Saturday, September 20, 2014

Review: It's Kind of a Funny Story

Earlier this summer, I was discussing the novelistic treatment of depression in YA novels with my two younger sisters, after comments from my friend Brandon about a certain book had me ruminating on whether just the mere presence this serious issue in popular novels was enough to prompt healthy discourse in the community. Those discussions were offset by my enjoyment of this book, which I believe makes a very positive stand for the treatment of the disease. Here's why...

It's Kind of a Funny Story is a contemporary young adult novel written by Ned Vizzini, about a boy named Craig, who, prompted by his increasing inability to eat or sleep, and consideration of a suicide attempt, decides to check himself into a hospital. Whereas he originally envisioned his bright future to consist of a linear path from right school to right college to right job, he finds himself mixing with new friends from all walks of life in his new surroundings, who ultimately help him confront the anxieties that landed him in the hospital in the first place, and construct a healthier life for himself.

To be honest, the narrative arc reminds me a bit of that of The Bell Jar - aka, one of my favorite books in the whole world - but it lacked that transportive nature of Plath's that made that book so special. However, it's not meant to get you into the mindset of a depressed person; it's a little more abstract in its approach, choosing instead to have the reader work through offhand comments or unfinished details to find the meaning behind some of what the main character is doing.

That isn't to say that some of the ways he describes depression aren't as true as Plath's. There were aspects of Craig's narration that directly correlated to real symptoms of the disease, just like The Bell Jar. Which makes a lot of sense, considering that Vizzini's writing, like Plath's, comes from direct experience: the novel is inspired and based around the events and people that he experienced during his own stint in a mental ward of a hospital, and the author himself ultimately committed suicide December 19th, 2013.

Like I mentioned in the introduction to this post, this book made me think about the many ways depression is portrayed and treated within the scope of Young Adult novels. It's important to discuss, especially due to its growing association with teenagers in the real world as much as the written one; however, the ways that the disease is treated in, say, Thirteen Reasons Why, or The Program, are not necessarily realistic nor helpful.

Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher, was the book Brandon brought up, which he said depicted depression unrealistically. Actually, I think his exact words were (about the character of the novel who commits suicide, and then leaves tapes for a young man to listen to, explaining her reasoning for the violent end), "She doesn't talk like a depressed person would talk." After conferring with both of my younger sisters, both of whom have read the novel as well, they said that they thought the novel was interesting, but had to agree: the character who is supposedly depressed doesn't express any of the actual symptoms of depression... just anger. Still, that doesn't mean that it might not bring about conversations about the events that led to her death instead, including sexual assault and the way that is handled in schools.

The Program, by Suzanne Young, however, takes a much more potentially damaging approach than simply ascribing the disease a different set of accompanying emotions or motivations, but instead, casting depression as a worldwide epidemic specifically targeting young people, leading to attempts by the government to wipe out the disease through forced amnesia on its sufferers. Instead of displaying depression as a very real problem, it twists it into a contrived science-fiction super-disease, one that not only makes you vulnerable, but makes you a pawn to others... not just weak, but something to be taken advantage of.

All three of the YA novels discussed have very similar ratings on Goodreads. Yet again, the argument may be made that just because some novels may not reflect something organically or true to life, doesn't mean they harm the growth of dialogue for that serious issue with teens.

I'm one of those people who believe that entertainment is always better backed up by fact. Enjoying a novel involves appreciating a sense of suspended belief... an illusion that is shattered when you confront something you know isn't true. For those who might be experiencing depression, and who find these kinds of narratives within works detailing depression, it not only suspends that belief, but may instead cause confusion with both them and their peers about what exactly it is they are experiencing.

Thirteen Reasons Why and The Program, as well as similar works like them -  because Lord knows there are more than three books tackling this topic - don't give either an acceptable description of depression, nor able ways to seek treatment. 

However, there are those that are doing it well, as well: if anything, when they are done, such as in It's Kind of a Funny Story, from a particular person's point of view when they deliberately seek help, it can promote a healthier discussion of the disease and it's options of treatment from a very rational standpoint.

Ultimately, while I think the topic of depression holds an incredibly important place in novels written for the teenage mindset, I also think there's a lot more care that needs to be taken in representing the disease not only more honestly and accurately, but with more options open to those under its oppression.

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