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.


  1. Is it anything like A Fraction Of The Whole? It sounds very good indeed. Like a footballer wearing lime-green boots, you’ve got to be very good to get away with a Bolano-esque three-volumed slipcase number. It seems he’s pulled it off.

  2. A Fraction of the Whole is not a bad comparison, Lee, and I think he does pull it off, though as I’ve indicated above, I much preferred volume one to the other two. It may be interesting to compare and contrast my view with that of Will Rycroft, who has just posted a review on his own blog (and in fact comes to broadly the same conclusion that I do).

  3. One wonders at the wisdom of putting it out in such a format. I’m not sure what it gains from it. Could the three volumes have not fit under one cover easily enough? I’m all for shifting a few more copies but I just don’t ‘get’ it.

  4. I like the format myself. It does indeed fit in one volume – the proof edition I read is a single 670-page book, and I suspect that the paperback (or the other paperback, if you see what I mean) will be in one volume when released next year. I suspect there is an attempt to engineer cult status afoot with the formatting: good luck to them. I’d like the idea of reading the volumes individually, finishing one and going and plucking the next one out. In fact it might even help with that sense of dislocation I felt between the individual parts.

  5. Oh! I thought my idea was original. Oh well guess there is nothing new under the sun.

    My Alternative Poetry Books Series will be seven volumes when finished by the end of the year.

    I’m releasing them one at a time and they are different colours which when organised in the correct order (not in the order of publication) will spell my first name across the top and my second name across the bottom AND make a rainbow on the bookshelf.

    Each volume is themed loosely around the volume colour.

    So it goes without saying I quite like the way the Skippy books have been packaged. 🙂

    1. I think that’s quite a common process in comics books, mangas and bandes dessinées. You have to buy all of them otherwise your shelf looks awful.

  6. Fair dos. I’m not against the idea in any way. I think part of the reason for the question was also the fact that you particularly enjoyed the opening part of the book – could that stand alone? I’m all for it if it works or even if it doesn’t. I think Proust has done rather well out of the concept, and Durrell to name a couple. Indeed, one could derive a list of large works that might benefit from being thusly divvied-up.

  7. I love this packaging. And it makes it much more easier to carry your books around. Besides, big books get damaged faster than slim ones.

    Your description of the book really attracts me, even if in the end you nuance your praise.

  8. I think I’ll have to read this now, if only for the variety of dialogue you praised. Some authors make all their characters sound the same (ie. like themselves, which is fine, if they’re interesting enough – Murakami, Robertson Davies), but others really make an effort to give their characters individual voices.

    And I’m all for split up volumes. During uni I ripped Middlemarch in half for easier carrying.

    1. I recently ripped a copy of a Tibor Fischer novel in half. Then into smaller pieces. I really didn’t want to inflict such nonsense on an unsuspecting charity shop delver.

  9. This is actually a book I’ve been waiting for for ages – since I read An Evening of long Goodbyes in fact. I’m reading it now and throughly enjoying it, despite the flaws which i agree with you about. I also love the format, it’s beautifully designed in my opinion. One thing I don’t really agree with the Fraction of the Whole comparisons but that’s only because I found that book somewhat tiresome after a while, like being repeatedly banged over the head by someone keen to prove their inventiveness. I don’t personally find Murray to have that overly-energetic look at me style at all, although the White Teeth comparisons are interesting, I hate the end of that book, which worries me slightly about this one.

  10. John – 

    just finished this one, on your recommendation (actually, i decided halfway through the post that i would buy it, and so stopped short of reading your conclusions). in fact, i am surprised you didn’t have more to say about the book’s contents, seeing as it seems to have so much to say itself about the wasting of adolescent life, modern Irish culture, secrecy and the abuse scandals, the relationship of science to reality, etc etc. and etc. i felt this was, despite abundant humour, an extremely dark book.

    i guess this is my way of asking for more, if you could be persuaded to give it. in Canada, we have only glimpses of what it’s like over there, so i’m wondering what you think Murray was writing about, and where you felt he succeeded.

  11. Jay, I would love to offer more. Alas, it’s over a year since I read this book and pretty much all I can remember about it is what I’ve written above. I must confess though that of the elements you mention above that I can recall (the abuse scandals, relationship of science to reality), I didn’t feel they were handled with any universality. By which I suppose I mean that, for me, the ‘quirkiness’ of the characters and content elsewhere muted the more serious stuff. Added to that, if I recall right, the abuse stuff is in the third book, and by the time I got to it I had already categorised the book in my mind as “really good to begin with but disappointing thereafter,” so I probably didn’t treat it with the attention that you did.

  12. you didn’t treat it with the attention i did?????!!!!!!!!

    i need to think about where this relationship’s going. . . .

    (on a more serious note – WHICH IS NOT TO SAY THE ABOVE THREAT WAS NOT SERIOUS – the matter of abuse was planted very early on with the ambiguous inner thoughts of Père Vert; the twist was that it was the [spoiler censorship]. in any case, i saw this as a state of the nation novel as much as any other kind, and i was wondering whether you concurred.)

  13. I read this recently and liked it enormously. For such a long and rambling story, it fairly zips by and holds together pretty well. When the book first touched on string theory, my heart got ready to sink – or stir in irritation – but he treated it with reasonable scepticism and still found a few nice analogical uses for it, even narrative ones. Some character turns didn’t fully convince me, but I was having so much fun (and, occasionally, being unexpectedly moved) that I cut it slack. Murray’s command of different voices is especially impressive, and never felt like he was trying too hard. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a book about adolescence so much since I read Bruce Robinson’s Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman. That’s not saying much, I suppose, since I haven’t read very many as a grown-up, but still. I thought Skippy Dies was excellent, and I hope the inevitable film adaptation does it justice.

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