When he’s only fifteen years old, Craig Gilner is so depressed that he makes a plan to kill himself–he’s going to throw himself off the Brooklyn Bridge.
Thankfully, Craig has the presence of mind to call a suicide hotline. He ends up checking himself into a mental hospital–all at night, while his parents are sleeping. The hospital’s adolescent ward is full to bursting, so Craig is housed with the adult patients.
Thus begins Craig’s strange road to recovery. At first, he has a hard time understanding why he is so deeply depressed and wanting to take his own life. He has super supportive, loving parents. He lives in a safe environment. He goes to one of the best high schools in the country. He hasn’t had the horrible things happen to him that other patients have had. A girl Craig is very interested in, Noelle, is one example. She has deeply cut and scarred her face–and not for no reason.
The reader can see quickly that Craig’s single-minded drive to attend a super-competitive prep school is going to be a problem. Executive Pre-Professional High School in Manhattan is the school to go to for people who want to rise to the tops of their professions. Because Craig sees it as the only key to his future success, he drills incessantly and studies endlessly, until he really has no other life.
Only after he gets into this elite school does he realize that he is not super smart. He has been depressed in the past, but has felt better with the antidepressant drug Zoloft. Unfortunately, when he’s feeling better, he thinks he should stop taking his medicine. He plummets back into a depressive state. He can’t seem to force himself to do his school work and gets farther and farther behind. He smokes a lot of pot, desires his best friend’s girlfriend, and can’t see how his life could be made better.
Craig’s five days in the hospital help him in numerous ways. He knows he has to be on medication; he realizes that the ‘flawed’ Noelle is a very good person and one whom he wants to spend time with; he feels deep empathy for the several eccentric adults he meets in the mental hospital. The most important outcome of Craig’s hospital stay is his understanding that his choice of Executive Pre-Professional High School wasn’t a good one for him. He explores his wonderful and off-beat creativity and knows that it is there where he will find his happiness.
High school housekeeping: An easy criticism of It’s Kind of a Funny Story is that all these things–these cures, if you will–don’t happen to deeply depressed people within five days of hospitalization. True enough, but I think this works in the fictive world of the novel. For teens, the whirlwind of activity is engaging and the story moves at a good pace. One very realistic aspect of the story is that Craig stops taking his medication when he starts feeling better. Many people with various mental illnesses do this, and sometimes the results are tragic. I think this happens because society still stigmatizes mental illnesses. When others feel that all a depressed person has to do is ‘pull himself out of it,’ he will believe this. In It’s Kind of a Funny Story, this is shown very well with the voice of the Army sergeant who spins through Craig’s head, calling him ‘soldier’ and telling him he’s just lazy. But current research is showing that depression is biologically based, and someone isn’t going to pull himself out of it anymore than he is going to pull himself out of cancer.
Craig’s creative outlet is wonderfully quirky as well as artistic. You’ll like him. You’ll enjoy the way he learns more about himself and comes to terms with who he is. Some of the books I’ve been reading lately (I’ll Give You the Sun is a good example) have, at their heart, a meditation on the need to be creative, to be an artist. For anyone who feels a compulsion to focus on something that none of his or her friends enjoy, this is a great read. That thing could be an art or writing, but it could be biological research as well. It could be anything that the heart yearns to do. The point is to recognize your truest self and engage with that person.