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Genius in a Bottle by A. Maureen Tant

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Ned Vizzini is everything the average high school parent wants their child to be. He is hyper-motivated, unthinkably successful, and ruthless in all things competitive. He is excellent in every aspect of himself, most prominently his vital paradox: he prospers because of his desirable traits, but has said traits because he prospers. Thankfully for the contemporary bibliophile, Vizzini has capitalized on his vices (aka advantages) and employs these traits to the noble pursuit of fiction (as well as various nonfiction) writing.

His two most recent novels are examples of [arguably] the finest youth-oriented literature of this century. (His first novel, a self-proclaimed “quasi-autobiography” was published just before the turn of the century.) In chronological order, his books are Teen Angst? Naah…, Be More Chill, and It’s Kind of A Funny Story…. Each improves exponentially as he matures as a writer and a person. Literally—he had not graduated high school before the first was complete.

When reading the dust jacket of these transcendent works one may be apt to dismiss their storylines as banal, poor choices to execute, and far-fetched (as in Chill). However, Vizzini is a master of plot and tedious in dealing with structure. He hits the nail so hard on the head (as far as pop culture is concerned) it hurts.

In Angst, Vizzini chronicles his years at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. The book has colossal spirit, not only because he was a teenager and student when he wrote it (rather, despite this fact). It is divided into four parts: freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year, as well as the summer before freshman year and assorted notes on his preparation to be accepted into one of New York City’s gifted public schools. Journaling the highlights and lowlights of his social, academic, and personal careers, Vizzini develops an ease of steady rhythm and sparkling narration. In Angst his astounding intelligence is not the primary entertainment; his extreme personality is a fascination as well. He finds himself both painfully awkward and an academic genius. The true genius is found in his depiction of this intangible mental strength (a strength he harbors naturally). He uses no pretense or asterisk to lessen any scholastic achievements, showing rather than telling the reader his ability. In doing so, he cleverly preserves his humility. The best of many solid effects, however, are Vizzini’s detailed footnotes, which so ardently represent the humor of an author (especially this particular craftsman) observing his life in print. Angst would have reinforced any other author’s accessibility and normalcy. Ned Vizzini’s handiwork, conversely, emphasizes his perfection and ultra-human ability in all things written.

Chill is the most fictitious of the three works. Jeremy, an awkward junior whose existence is held together by Humiliation Sheets, (sheets where he tallies various levels of his embarrassment on a given school day) a singular friendship, and the hope of making a connection with the beautiful “Christine,” is the central character. Jeremy’s crass nature is interwoven with his endearing hopelessness in a way that makes him more human. In an escapade to better his bleak-at-best position in social politics Jeremy attends a Halloween dance, where he has his first real conversation with Rich (who has always been the source of multiple marks on a Humiliation Sheet). Rich tells Jeremy that in order to raise himself from his desperate situation he will need assistance—assistance so drastic it can only arrive in the mechanical medium. Rich informs Jeremy that a pill exists, a “squip,” which contains a supercomputer that, when ingested, travels to the recipient’s brain and informs said recipient of social steps necessary to be cool. The squip becomes a fully-fledged character, complete with the voice of Keanu Reeves and a “vernacular” vocabulary. In other words, the squip is a tough-talking robot that thinks it’s Snoop Dogg.

Campy and relevant, Vizzini’s story goes to the happy place of a constantly rejected, physically challenged being’s imagination: what if there were a pill that could make me cool? Not only does Vizzini muse, he delivers—287 pages of science fantasy and young male stream of conscious (plus a twist[ed] ending) could not be better.

It’s Kind of A Funny Story…is Angst grown up. It shows the other side of the sunny, frolic-y adventures that were the brainchild Ned’s hyper-motivation. Like Angst, Story is of a higher caliber not simply because it was written in about a month, but in spite of this triumph. Craig Gilner, the 15-year-old central character finds himself at a crossroads in the eleventh hour of his suicide attempt and chooses to call a hotline rather than jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, his original plan. Enigmatically comical even in its darkest hour, Story follows Craig’s five days in a psychiatric ward. These five days closely parallel five days spent by Vizzini as a mental patient, and the characters depicted (sans Craig’s love interest) are either combinations of real people or true personalities altered in the name of creative license. Craig is suffocated by his “tentacles”: school, parents, getting into college, and other self-induced pressures drive him into a state of intense anxiety and manic depression. His “anchors” are what save him, but Craig wishes to exist free of concern for either tentacles or anchors. He wishes for the nirvana-like state of living he believes will occur after “The Shift”—a move or change in the brain that will let him be normal. Craig is the personification of the evil side of Ned’s genius, the “tortured side”. Because of this novel, Vizzini makes speeches about depression and mental health.

Craig and Jeremy are much more than characters. They are extensions of Ned, the charming dork in Angst, and are therefore extensions of real-life Ned. Ned Vizzini is deeply needed in youth-oriented literature. He is the cure for the common cold of stale and hackneyed stories and themes. Not only is he fresh, he is a new invention entirely. On the back cover of one of the three novels (which one is unimportant, the critic could theoretically have been referring to any of his books) a character is heralded as “Holden Caulfield with internet access.” This could not be more untrue. Each voice is singular and distinct, a beast of a narrative in its absolute and untamed honesty. Ned Vizzini is the standard other authors should be held to; to him there is no comparison.





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