Spoilers Lie Within
I really wanted to like this book. I know, that’s what everyone says. All the time. But I mean it, in the most sincere way. I’ve been wanting to read it for years, most of my friends have read it, and, the resurgence in popularity for The Perks of Being a Wallflower notwithstanding, it’s arguably the most visible recent novel with mental health and mental illness as a major theme. As the New York Times Book Review said, in words that will live on forever on the front cover of the paperback edition, “This is an important book.” My expectations were high.
Well, they were almost met.
I would say that, yes, this is an important book. Young-adult fiction that seriously and sensitively takes on the very real and human struggles that people the age of the reader face with their mental health is something we need a lot more of. On that level, this really succeeds. Vizzini threw in some charming statistics, just to make sure that his point wasn’t altogether missed: “One fifth of Americans suffer from a mental illness, and suicide is the number-two killer among teenagers,” protagonist Craig says at one point.
Vizzini presumably knows what he’s talking about; he was a patient (side note: there’s a school of thought that prefers the word “consumer” to patient, but as long as we use the word “patient” in the context of physical illness, I’m going to keep using it in this context) in a psychiatric hospital for five days, a fact of which we are reminded both on the back cover and in an italicized end-note opposite the novel’s last words. This knowledge lends some authenticity to the story, but also led me to the assumption that Craig was modeled almost completely after the writer himself.
Let’s just say that I have a stronger love-hate relationship with Craig Gilner than I remember having with any protagonist maybe ever. I get that he’s fifteen, so his emotional maturity has not exactly peaked, but damn, does he annoy me.
Now don’t jump at me right away. Craig faces some serious struggles throughout this book, and he does so with remarkable courage. He’s also compassionate, deeply so. I respect him. I also think he’s kind of a self-absorbed little dweeb.
I’m willing to concede that maybe it was just me projecting some of my less worthy emotions during my time in three different psych units, but I really got the sense that Craig thought of himself as better than his fellow patients. Like he was the voice of reason among them, or like his concern for them didn’t extend one moment past his discharge. I mean, he checked himself into the hospital, something most people would never be able to do for themselves, but once he’s there it feels like he thinks of himself as above the place, yet somehow also above the people who aren’t there with him. Again, he’s fifteen, and most of his reactions are pretty natural and realistic, but there’s something incredibly off-putting about the way he looks at and talks about the others in the hospitals with him. If it’s supposed to be a story of mental health disrupting the life of the relatable Everyman, I’d rather the Everyman not be some entitled little punk.
There were a few other little flaws that really irked me and held me back from enjoying what was, yes, an “important” book. It’s fair to assume that hospital policies changed between Vizzini’s stay in 2004 and the first of mine in 2011, but smoking, really? And Craig making it all the way to the unit with a cell phone and wallet in his pocket? Neither of these have any bearing on the plot, but anything that makes me roll my eyes is going to make its way into my review. There is one, though, that the plot relies on: no one in the staff seems to have any idea where any of the patients are at any given time. Where are the fifteen-minute checks with the flashlight and clipboard? It seems like Craig can sneak away long enough to do whatever he wants..
And that’s another thing. We didn’t need a romantic subplot. At all. Do we think so little of the “young-adult” reader that we don’t expect them to read without the tried-and-true protagonist/trusted long-time friend/mysterious new friend love triangle? Time in the hospital, at its best, is supposed to be a time of personal healing and renewal, and the romantic distraction detracts from both Craig’s time there and from what could have been some extremely person, introspective storytelling.
Oh which reminds me. I find it extremely hard to believe that Craig and Noelle would be put in the adult unit because there were renovations in the adolescent unit. Why not just transport them to another hospital where the adolescent unit is open?
And the parents were weird, weren’t they? I’ve never read more robotic dialogue in my life. Here’s what Mrs. Gilner says when she find out that her son has checked himself into the hospital:
“I thought I was a bad mother, but I’m a good mother if I taught you how to handle yourself. You had the tools to know what to do. That is so important. And they’re going to be great over there; it’s an excellent hospital. I’m coming right down — you want me to bring your dad?”
What? Where’s the parental fear, the questions, the motherly overreaction? She’s taking this way too well, and it really doesn’t sit well with the reader.
But enough nit-picking. A lot of this book is really brilliant. It’s a realistic and idiosyncratic look at depression through the mind of an extremely self-aware fifteen-year-old. It’s pretty flawed, but too spend too much time thinking about those flaws would be to miss the point. It tells an important story, and forces the readers to think about their own mental health, something most high school students would otherwise never give a moment’s attention to. And it doesn’t resort to scare tactics or shame-mongering to do so.
It sets the stage for some more literature on similar themes, some of which will be really great, some of which will be pretty awful, and most of which will slip under the radar. But breaking the silence is the first step, and Funny Story picks up right where Wallflower left off in that territory. Vizzini’s going to write something really incredible someday, and even if he doesn’t, this book isn’t too bad of a legacy to leave behind.
And no, I haven’t seen the movie.