November 2004

Michael Schaub

fiction

Be More Chill by Ned Vizzini

“High school is closer to the core of the American experience than anything I can think of,” said Kurt Vonnegut. Sadly, he's right. It's been nine years and six months since I had to trudge through the halls of my own high school, and if some sense of nostalgia is supposed to kick in by the time you reach your late twenties, it hasn't hit me yet. One of my best friends from those days now teaches at the high school we both went to, in true Welcome Back, Kotter fashion, and I can't help but wonder how she does it. High school, for most of the people I know, is closer to the core of a POW camp than most people under 40 will ever experience.

See? Even almost ten years after, it's hard to write about high school without engaging in shell-shocked hyperbole. So it's all the more remarkable that Ned Vizzini could pull off Be More Chill, a touching and hilarious novel about the experiences of Jeremy Heere, a New Jersey student who's awkward in that fumbling, self-aware way that only high schoolers can possibly achieve. Jeremy keeps tally sheets on which he marks the various different forms of humiliation he undergoes daily, including "Refusal to Return a Verbal Greeting," "Public Denial of Formerly Agreed-Upon Opinion," and "Refusal to Return a Head Nod (the standard form of greeting at Moddle Borough High)." He's obsessed with Christine, an impossibly beautiful (and therefore unattainable) classmate. It's at this point, not even ten pages into the book, that this all begins to sound familiar. If you haven't had a high school expereince exactly like this, you've probably had one achingly similar.

So it seems hopeless for Jeremy, until a friend tells him about a pill -- sort of -- that could make everything better. It's called a squip, and it's not exactly medicine -- it's an ingestible supercomputer that teaches you how to be cool and get girls. There aren't a lot of high school guys who'd turn that down, even for six hundred dollars, so Jeremy buys one. And it works -- again, sort of.

Given this premise, you can almost guess the rest of the novel. Things don't turn out the way Jeremy expected, and he learns a valuable lesson about life and love in the end. But that's not exactly what happens. Vizzini refuses to let the plot follow a conventional arc, although he also doesn't let the book collapse into equally conventional teenage nihilism. For a novel predicated upon the existence of a tiny computer that teaches you how to be cool, Be More Chill is an amazingly real, surprisingly eventful book.

The secret to Vizzini's success might be his unwillingness to write to his (presumably young) audience in a condescending way. That's where most authors of adolescent fiction fall down flat. (I'm not sure I'd call Be More Chill adolescent fiction per se, though -- it's written with enough sophistication for anyone who's been young fairly recently.) It's tempting for authors writing about high school to adopt a "you might think your problems are important, but soon you'll understand they're really not" attitude, but Vizzini seems to understand that the daily humiliations (and triumphs) of high school really do matter, and they're not any less significant than the highs and lows of adulthood.

It's also a key to the book's success that Vizzini pulls off the premise without the self-conscious winking that other writers would find themselves doing subconsciously. To buy into the premise of the book, it's true, you've got to buy into the concept of the squip. That can be hard unless you're either a SF aficionado or the owner of a particularly strong suspension of disbelief. But Vizzini, amazingly enough, makes it easy. It's a pretty neat trick, even more so when you read the evident ease with which the author pulls it off. Add to that the natural dialogue -- also a notoriously difficult feat when you're dealing with high school-age characters -- and it becomes apparent that Vizzini has accomplished something that most authors couldn't even begin to do. All that from a writer who was 23 when the book was published a few months ago. It's hard not to admire him.

God, I wish I had this book when I was a teenager. It's easy to imagine Be More Chill being passed around high schools the same way The Dharma Bums was when I was a kid. (We didn't have good taste in books when I was in high school. But we didn't have Ned Vizzini, either.) It's not merely well-written, it's well-executed on every level. You wonder if Vizzini realizes what he's accomplished with this book -- it's compassionate and unbelievably human, and it's consistently hilarious. I'd recommend it for high school students, but also for anyone who's ever had to walk those halls at some point in their lives. It's quite an achievement for a writer of his age, or of any age. Ned Vizzini should be extremely proud of this novel. It's the best kind of survivor's tale: funny at times, sad at others, and finally triumphant. You don't need a squip to be cool. But God knows this book couldn't hurt.

Be More Chill by Ned Vizzini
Miramax Books
ISBN: 0786809957
287 Pages