I’ve already praised repeatedly in this review and just have to gush about some more, is the images and symbolism deployed in the novel. Plot and characters are not the only pillars in this story. Without the use of the brain map, this story would be dangling—and a different cover.
And then there’s the conclusion of Story that cannot be summarized in one word or a sentence. It takes a page of constant, breathless prose to finish the novel, and it fills us with renewed purpose and perspective. It’s not the meaning of life, but it’s the thing we forget so easily. Somehow we go through the motions and forget that we are supposed to be living instead of being lead. It’s kind of funny how that happens.