"So, I’m great in the sack,"
boasted Park Slope born-and-bred author Ned Vizzini to a capacity
crowd at the Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg last month.
And yes, Vizzini was indeed wearing a large, burlap sack.
"As we get further from high school we lose track of the primal terror and helplessness that are part of that time," he continued, "and the sack reminds me. Besides, it’s comfortable."
Vizzini was at the brewery to read from his most recent novel, "Be More Chill," and to present the director’s cut of Richard Kelly’s cult film "Donnie Darko," both of which feature medicated, awkward high school boys - whether willfully or voluntarily - as protagonists.
"If you’re here tonight, you were probably weird in high school," Vizzini continued before launching into a well-received reading of the first three chapters from "Be More Chill," which was published in June by Hyperion Books. The audience wore dark-rimmed glasses and studded belts, and many had visible tattoos: these were indeed the "weird" kids in high school who were probably picked on mercilessly. A self-proclaimed former dork, whose own high school experience is documented with self-deprecating wisdom in his first book, "Teen Angst? Naah: A Quasi Autobiography" (Free Spirit Publishing), and which inspired the fictional account of high school in "Be More Chill," Vizzini is at ease with the crowd; he knows what will ring true.
Vizzini, 23, is still near enough to high school age to remember the struggle, not necessarily to be popular, but simply to not feel conspicuous and inept all the time. Set in suburban New Jersey, "Be More Chill" is the story of Jeremy Heere’s quest to be cool - or at least cool enough that the lovely Christine Caniglia (who barely notices him) would give him the time of day. The plot traces the trajectory of Heere’s popularity following the fateful decision to buy and ingest a "squip," a supercomputer in pill form that coaches the user to become cool. It’s the Midas touch for dorks - the squip offers fashion, comportment and speaking advice, creating a sudden flare of fabulousness.
When asked whether he would’ve bought a squip to become cool, Vizzini said, "Yes, of course. I tried everything else - except clothes."
"Be More Chill" is also a cautionary tale: the squip turns out to be defective, with humiliating results.
Vizzini’s Web site, nedvizzini.com, prominently features squip propaganda. A banner along one page asks, "Has your boyfriend been acting all cool all of a sudden? He might have a squip."
Discussing squips at the Tea Lounge on Union Street in Park Slope, recently, Vizzini seems mildly amused by the phenomenon he’s spawned.
"I hear from kids all the time asking how they can get one; they don’t seem to get that it’s not real," he said. But like an experiment in phenomenology, in which an image or idea acquires a life of its own in the popular consciousness - such as the "Andre the Giant has a posse" stickers which found their way on to lampposts and billboards around the world in the 1990s - the squip might be what young readers remember best from "Be More Chill," besides its candid voice and obvious (and un-patronizing) familiarity with abject adolescent humiliation.
Asked how much of his books are autobiographical, Vizzini quoted Anne Lamott’s claim that "Fiction is 65 percent real life." Vizzini’s 2000 book, "Teen Angst? Naah," which included pieces he’d written for the New York Press and the New York Times Magazine while he was still in his teens, deals with similar themes of social anxiety in high school, but the stories he writes now are fiction. Vizzini is in the process of writing a new novel, to be published late next year by Miramax Books.
"It’s about teen status anxiety, and money and how it screws [the protagonist] up," Vizzini said, but declined to say more about the plot. "The main character lives in Park Slope. I think it’s comforting to write about where you grew up, places you love, the din of family life." Comforting, indeed, for a young writer who lives 10 blocks from the house in which he was raised, since he’s had the time and energy to examine Park Slope in detail.
On a lamppost in front of a brownstone at 901 Union St., Vizzini points to a stenciled face.
"My friends think it’s me, but I’m not so sure," he said. The nose is too broad, but it otherwise looks like a crude rendering of Vizzini. "There’s another one near Marymount Manhattan College. I want to know who’s doing them."
Perhaps the invention of the squip is making Vizzini cool enough to take over the world, one lamppost at a time.
Ned Vizzini’s "Be More Chill" (Hyperion Books, $16.95) is available at, or can be ordered through, The Bookmark Shoppe [6906 11th Ave. at 69th Street in Dyker Heights (718) 680-3680], BookCourt [163 Court St. at Dean Street in Cobble Hill, (718) 875-3677] and Barnes & Noble [267 Seventh Ave. at Sixth Street in Park Slope, (718) 832-9066].