Tuesday, August 17, 2010: Maximum Shelf: Skippy Dies

Faber and Faber: Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Skippy Dies t-shirt for the first 10 booksellers who send us a quote

Farrar, Straus and Giroux: The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

Farrar, Straus and Giroux: The Pain Chronicles by Melanie Thernstrom

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: Skippy Dies

In this edition of Maximum Shelf, the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere, we present Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. The review and interviews are by Marilyn Dahl. Farrar, Straus & Giroux has helped support the issue.


Faber and Faber: Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Books & Authors

Paul Murray: Teenage Bravado and Clueless Parents

Skippy Dies is a 672-page book, and while it reads like a breeze, it must still have been somewhat daunting to write. Did you envision such a long book when you started?

The book started as a short story--it was going to be a two-hander, essentially, between Skippy and Howard, the history teacher. But I found that I really liked writing about the school--it gave me the opportunity to have a really broad, disparate cast of characters, with a lot of scope for both drama and humour. So I stopped thinking of it as a story and just ran with it. It ended up being well over a thousand pages long, so much of the writing period was spent revising and refining and cutting back. I knew when I started the book would take a long time to write, but I didn't know how long, or rather, I didn't know what that would feel like. It gets to the point that you don't ever think you will finish. I still get surprised sometimes when I see the book on the shelf.

You have the boys' voices down pat--the banter, the casual insults, the serious insults. But you also know the girls' voices, the, like, Valley Girl chatter and rudeness. How did you do that?

Most of the book is set in a boys' school, so I really enjoyed it when the plot allowed me to switch over to female characters and to explore the differences between their voices. Teenagers in the part of Dublin I'm writing about tend to be pretty Americanised, and this is especially pronounced with the girls--a lot of Abercrombie, Juicy Couture, OMG!s and, unfortunately, even the dreaded Valley Girl turning statements? into questions? In Skippy Dies, the girls are less naïve and more cynical than the boys, which I think is a fair reflection of the true state of affairs. Teenage boys are loud and crude and annoying, but not that difficult to read. Teenage girls, on the other hand--well, a friend of mine has a teenage daughter, and says it's like living with the CIA. You never really know what a teenage girl is thinking. I tried to get some of those differences across in their voices. The girls are less bawdy, but there's a hardness about them.

The boys seem adult in one sense--cigarettes, drugs, sex (although that's mostly wishful thinking)--but in another sense they are children, like in their fright at the Ghost Nun story. Adolescence is swinging between extremes.

That's what adolescence is all about, I think--pretending to be more grown-up and in control than you actually are or feel. Teenagers are always grasping after the signs of adulthood--or rather, what they think are the signs of adulthood: hence, cigarettes, excessive drinking, unwise sexual situations. But I think the adult world increasingly shares in that confusion. We're obsessed with youth and with what we think are the signifiers of youth--expensive gadgets, various Apple products, listening to gangsta rap while driving home from IKEA, whatever. Living in a consumer-driven society, you're constantly pushed towards materialism and self-absorption, towards dramatising yourself and grasping after big emotions. We forget how little fun those big emotions were when we actually were teenagers. In the book I wanted to explore the various illusions we chase after at different stages of our lives, while ignoring what's actually happening around us.

There are parts of Skippy Dies where I literally laughed until tears came, and then I was whiplashed by some real cruelty or tragedy.

Well, part of the fun of writing about a teenage world is that teenage lives tend to be quite extreme. School is really a very difficult, oppressive environment--you're oppressed by your teachers, you're oppressed by your psychotic classmates, you're oppressed by boredom and dependence. One way out of that oppression is humour. You form very strong friendships in school--you have to, if you're going to survive--and humour is both a kind of private language through which you and your friends can communicate, and a means of escaping the sometimes quite Stygian darkness you can find yourself in. Again, I found the world of teenagers was a good way of exploring the tendencies and values of society at large. What gets us down? What gets us through the day? Why do we keep making the same mistakes over and over, what rainbows are we chasing?

How did you get interested in string theory and quantum physics, seeing as how your degree is in English literature and creative writing?

I don't think those interests are mutually exclusive--quite the opposite. The math can be offputting, but for anyone with an imagination, the concepts of string theory and quantum mechanics are exhilarating and even strangely liberating. The idea of parallel worlds, the idea that an electron can be at two ends of the universe at the same time, the idea that reality at its most fundamental is lawless and duplicitous and paradoxical--those ideas make you think again about what you thought you understood about the world in a similar way to a work of art.

What does the American reader need to know about schools in Ireland? Or present-day Ireland?

Well, the book's set in 2003, so it's right in the middle of the huge boom that transformed Irish society. From being quite a poor country, an economic backwater with high emigration and a conservative, Catholic outlook, Ireland in less than a decade became a secular, very wealthy society obsessed with money and status. The kids in the book are the first generation in Irish history who wouldn't be expecting to leave the country as soon as they leave school. But they're also the first to be raised in the strange ethical vacuum that is this new, non-Catholic Ireland. Their parents are no longer really have any moral compass, and they don't really have any idea what to tell their kids. Who consequently find themselves getting quite messed up.

The teachers are so unaware, so wrapped up in their own frustrations. How do adults become so clueless so quickly?

I think, despite our obsession with youth and acting young, we forget really quickly what it's like actually to be young--not to know how the world works, not to know how human relationships work or even to understand your own mind. Teenagers put on such a show of bravado that we can forget that they need guidance--they need people they can trust, who will tell them the right and the wrong thing to do. And we live in strange times: our own understanding of ourselves, our own belief in right and wrong is constantly being undermined by various sinister forces trying to sell us things. To the point, as I said above, that we start to think that teenagers know more than we do.

School seems so vicious. Is that the way they really educate students to be ready for the world? Is there no solace in school?

Someone in the book compares school to the trenches of World War One --99% boredom to 1% terror. I think that pretty much sums it up. School is all about preparing you for the job market; it doesn't really give you many cues about what life is actually like--lessons you could genuinely use, such as, for instance, that the ceaseless pursuit of success and wealth probably won't make you happy. I think education, as a concept, is a good thing, but in practice, it all too often promotes conformity and conservatism and the belief that bullies always win. I went to a single-sex school and it's very difficult, in that environment especially, to see the positives. That said, I still have close friends from my schooldays, who I value very highly. So it's not all bad. It's just mostly bad.

Do you have some favorite characters, aside from what I'd assume to be the obvious ones (Skippy and Ruprecht)? I was surprised at how much I liked sex-obsessed Mario.

I feel a lot of affection for all of the characters, but Mario is a standout for me too. It was so much fun to create a character like that, who will just say anything. I did wonder when I was writing his parts if some of his statements might sound a bit extreme... but a lot of women readers really seem to like him, whatever that says about them.

You are a former bookseller (and this is your second book). Does that change how you approach book signings?

As a former bookseller, I'm acutely aware of how difficult it is to sell new titles. I used to watch piles of new books arrive and sit on the tables for three months and then be sent back without selling a single copy. Working in a bookshop is a really good way of killing off any illusions you might have as regards the romance of the writing life. It's hard work, and to succeed you need to have both a certain amount of luck and a certain amount of help from outside. Booksellers play an enormous part in the success of a book, so I take bookstore appearances pretty seriously.

Neil Jordan has just signed on to direct Skippy Dies--does this fill you with elation or trepidation?

It's exciting. Signing away the film rights to a book can be a somewhat scary thing, because you have no control whatever over the final product. A studio can produce something that has only the slightest resemblance to your baby and you'll have no comeback. And that, after all, is what they're paying you for; you don't have to do it. But to have a director of the caliber of Neil Jordan pick up your book is the dream. I've been a fan of his work since I was a child. He's an established novelist too, of course, so he knows how a novel works and how to take it apart and put it back together on the screen. So I'm excited to see what he'll come up with. That said, I do think the film is an entirely separate venture to the book. If it gets made, it'll be his vision up there, not mine.



Faber and Faber: Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Book Brahmin: Paul Murray

Paul Murray's first novel, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award in 2003. He studied English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin, and has a Master's degree in creative writing from the University of East Aglia. Following the British publication of the critically acclaimed Skippy Dies, the Daily Telegraph named him one of the best British novelists under 40 (even though he's actually Irish). Skippy Dies has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and is to be adapted for the big screen by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game). It will be published in the U.S. by Faber & Faber on September 10, 2010.

On your nightstand now:

 I just finished Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier and am trying to decide between Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. They're both quite long so I may end up reading The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, although summer seems to have passed Ireland by this year. I'm also looking forward to A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee.

Favorite book when you were a child:

Winnie the Pooh. The Christopher Robin stuff was pretty painful, but all the other characters are great and the jokes still make me laugh.

Your top five authors:

Different writers have been important to me at different times of my life. I love all the Irish classics--Joyce, Beckett, Yeats, Wilde. Kafka, J.D. Salinger, William Gaddis, Lorrie Moore, David Foster Wallace made me want to be a writer when I was in my 20s. Roland Barthes I find myself coming back to again and again. The American poet James Merrill I think is amazing. Daniel Clowes. Everything by Ali Smith radiates intelligence and love.

Book you've faked reading:

I don't really lie about reading books, but I do feel guilty about having books on my shelf I know I'm never going to read. For example, I read 250 pages of the 1,200-page The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil, and I knew I was never going to finish it. Now I can feel it glowering down on me from the bookcase, doing kind of a Banquo's ghost thing.

Books you're an evangelist for:

Independent People by Halldor Laxness; The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud; A Goat's Song by Dermot Healy--these are all very special books. A couple of months ago I read The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton, which I thought was outstanding.

Book you've bought for the cover/book that changed your life:

I read Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon when I was 20 and I really do think it changed me. I have about three or four copies of it. The Penguin Classics one with the blue cover is one of my favourite designs. The designer for Skippy Dies is named Leanne Shapton. I think she's a genius, all of her covers are just beautiful.

Favorite line from a book:

Beckett, Worstward Ho: "All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

I read Black Hole by Charles Burns a couple of years ago, an astonishing graphic novel. Reading it is like disappearing into a black hole, and coming out somewhere strange and totally new.



Book Review

Mandahla: Skippy Dies

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (Faber & Faber, $28.00 Hardcover, 9780865479432, August 2010)


Skippy and his roommate, Ruprecht, are having a doughnut-eating contest one November evening at Ed's Doughnut House, the local hangout, when Skippy turns purple and falls off his chair. At first, Ruprecht is not concerned; he's pleased because this means he'll win the race. Then he realizes something is terribly wrong: Skippy's on the floor, writhing and wheezing. Skippy raises a hand and writes on the floor, in raspberry syrup from the pastry: TELL LORI. Then he smiles, and dies. But how? And why? The how and the why form the core of this hilarious and harrowing novel by Paul Murray.

It begins with Howard Fallon's history class, where he's coaxing his students to name the main key players of WWI--"Come on, now. The main protagonists. Just the main ones. Anybody?" He ignores Ruprecht Van Doren's upstretched hand--he always has the answer; passes over Daniel "Skippy" Juster, who stares into space as if drugged; and asks Mario, who's playing with his cell phone. 

" 'Uh...." Mario prevaricates. 'Well, Italy....'

'Italy was in charge of the catering,' Niall Henaghan suggests. 

'Hey,' Mario warns. 

'Sir, Mario calls his wang Il Duce.'

'Sir!' " 

Finally, class is over, and Howard is left to wonder, as always, if anyone has heard a thing he's said; "he can practically see his words crumpled up on the floor." 

Several of Murray's leitmotifs are deftly presented here: student boredom, adolescent mockery, teacher despair and hormones. The boys are second-year students at elite Seabrook College, a historic Catholic boys' school in Dublin, and Skippy and his friends--Dennis, Niall, Mario, Ruprecht and Geoff--are boarders at Seabrook, unlucky souls who have to live in the Tower. "Any Harry Potter–type fantasies tend to get squashed pretty quickly: life in the Tower, an ancient building composed mostly of draughts, is a deeply unmagical experience." But the boarders do have one advantage: their windows look down on the yard of St Brigid's girls' school (and the terrifying Ghost Nun, who roams the grounds after dark wielding a crucifix, or pinking shears).

Skippy is the hub around whom the other boys revolve--he's smart, he's on the swim team and he's kind. He tends to get lost in his video game and the pills he sometimes takes--just to make things normal--enhance his daydreaming tendencies. He's an innocent, and even Father Green, who sees sin everywhere, sees a fragility in him, an unworldliness. 

Ruprecht is the resident genius. For him, "the world is a compendium of fascinating facts just waiting to be discovered, and a difficult maths problem is like sinking into a nice warm bath." He conducts experiments in the basement (time machines, X-ray glasses) and pursues his Holy Grail--the secret of the origins of the universe. 

Dennis is the arch-cynic, whose very dreams are sarcastic. He has created a Nervous Breakdown Leaderboard. His two top contenders are Brother Jonas, who is from Africa and has never quite caught onto how things work at Seabrook, and Father Laughton, whose desire to instill a love of classical music in the hearts of his students, combined with a mild approach to discipline, make him a prime candidate for the win. And then there's Mario, son of a diplomat in the Italian embassy, who is obsessed with sex; they call him the David Beckham of masturbating.

The faculty at Seabrook are as diverse as the kids. Howard Fallon, who graduated 10 years ago from Seabrook, is known as Howard the Coward to the students. He has come back to Seabrook after a disastrous time in brokerage, and feels like nothing has changed from his student days, but of course, it has. The Holy Paraclete Fathers are dying out, and when the school principal, Father Desmond Furlong, fell ill, it was a layman--economics teacher Gregory Costigan--who took over. Costigan, disdained by all, is called the Automator by the students and staff, and thinks his mission is to bring Seabrook into the 21st century, to create a strong brand identity. The Paracletes are "outmoded technology," and having them around makes the parents anxious in the new age of churchly scandal. 

Howard, stuck in a relationship he calls "a grey tapestry of okayness," falls for Miss McIntyre--Aurelie--the sub for an ailing geography teacher. She's blonde, stacked and has blue eyes "custom-made for sparkling mockingly." Never have lava, ordnance maps and global warming been so fascinating. 

Father Jerome Green ("Père Vert") is the French teacher, the school's most terrifying personage "in his black raiment looking like a single downward stroke of a pen, a peremptory unforgiving slash through the error-strewn copybook that is the world." Father Green carries a terrible guilt and a concomitant ecstasy within himself, which fuels his determination to root out sin. 

The resident evil comes in the form of Barry and Carl, Seabrook boys who strong-arm students into giving up their Ritalin or stealing their parents' meds--they sell these as diet pills to the St Brigid's girls. Carl is truly scary--he's drugged, he cuts himself, he's violent, and he's addicted to porn. He lusts after Lori, who will trade kisses and gropes for pills. Lori is also the mysterious Venus that Skippy pines for. One afternoon in his room, looking through Ruprecht's telescope, he sees "an almost impossible beauty. Dancing back and forth, glittering like a runaway star through the dowdy greys of autumn..." It's a St Brigid's girl, playing Frisbee. Skippy is entranced.

Skippy becomes one with Ruprecht's telescope, and he is either euphorically happy or in despair, depending on sightings of Frisbee Girl, whose name he still doesn't know. The big question: Will she be at the annual Hallowe'en Hop? His passion gives him something he hasn't had for sometime--happiness, even if mixed with misery. He's unhappy on the swim team and wants to beg off, and the Game, which he plays with his father and involves the absence of his mother, is beginning to fray.

While Skippy moons over Lori, Ruprecht moons over a new theory, the M-theory. "Why can't we fall in love with a theory? Is it a person we fall in love with, or the idea of a person? So yes, Ruprecht has fallen in love." Howard also wants meaning, and longs for love; he's been reading Robert Graves, at Aurelie's suggestion. He wants to be daring, and finds his opportunity by volunteering to chaperone the Hallowe'en Dance with Aurelie. So all roads converge at the Hop.

At the dance, Skippy discovers the name of Frisbee Girl and meets her. The punch gets spiked, resulting in a mess of deafening music, discarded costumes, bare flesh and mass vomiting. The Automator thinks, in a bizarrely convoluted way, that Skippy is involved, so Skippy is sent to Father Foley for counseling. As he speaks of the dangers of impure acts, he reminds Skippy that "God, in his wisdom, has supplied us with the means to avoid these deadly traps of the spirit, in the form of the wonderful gift of sport.... [The Romans] wouldn't have known about rugby, but I think we can assume that if the sport had been invented then, they would have been playing it night and day. It's amazing how many of life's problems simply disappear after a rousing game of rugby." 

The story unwinds slowly and intriguingly, with layers, backtracks and subtle asides--the casual drug use, the feelings of wretchedness and helplessness ("Back at school, the bad feeling grows and grows. The pills call to you from under the pillow. Speeding out of control, Skip? The brakes are right here!"), the cruelty and machinations of the girls, the friendship and banter of the boys. Ruprecht remarks that the universe is asymmetrical: toast lands butter side down. The other boys just want to know if in another universe girls would be more symmetrical. And Dennis, true to form, points out that Skippy would still be a loser in a parallel universe; they all would--they see the powerlessness of the teenage years, and they suspect it may presage adulthood.

So a boy is dead, and there is a cover-up brewing, but not the cover-up one expects. Friendships start to fray without the glue that was Skippy. Anomie spreads throughout the school, but Costigan sets his sights on the annual Seabrook Christmas concert, which he sees as an opportunity to put the school back on the map of prominence. He wants to make sure the concert is Quality. He hears Ruprecht's quartet (the Van Doren Quartet) practicing, and asks Father Laughton what they are playing. "Pachelbel's Canon in D," Father Laughton says, adding, after a moment of internal debate, "You might recognize it from the current advertisement for the Citroën Osprey." The Automator nods. "Quality." 

Paul Murray knows the lives of adolescents, where the highs and lows are just as complicated as in adult lives--maybe more so, because they have no direction from parents or priests or teachers. So the boys slog through their days, making what sense of the world they can, usually through a hormonal haze, as when Dennis decides a Robert Frost poem is about anal sex: 

"Well, once you see it, it's pretty obvious. Just look at what he says. He's in a wood, right? He sees two roads in front of him. He takes the one less travelled. What else could it be about?" 

Murray has crafted a rich potpourri of string theory, the Irish in WWI, Robert Graves, fart jokes, Kipling, spiritualism, teenage psyches, cigarettes, drugs, sex and Ireland in the 2000s--mochaccino sippers in love with high tech and out of love with the Church. He throws in a few bits of typographical whimsy and a lot of laugh-out-loud passages. But he does have a serious agenda: What is sin? What is the price of maintaining an institution? How do young people navigate the world? Is there redemption for an evil life? His dazzling prose creates a dark backdrop for these questions, a setting of autumnal deadness and futility: "It's the end of the school day; they are walking down the laneway to the Doughnut House. In the dusk the world appears pale and exhausted, like a vampire's been drinking from its veins: the thin pink filament of the just-come-on doughnut sign, the white streetlights like dowdy cotton bolls against the grey clouds, the soft hand-like leaves of the trees with the colours leeched away to match the asphalt."

There is much heartbreak in Skippy Dies--real heartbreak, not merely what adults think children experience, and it informs the students' feelings of being on the brink of discovery, but of what? We careen from uncontrollable laughter at scatological conversations between the boys to the sadness of Howard's reason for being called Coward, to anger at the school's hypocrisy and lies, to the ineffable sorrow of Skippy's despair. The video game Skippy was immersed in is called "Hopeland," he'd been playing it for almost a year, and yet hope abandoned him. Ruprecht "does not know how he ever believed this universe could be a symphony played on superstrings, when it sounds like shit, played on shit." And yet, compassion and mercy come from unexpected places. 

Paul Murray has written an inventive, haunting, brilliant novel that is laced with broad humor and subtle wit. He confronts the "grinding emptiness" at the heart of the adult world, and mourns for the boys being pushed into that world without a moral compass. Skippy Dies has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year; if we had to bet, we'd say Murray's novel would be the odds-on favorite.--Marilyn Dahl



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