‘The pains of being young at heart’

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Book review: Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (Hamish Hamilton, £13.99, 661 pages)

Often, in appraisal of an artistic work, timing is everything. Catch a novel fresh out of the gate, with unbiased expectations, and a reader’s feelings can go one way, whereas arrive with the novel’s reputation implacably hanging over it and their opinion can go quite another.

Regretably, Skippy Dies is just such a novel. Connection to the Booker Prize, even just the longlist, bestows upon a novel a gravitas, a sense of importance, of, for what of a better word, ‘literariness’. Paul Murray’s second novel now has the unenviable task of carrying the reputation that the ‘Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize’ sticker that publishers gleefully slap on the front of their releases grants it.

All in all, Skippy Dies falls short of this mark. Which isn’t of course to say that it is a bad novel – far from it; it’s an extremely enjoyable, old-fashioned boarding school caper, and a dark comedy that, centred as it as around a teenager’s suicide, manages to handle its tone impressively. The suicide, as the title implies, is that of Daniel ‘Skippy’ Juster, a boarder at top Irish public school Seabrook College, who pines for Lori, a beautiful girl from the school next door.

The novel opens with Skippy’s death scene, though leaves the exact circumstances of his death unclear, before the narrative moves back to explore the events leading up to his death, and eventually showing its aftermath. Seabrook is populated with an array of charming, if somewhat two-dimensional characters, and Murray criss-crosses their stories with great authorial dexterity. Skippy’s roommate is Ruprecht Van Doren, the school’s top student, obsessed with M-theory and elaborate scientific experiments and inventions that see limited success. The pair’s friends, Mario and Dennis, are very much cut in the ‘Comic Relief Sidekick’ mould. The boys’ chief antagonist is Carl, the violent school bully and drug dealer who also loves Lori.

In the higher ranks of the school are Howard, a weak-willed history teacher and former Seabrook student who carries the nickname of Howard the Coward after he backed out of a bungee jump as a young man that a fellow student was then crippled by. Howard’s comfortable life and relationship with American technology writer Halley is turned upside down by the arrival of an alluring substitute teacher, Miss McIntyre. Seabrook itself is undergoing transformation as the influence of the church weakens and the hospitalised headmaster is gradually usurped by the forward thinking and fairly amoral Greg Costigan. As noted before, Murray weaves these various threads together with a confidence and ease that is extremely impressive.

The narrative technique of jumping between different storylines helps keep the reader engaged. However, at 661 pages, there is no avoiding the fact that Skippy Dies is a novel that sorely overstays its welcome. While the aforementioned characters are perfectly well-rendered, and their stories perfectly readable, none of them are particularly three-dimensional. In a shorter novel, this could easily be overlooked, but by about the three or four hundred page mark of Skippy Dies, all but the most dedicated of readers will be finding the novel’s characters predictable or downright irritating. Skippy’s dilemma over whether to quit the swimming team, Howard’s conflict over whether to stay with his girlfriend or risk everything for Miss McIntyre, Carl’s struggle to win Lori’s heart, all of these plot threads start to fray during the novel’s second half. On many occasions I found myself unconsciously skim-reading yet another chapter where Howard tediously moped over his cowardly reputation, and a scene where Skippy is playing a video game and finds the demon he is fighting turn into his swimming coach had me laughing for all the wrong reasons. Without giving too much away, the aftermath of Skippy’s death does present some interesting conflicts, especially for Howard, but Murray never makes full use of them, instead opting for speedy resolutions followed by lengthy sections of characters brooding.

The novel’s length hurts it in another way too. As mentioned before, association with the Booker Prize gives the novel a sense of gravitas, a sense that this is a novel with something important to say. However, as Skippy Dies moves into its second half it becomes apparent that the novel does not really have anything significantly profound to say about the world in which it is set, or the characters that live within it. When Murray does make a stab at social commentary, it is more in the way of ham-fisted jabs than nuanced satire. At one point, he deigns to inform the reader that ‘celebrity is the one goal truly worth pursuing … this is the zenith of a world now uncluttered by spiritually, and anything you do to get there is considered legitimate’, as though his reader has been living under a rock for the last decade or two. There is an admirable attempt to link the youth of today with the soldiers of World War One, both generations betrayed and sold out by their elders, but the comparison is simply made in one scene by Howard, and without even a shred of subtlety. One could argue that Skippy Dies is a critique of modern youth culture, and an indictment of the adult culture that dismisses and discards it, but Murray never quite manages to get this idea off the ground in a convincing way.

All in all then, Skippy Dies is a perfectly respectable novel; it juggles a wide cast of characters skillfully, it handles its tone just right, and presents an overall engaging story. Its only major weakness is that it does little to justify its inordinate length, and its story and characters wear thin past the halfway mark. Given the length, and its inclusion in the Booker Prize longlist (not to mention the pretentious epigraphs quoting Robert Graves, Albert Einstein and Rudyard Kipling), Skippy Dies is a novel with surprisingly little to say, and a reader’s take on it will depend on the extent to which they’re willing to overlook this. Those looking for a lighthearted, pleasant and charming read will find much to enjoy here. Those looking for the very best that contemporary British and Irish literature has to offer however, may find themselves feeling a little underwhelmed. Skippy Dies is fun, but it’s not the ‘tragic comedy of epic sweep and dimension’ that its publishers are calling it.

2 Responses

  1. Stephen Dwyer says:

    A well constructed review, but poles apart from my experience of this book.
    Far from being “lighthearted, pleasant and charming”, this is a very dark book dealing with very challenging themes. To claim the novel has very little to say is unfair and way off the mark. It deals with the growing pains of teenage boys like no other novel I’ve ever read, not to mention delving deep into the backgrounds of the teaching staff and moral corruptness that ravaged at the soul of Dublin during the economic boom.

    I think this novel is an instant classic and walks an incredible tightrope between the hilarious and the tragic. I flew threw the text in 3 days and have re-read it since.

    On a final note, this is contemporary Irish literature…here’s to Murray’s next novel, about a French banker living in Dublin, due for release around 2013.

  2. Guy Stephenson says:

    Good spot, ‘British literature’ changed to ‘British and Irish literature’.
    Like I said, there’s much to enjoy here. The novel touches on plenty of issues (youthful alienation and suicide, celebrity culture, paedophilia, institutional corruption), but didn’t really explore them in any meaningful way beyond simply indicating their existence. While I certainly enjoyed reading Skippy Dies, I didn’t feel differently about anything once I’d finished. But I’m glad you got more out of it.