I met Kelly at a Thai restaurant in Manchester. This is becoming a semi-frequent occurrence lately and I like it a lot. This time, though, we weren’t just there to shoot the breeze and compare this to every other Thai restaurant either of us had ever been to. Oh no. This time, we had serious business to discuss. So after we shot the breeze and compared the food (why break a habit?), we talked about Kelly’s favourite book: It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini.
The novel is about Craig Gilner, a student at Manhattan’s Executive Pre-Professional High School. As the foreword of my edition says:
There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just come right out and say it. This is a beloved book about a teenager grappling with suicidal thoughts, written by a beloved author who took his own life.Rachel Cohn, Foreword, It’s Kind of a Funny Story
I don’t know about you, but I was apprehensive reading that in the introduction. I thought this book would be dark and upsetting. That initial impression was a long way off. Craig’s narration is rational, measured and a little distant. Not that he’s dissociated from what’s going on, just that the account of his struggle with his mental health isn’t rife with emotional language. It’s like the novel wants you to walk alongside Craig rather than feel for him.
This choice for descriptive rather than emotive prose is an essential part of the novel’s appeal. It enables you to relate to Craig just enough to empathise, but it keeps you at a safe distance from the elements which you could take too deeply to heart. For example, when Craig gets into a spin about his American History class, he exhibits a thought process we’ve all experienced but it’s kept specific enough to Craig that he doesn’t take the reader with him. We can tell he’s thinking irrationally:
I have to hand it to her; Dr. Minerva picked up on my lingo pretty quickly. Tentacles is my term – the Tentacles are the evil tasks that invade my life. Like, for example, my American History class last week, which necessitated me writing a paper on the weapons of the Revolutionary War, which necessitated me traveling to the Metropolitan Museum to check out some of the old guns, which necessitated me getting in the subway, which necessitated me being away from my cell phone and e-mail for 45 minutes, which meant that I didn’t get to respond to a mass mail sent out by my teacher asking who needed extra credit, which meant other kids snapped up the extra credit, which meant I wasn’t going to get a 98 in the class, which meant I wasn’t anywhere close to a 98.6 average (body temperature, that’s what you needed to get), which meant I wasn’t going to get into a Good College, which meant I wasn’t going to have a Good Job, which meant I wasn’t going to have health insurance, which meant I’d have to pay tremendous amounts of money for the shrinks and drugs my brain needed, which meant I wasn’t going to have enough money to pay for a Good Lifestyle, which meant I’d feel ashamed, which meant I’d get depressed, and that was the big one because I knew what that did to me: it made it so I wouldn’t get out of bed, which led to the ultimate thing – homelessness. If you can’t get out of bed for long enough, people come and take your bed away.Ned Vizzini, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, pp 14-15
Kelly tells me this makes the book a good recommendation for people who are going through tough times. It reassures you that others have been through something similar whilst also reminding you that at least you’re not as extreme a case as some people you’re reading about.
Craig himself gets to experience the same sentiment in the novel, as he checks into a psychiatric ward (that’s not a spoiler, it’s in the back-cover blurb of my copy). In the hospital, his challenges are all treated as valid and important whilst he acknowledges that there are others in the ward suffering conditions which are more severely limiting than his.
I don’t want to suggest that this is a cold, hard look at mental health. The novel leads with kindness. Craig’s parents and sister are supportive. The doctors are good people trying to give him the help he needs. Other patients in the hospital are endearing, respectful and compassionate. Somehow, this novel about a difficult and often solitary thing is packed with warmth, generosity and understanding without being dishonest or condescending.
Honestly, I was surprised when Kelly picked this novel. I expected her to pick a true crime book, as I mostly see her reading these. But there is a similarity in appeal: this book achieves what all good fiction does by allowing the reader to see an experience they might otherwise have been blind to. It fulfils a desire to learn about experiences outside our own by seeing them through someone else, real or fictional.
Besides this, I found it interesting that this book also has a dual role as a practical guide to what seeking help for psychiatric conditions could look like. There’s a therapeutic aspect to reading this.
I’ve read nothing like this, and it’s a great pick for a favourite book. I’ll be recommending this a lot. It’s a powerful novel about something that many people relate to but still isn’t easy to talk about. I found it to be a great way to engage with a tricky subject.