The Big Idea: Ned Vizzini

Being a geek is a kind of a thing now — and while that’s not a bad thing (said the adult, grown-up geek), in the rush to normalize geekdom into acceptance, a few things about being a geek, and especially a young geek, can get airbrushed over. In his new novel The Other Normals, author Ned Vizzini thinks about what’s being airbrushed away — and why it’s not always a good thing that it is.

NED VIZZINI:

There’s a part of my new book The Other Normals that divides readers.

It happens halfway through, when the 15-year-old hero, Perry Eckert, has returned to summer camp from his first trip to a fantasy kingdom called “The World of the Other Normals.” Perry has been having trouble talking to a young woman he likes named Anna, who doesn’t think he’s mature enough. Now he’s surprised to find a hair where he didn’t have hair before. When Anna disses him at a dance and calls him a “boy,” Perry — confused and angry — pulls down his pants to show her that at least one part of him is, in fact, becoming a man.

I yelled, “Nooooooooooooo!” when I realized what he was about to do. (A film version of the book is inevitable, and I will be sorely disappointed if that moment isn’t filmed in slow-motion.)
– Leila Roy, Kirkus Reviews

The protagonist is immature to the point of implausibility — like when someone implies he’s immature, so he drops his pants to show the entire camp his lone pubic hair and shout that he is a man after all.
– somebody on Goodreads

I understand the consternation. It gets to one of the big ideas of the book: that being a geek isn’t just cute and lovable. It’s confusing, painful, and likely to be dangerous.

I first knew that I was a geek in kindergarten, during show and tell. Everybody brought in something to show and tell except me — I forgot. The teacher went around picking on each kid as I sat there thinking, “What do I do? WhatdoIdo?” Then I remembered: breakdancing.

I had seen breakdancing on TV. It was a new thing in 1986. A fad. The perfect thing to show and tell. And having seen it on TV, I figured I could do it. What people did was curl into a pretzel and spin on the ground. I could do that. You know why? Because Sesame Street taught me, “You can do anything you put your mind to.”

So I got in the center of the circle and breakdanced.

I’m not sure what it looked like. I assume it looked like a five-year-old wrestling himself. Everyone laughed at me. I burst into tears. The teacher ushered me into a corner where I sat on a chair and got myself together.

But I wasn’t just thinking sad thoughts on that chair. I was thinking about how to exact revenge on my fellow kindergarteners. I was thinking that it would be really cool if the room exploded and they all fell out the window. This bitterness was something I had to work through in high school and beyond — and something Perry learns about when he’s told, “Misfortune is no excuse for cruelty.”

Despite what a decade of blockbuster comic-book films has taught us, being a geek doesn’t necessarily mean winning the love of your life despite your surface imperfections. It doesn’t mean having a cool shirt with the periodic table or liking Dr. Who. It means being a social outcast — and the people who never confront it, or work through it, often turn into super-villains instead of super-heroes. (I’m thinking here of a particular recent psychopath who I won’t honor by naming.)

That was the kind of geek I wanted to portray in The Other Normals — a hopeless one, true-to-life, headed for oblivion. Then, I wanted him to confront his worldview and change, in the following ways:

  1. learning that being an outcast didn’t give him license to hate other people
  2. realizing that members of the opposite sex were people too, not unreachable symbols
  3. gaining the ability to control the zany, desperate energy that would make him do something like pull down his pants in the middle of a dance

The Perry at the end of the book wouldn’t do what the Perry in the middle of the book does. And not just because it’s embarrassing. Because it’s wrong.

—-

The Other Normals: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s LiveJournal. Follow him on Twitter.

 

26 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Ned Vizzini

  1. …often turn into super-villains instead of super-heroes. (I’m thinking here of a particular recent psychopath who I won’t honor by naming.)

    Paul Ryan ? ;->

  2. We sporadically email each other. The last time I saw him face-to-face was when I brought my son to meet him at his USC reading Friday 6 Apr 2007 , while he and his agent were negotiating the film contract for It’s Kind of a Funny Story.

    Ned Vizzini is a relatively recent graduate of my high school, Stuyvesant, a mecca of geek culture, whose noted authors include:

    * Samuel Spewack (c. 1917) screenwriter, playwright, and double Tony Award-winner for Kiss Me, Kate and Academy Award nominee for My Favorite Wife
    * Marv Goldberg (1960) music critic and writer
    * Eric Van Lustbader (1964) writer, author of The Bourne Legacy and The Ninja
    * M. G. Sheftall (1980) writer, author of Blossoms in the Wind: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze
    * Susan Jane Gilman (1982) writer, author of Kiss My Tiara and Hypocrite in a Poufy White Dress. Student of Frank McCourt.
    * David Lipsky (1983) novelist (Absolutely American)
    * Conor McCourt (1983) writer (The McCourts of New York)
    * Matt Ruff (1983) writer (Set This House in Order)
    * Laurie Gwen Shapiro (1984) novelist (Matzo Ball Heiress) and documentary director; sister of David Shapiro (1981); worked with Conor McCourt (1983)
    * Alec Klein (1985) writer of A Class Apart: Prodigies, Pressure, and Passion Inside One of America’s Best High Schools
    * Jordan Sonnenblick (1987)[88] writer of young adult novels Drums, Girls, & Dangerous Pie, Notes from the Midnight Driver, Zen and the Art of Faking It, and Dodger and Me. Student of Frank McCourt.
    * Arthur M. Jolly (1987) Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting, playwright of Past Curfew and A Gulag Mouse’. Student of Frank McCourt.
    * Gary Shteyngart (1991) author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan
    * Rebecca Pawel (1995) writer
    * Ned Vizzini (1999) author of It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Be More Chill, and Teen Angst? Naaah….
    * Isamu Fukui (2008) author of Truancy
    Note: For Frank McCourt, memorist and author, and Emily Moore, poet, see the main Stuyvesant High School article.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Stuyvesant_High_School_people#Writers

    He sees me as an ancient elder among his alkumni authors; I admire his work, and am grateful for his encouraging words when he reads draft novel mss of mine, such as:
    > Secondly, your chapter is great! Keep going. It’s like
    > Michael Crichton, but
    > totally nuts. My only suggestion would be that some of the
    > language the kids
    > use is a little unbelievable. I think they should use
    > contractions more.

  3. “It doesn’t mean having a cool shirt with the periodic table or liking Dr. Who. It means being a social outcast.” – Yes, this.

    (I know leaving a comment that is just saying, “This thing is true.” isn’t really adding to the conversation, but I couldn’t help myself.)

  4. Interesting premise. Not up my ally, but interesting all the same.

    Despite what a decade of blockbuster comic-book films has taught us, being a geek doesn’t necessarily mean winning the love of your life despite your surface imperfections. It doesn’t mean having a cool shirt with the periodic table or liking Dr. Who. It means being a social outcast — and the people who never confront it, or work through it, often turn into super-villains instead of super-heroes.

    With the caveat that this is your definition of geek (which is fine, but not definitive), you’ve missed one possibility. I dealt with it by passing. I was a science and history geek and an aesthete (was, because I’ve broadened my geekiness as I came to accept it and let my freak flag fly).

    I compensated by being athletic and cautious, speaking my mind sparingly. I wouldn’t call myself a jock, because I choose to cultivate a certain approachable aloofness that signaled I was uninterested in being a team leader and became instead a hard and somewhat talented worker who wasn’t really one of the boys. I knew full well what I was doing – I vividly recall deciding to do so when I moved to a new town after elementary school – and was careful not to overcompensate. I studied people almost religiously to cloak my HFA. I didn’t actively play-down my interests in science and history, but I kept them to myself. Consequently, my circle of friends, although they included other geeks and assorted cliques, was generally unaware of how much time I spent reading.

    I saw my outer life as preparation for getting a scholarship to a good college as my parents couldn’t afford to send me and I’ve had crystal clear life goals since I was 13. I saw my inner life as my passions. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy my outer life, only that I modulated and filtered it for the perceptions of other people in a way I never saw any reason to my inner life.

    Was I disingenuous because I didn’t throw my lot in with the other geek outcasts? Was I even a traitor to geek-kind? Perhaps, but my philosophy is always to choose a path and follow through. I have regrets, but precious few I lose sleep over. I’m sure other persecuted groups do not appreciate their own passing for other. All I can say in my defense is that I deeply did not want to have an angst-ridden childhood, and I fairly succeeded.

    Anyway, sorry for the novelette, but I thought I’d offer another data point for your analysis.

    @ David H.

    Paul Ryan ? ;->

    Classy. Real classy, Dave. One Scorpius is more than enough.

    @ Kathy

    I call BS on this guy actually being named “Vizzini”. It’s like calling your band Veruca Salt and thinking you’re being all hip and obscure.

    My, aren’t you judgmental. Let’s say the author did use a nom de plume lifted from The Princess Bride. How, precisely, does this not make you look like an asshole for assuming the role of hipster police? With my parents’ consent, I changed my legal first name at age 18 (no, not to Gulliver) because I wanted one with which I aesthetically identified*. Also, how exactly would a geek-author selecting a pen name from one of the best known and most often quoted pieces of geekdom ever created constitute choosing something obscure? Perhaps he simply does not give a rat’s ass whether obsessive busy-bodies such as yourself deem him hip. Or, more likely, it’s his birth surname.

    *For your sake, please do not abase yourself any further by taking this opportunity to call me names.

  5. @Gulliver
    I think what distinguishes you from most geeks is the fact that you were capable of “passing” at all in elementary school and junior high. The type of geek that Ned is writing about is one that knows no other way to be except painfully awkward. Even if he or she tried to “pass,” they wouldn’t know how. “Passing” requires understanding social rules, which can seem absolutely baffling to someone for whom they don’t come naturally. One day, I showed up at school in 5th grade and all of these girls knew the words to one pop song and I didn’t. I remember having a distinctive feeling of, “Where did everyone learn this? Was there a memo sent out or something?” Beyond pop culture, some people need to learn even basic social interaction. Personally, it took me a good long time to develop something resembling decent conversational listening skills. You can learn those skills, but that’s very different from never needing to learn them in the first place.

    “realizing that members of the opposite sex were people too, not unreachable symbols…And not just because it’s embarrassing. Because it’s wrong.”

    Brilliant! I’m so glad you’re addressing this in a teen book. I think never dealing with this attitude is what leads to a lot of the sexism in geekdom. The train of thought that if you have been turned down multiple times by women that all women are just selfish and stupid is something that really needs to stop.

  6. being a geek isn’t just cute and lovable. It’s confusing, painful, and likely to be dangerous.

    Was recently stuck on a long plane ride. Ended up watching the new Spiderman reboot. For some reason, the “parents just don’t understand” trope seemed to be seeping from every pore of that movie and it was driving me bonkers. I would have stopped watching, except it was the only movie available and I had quite a ways to go.

    The movie seemed mostly to be an ode to geek teen angst, being picked on by the jock, infatuated with someone but afraid to say hi to them, huge secrets that no one can know which kept reinforcing the “no one understands me”. Parents don’t understand, Aunt and Uncle don’t understand, police don’t understand, girlfriend doesn’t understand….

    Oh god.

    It’s like a vague metaphoric version of “Twilight”. It’s all a metaphor for sex. Peter Parker suddenly has these powers and urges and needs/wants to get laid, but he’s all angsty, scared, uncertain, afraid of it.

    When Toby McQuire became “confident” spiderman in “Spiderman 3″ (the one with Venom), he loses his angst, fear, uncertainty and turns into a raging asshole and takes what he wants without regard for others.

    Ugh. I need to go find a unicorn chaser now.

  7. Good points all, thank you.

    Gulliver, I know what you mean about passing. It is a viable option but I don’t know if it’s a healthy one. Still, if you can pass into adulthood where the yardstick is success and not coolness, you’re in the clear.

    Greg, I didn’t see the Spider-Man reboot but Spider-Man *is* the geek myth and I think we’re all getting a little sick of it.

    My birth name is Edison Price Vizzini.

  8. “It doesn’t mean having a cool shirt with the periodic table or liking Dr. Who. It means being a social outcast”

    I’m so happy to hear this sentiment expressed. I know policing who gets to claim to be a geek is verboten in these parts (Scalzi himself made a post declaring that anyone who wanted to be a geek could be one) but I still feel that there is a certain amount of coopting that takes place. I guess in the end, maybe making geekdom a big tent that welcomes anyone is actually helpful for outcasts (so long as there is still room for the outcasts- I guess my fear is that at some point, there won’t be), but I am glad that someone is speaking to the kids whose self esteem is ritually sacrificed to the ego vampires of middle school. Especially since you focus on having to deal with the way your instincts about how to cope seem to betray you, and you provide a (very good) template for what kind of growth is required to mature past that painful stage of existence.

  9. Well, I liked that bit a lot even though it sure was squirmworthy. And it will not hurt anything to preserve a realistic overall view of geekdom. Fashions by definition don’t last and a couple years from now the entertainment industry (and with it, younger people) will move on to something else. But there will still be geeks, whether angry or joyous.

  10. @ storiteller

    I think what distinguishes you from most geeks is the fact that you were capable of “passing” at all in elementary school and junior high.

    Elementary school not so much; it was those earliest school experiences that motivated me to start passing when the opportunity to start fresh presented itself. In elementary school, my geekiness and outcastness made me an easy target and I hadn’t yet developed physically. To compensate I developed a vicious streak that would lash out whenever the other kids picked on me, and I really didn’t like that part of myself, so I was pretty conflicted. In fourth grade, the fact that my best friend was a girl became the main theme for the bullying. I cowardly shunned her in the hopes it would placate the bullies…and lost my best childhood friend and stopped being her best childhood friend. I soon realized what a complete fool I had been, but was too ashamed, and still pretty cowardly, to try to mend things with her. That’s one of those regrets I lost sleep over, though not as much nowadays as I used to. But I had nightmares about having the opportunity to say I was sorry and being unable to well into my late 20’s.

    After that incident, I was absolutely determined not to let myself be a victim any more, nor to revisit my victimization on anyone else. I have diagnosed HFA, so I knew pretty early on that social graces wouldn’t come naturally to me, and I started studying people almost as early. I suppose you could say I became a closet social-behavior geek. The only time I thought the game was up was my senior year when my class voted me Most Studious, but I soon found out that was based on my valedictorian status and the fact that I’d skipped 9th grade.

    @ Ned Vizzini

    Gulliver, I know what you mean about passing. It is a viable option but I don’t know if it’s a healthy one. Still, if you can pass into adulthood where the yardstick is success and not coolness, you’re in the clear.

    You could say I dealt with it partly in elementary school and partly when I got to college where being brainy no longer held the same degree of stigma.

  11. Gulliver: I was absolutely determined not to let myself be a victim any more

    A person is a victim because of what someone else does to them. mugging victim. rape victim. shooting victim. You have little control over what other people do to you. And no one “lets” themselves be a victim.

    Shunning your best friend in fourth grade wasn’t being a victim, it was you thinking you could do something to avoid being the victim. Fundamentally, you can’t. Rape victims can’t do much to prevent themselves from becoming rape victims. It requires more of a systemic response, as in everyone stops tolerating the bullies, the criminals, the rapists.

    At which point, everyone can stop turning themselves into pretzels trying to avoid the thing they have little control over, and people can just be themselves.

  12. @Gulliver: The only time I thought the game was up was my senior year when my class voted me Most Studious, but I soon found out that was based on my valedictorian status and the fact that I’d skipped 9th grade.

    I was voted Most Studious in both junior high and high school. I didn’t take it as a complement. I felt slightly reassured that my friend, who I thought was cooler than I was, also co-received it in high school.

  13. @ Greg

    A person is a victim because of what someone else does to them. mugging victim. rape victim. shooting victim. You have little control over what other people do to you. And no one “lets” themselves be a victim.

    No one is ever to blame for being victimized (that goes to the victimizer), but, under some circumstances, a person can make themselves a harder target. They should never have too, but it is sometimes doable, I assure you. What I did in middle and high school, passing, was precisely that. What I did in the fourth grade, shun my best friend without so much as an explanation, was me trying to control the behavior of the bullies, and that never works. The only person who’s behavior you can control is yourself. Sadly, my nine-year-old-self was not so enlightened.

    Shunning your best friend in fourth grade wasn’t being a victim, it was you thinking you could do something to avoid being the victim.

    I knew that even back then. Shunning her was making her a victim. It’s not as if I was the only one going through fourth grade, and she deserved better than to have her best friend turn away from her.

    So, I half agree with you.

  14. Gulliver: a person can make themselves a harder target.

    That’s a different frame than the sentence I replied to:

    Gulliver: I was absolutely determined not to let myself be a victim any more

    No one lets themselves be a victim. No one. Not even the victims who did NOT make themselves a harder target. Just because someone isn’t carrying a loaded gun and just because they don’t have a black belt in martial arts, if they get mugged, bullied, raped, robbed, whatever, that doesn’t mean they let themselves be a victim.

    Even IF someone is carrying a gun and has a black belt in martial arts, they can still become a victim. “Making yourself a harder target” is not the same as “letting yourself be a victim”.

    People can certainly make themselves a harder target. That wasn’t what I was pointing to. I was pointing to you being too hard on yourself by saying you were determined to not let yourself be a victim. It was never within your control.

  15. @ Greg

    People can certainly make themselves a harder target. That wasn’t what I was pointing to. I was pointing to you being too hard on yourself by saying you were determined to not let yourself be a victim.

    Point taken and conceded. My account was meant to detail what motivated me at the time. The philosophy I subsequently developed recognized the fallacy of striving to not let myself be a victim, but my motivations at the age of nine weren’t so sorted out. In my mind at the time, I just wanted the bullying to cease. If I had thought it through before reacting to the bullies, I would have seen the error and not forsaken my best friend. But I wasn’t acting, I was reacting like the confused child I was and my choices weren’t so much ill-considered as not considered at all until it was too late to not do something massively stupid.

  16. We need new words for what used to be geeks or nerds- everyone says they were geeks in high school now. I saw a guy I went to school with kindergarten through high school was saying he was a bodybuilding geek in high school-he was Mr teenage Connecticut 2 years in a row when we went to school. Outcasts might be a better word now

  17. Ned Vizzini says: ” My birth name is Edison Price Vizzini.”

    Your parents just became way cooler in my mind for choosing Edison as your first name!

  18. Maybe being a geek is different for a girl. Or maybe it was just me. Most of my school life was spent in the library, so I was almost always alone during lunch breaks and recess. But it seemed like whenever I got out of the library, there was always someone to talk to. Or at least, it was that way for me during elementary. I had friends, and amazingly enough, I’ve been able to keep some of them until now. But I knew even then I was different. I understood social cues, I just didn’t care about them. This just got worse in highschool. Socializing with peer groups is even more important during those years (as others have told me). But, I kept to my ways and stayed in the library. I’d have to say that being alone was my own choice. I was choosy about the people I wanted to talk to. I didn’t want to have to talk about the latest gossip, or have to pretend to care about the petty jealousies of the girls in my class. So, I chose people who seemed similar to me. I wanted to talk to people who were interested in the same things I was. People who new things I didn’t, and be able to tell me things I’d think were cool. As for social cues, I can mime them well enough. I was on fairly good terms with most of the girls and guys in class because I knew the “rules”. I could’ve probably pretended my way into the popular group if I wanted. But it just seemed like such work, and I didn’t want to have to work at liking people all the time. I guess, for me, it was more comfortable just being a geek.

  19. @Cal
    I’ve always heard that “geek” has positive connotations these days; it describes someone with specialized skills or knowledge, impressive to others. “Nerd” is much more negative; nerds have poor social skills and can’t fit into regular society. Of course, nerd-traits and geek-traits often occur in the same person. Currently, people who are very nerdy/geeky usually get diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome/Autism Spectrum Disorder. I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, I hope that recognizing that this is an intrinsic neurological difference would make others more compassionate towards nerds/geeks. On the other hand, such a diagnosis provides an excuse for oneself to not change bad social behaviors.

  20. @ Stephen

    On the other hand, such a diagnosis provides an excuse for oneself to not change bad social behaviors.

    It most certainly does not. What it does do is gives those of us on the spectrum a way of understanding why and how our brains are differently abled from neurotypicals (normals, if you like), and that provides a frame of reference by which we can learn to adapt. Brain chemistry isn’t an excuse, but ignorance of it is a major and completely unnecessary handicap. I fully understand that someone who has Asperger’s has a greater challenge to overcome than I who am HFA, but someone who doesn’t understand the neurochemical roots of their differences is far less equipped to amend the “bad behaviors” you mention.

    Moreover, the fact that rank asshats routinely use neurological differences as an excuse for transgressing the boundaries of others – and I assume this is what you mean by bad behaviors since there is nothing intrinsically bad about merely being different or awkward – whether they are diagnosed with any or not, is not an imputation of everyone who isn’t neurotypical, and to believe it is constitutes unalloyed naked bigotry.

    Recognize people’s innate differences does not excuse them to do whatever they please to others, but acting as though it does enables society to continue treating them as outcasts on the irrational basis that they can’t ever be trusted to know any better. We all play the cards we’re dealt, but when the other players won’t even let you join the game, they are the problem.

  21. “The Perry at the end of the book wouldn’t do what the Perry in the middle of the book does. And not just because it’s embarrassing. Because it’s wrong.”

    I have to admit I was cringing through most of this. But that, right there? I very much need to read this book now. And, from what I have heard about your writing in general, I suspect it will be a title I will be talking up and making sure is on my library’s shelves.

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