This book aims to broach a serious subject — suicidal inclination — with an approach that’s lighthearted and funny. Which is probably why the movie adaptation features Zach Galifankis. At the same time, the author’s voice lands with authenticity. This is no surprise, given that the author, Ned Vizzini, suffered depression. He ultimately committed suicide in 2013, at age 32 — just shy of the book’s 10 year anniversary.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story is narrated by Craig Gilner, a 15-year old who finds himself utterly run down by the intense pressures of his competitive NYC high school. His physiological symptoms — primarily the inability to hold down food — are one side of it. He wafts through reality, in so much psychological pain that he decides that suicide is the only option left.
Before going through with the endeavor, Craig calls 1-800-SUICIDE, which instructs him to check into a hospital. The desire to commit suicide is, after all, a medical emergency. Before checking in, Craig remarks how fortunate it is that “suicide” has seven letters to accommodate the 1-800 algorithm. Once in the hospital, Craig has some time to assess his depression — an amorphous condition that he lucidly articulates.
He uses the terms “tentacles,” “anchors,” and “the shift” to explain his experience of the world. “Tentacles” are the things in Craig’s life that make him feel pulled down and overwhelmed. Examples are having to deal with email and drawn-out school assignments. Meanwhile, “anchors” are activities that make Craig feel grounded and good — like riding his bike. Despite his anchors, Craig feels overwhelmed by the tentacles. His thinking isn’t clear. What he craves is “the shift,” an experience when he is able to see the world through a new lens where the anchors are stronger than the tentacles. The shift will make him feel, happy, secure, and confident.
In the book, Craig experiences “the shift” while in the psych ward. He makes friends and discovers a new anchor for himself — drawing. He loves to draw an abstract concept that he dubs “brain maps..” He becomes happy again, and at the end of the book, he declares with passion that he wants to live. He wants to draw, make out with girls, hug his mom, kiss his little sister — he wants to live.
While the fictional Craig becomes reinvigorated with life, it’s both sad and disturbing to me that his real-life creator lost that vigor.
In the book, Craig’s recovery gave a happy ending to the book, but it did feel forced. Ned Vizzini is a talented writer and story teller. I wish he could have given the world another story about overcoming depression — but with an ending that rang true.