February 4, 2010
Paul Murray: Skippy Dies
One of the ways I find out about forthcoming books these days is via Twitter, where many publishers have an online presence: and where Penguin have several. Last year some of their people were talking about a new novel from an Irish writer I hadn’t heard of. What struck me, and made me want to read it, was its snazzy design – like the US edition of Bolaño’s 2666, or early editions of Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, this is a novel published in separate volumes inside a slipcase. But is this an enhancement to the content, or a gimmick to distract us?
Skippy Dies comes pre-proofed against spoilers. Not only does it tell you in the title, but it’s the first scene in the book: Skippy dies. The rest of the book leads us up to, and away from, his death.
‘Skippy’ is Daniel Juster, a pupil at Ireland’s Seabrook College (“the oldest Catholic boys’ school in the country”), and the novel deals in the lives of students and teachers alike, enabling Murray to take as much pleasure in schoolboy mockery (French teacher Father Green is popularly known by the translation Père Vert) as in excruciating adult punnery (supply teacher Aurelie McIntyre, rejecting the lustful advances of colleagues, is “not-to-be-taken Aurelie”). The witty flourishes decorate a serious topic: how teenage excitement at the possibilities of discovery (of multiple universes, drug-altered consciousness, the girls of St Brigid’s) gives way to adult apathy. Howard, the adult heart of the novel, feels himself to be stuck in a rut, his life “a grey tapestry of okayness,” his uncertainty a very human frailty:
If he could just be certain that this was the life he wanted, and not just the life he’d ended up with because he was afraid to go after the one he wanted.
He is a history teacher, marvelling at how the displays erected in a colleague’s Geography classroom are
like a shrine to the harmonious working of the world: a panoply of facts and processes, natural, scientific, agricultural, economic, all coexisting peacefully on its walls, while the human fallout from these interactions, the corollary of coercion, torture, enslavement that accompanies every dollar earned, every step towards alleged progress, is left for his class: History, the dark twin, the blood-shadow.
Nonetheless the first book, ‘Hopeland’, is primarily comic in tone, with oodles of charm and spark that had me giddy with delight. What made a particular pleasure was Murray’s willingness to throw the reader into his characters’ worlds without explanation – recurring elements from the cultural (‘Bethani’ the jailbait pop star) to the personal (Carl’s broken home, or Skippy’s ‘game’ with his dad). It creates a satisfying flurry of thoroughly modern life, into which is sandwiched a tangle of plots (Skippy’s swimming trials, his friend Ruprecht’s pursuit of multiple universes, Howard’s pursuit of Aurelie, the school’s demolition and reinvention).
In such a soapy, fantastical mix there are implausibilities: when we learn the source of Howard ‘the Coward’s nickname, the fate of one character from his past seems particularly unlikely. Similarly, the divisions between the three books of Skippy Dies seem aptly placed, because such great chasms separate the parts: after the dramatic end of ‘Hopeland’, it seems extraordinary that life at the school – for Howard especially – can continue more or less unaffected in the second book, ‘Heartland’. And in Book 3, ‘Ghostland’, after Skippy dies (again), his best friend Ruprecht changes personality more even than grief would warrant, while another character, Lori, responds to trauma in a way that seems too drama-serially neat.
The frustrations and meanderings of the second half – I was reminded of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which also seemed to lose its way after much brilliance – should not detract from Murray’s command of his material. The scenes near the end, with an attempt to make contact with the late Skippy, are affecting. And Murray has a versatile voice, ventriloquising everything from business-speak and ad-land jargon to teenage angst and youthful brio. The messiness that results can be a strength as well as a weakness. Howard, in his history class, tells his pupils that:
History, in the end, is only another kind of story, and stories are different from the truth. The truth is messy and chaotic and all over the place. Often it just doesn’t make sense. Stories make things make sense, but the way they do that is to leave out anything that doesn’t fit. And often that is quite a lot.
Not much is left out of Skippy Dies – and there is so much energy that it explodes out in unexpected directions. When thumbing the book to write this post (a couple of months after I finished reading it), I was dazzled again by how much is in there, and remembered what it was that made me rush out (well, rush online) and order a copy of Murray’s first novel An Evening of Long Goodbyes while I was reading Skippy Dies. Murray is a writer to watch; but also one worth reading now.