Saturday, March 20, 2010

Skippy Dies: a review

Paul Murray's 661-page second novel Skippy Dies (one version of which is nattily packaged in a three-volume case set) is an ambitious, pacey and enormously funny novel. It's set in 'Seabrook', easily identifiable as Blackrock College on Dublin's southside (which seems to have created a mini-genre of its own in current Irish fiction, following the excellent Bad Day at Blackrock by Kevin Power, and the Ross O'Carroll Kelly series).

The novel opens with the event of the title, and what follows then is a story which ramifies across a huge cast of characters, from 14 year-old boys in the school to their equivalents in the nearby girls' school, to teachers, parents and the workers in the local doughnut shop. For the most part these are convincing, as Murray ranges far and wide in his perspectives and personae. He's particularly good at boys' conversations, simultaneously 'smart' and vulnerable (it's definitely a boys' world, rather than a school in which boys and girls are used to each other). The adults are more grotesque, particularly the Acting Principal, 'The Automator'; a key character, an attractive substitute female teacher called Miss McIntyre, is sketchily drawn. The boys drive the novel however, including the bewildered and pained Skippy, soi-disant super-stud Mario, and the extraordinary geek Ruprecht.

However, the novel is likely to sweep any minor doubts aside, as it moves through a series of brilliant set-pieces. Its serious heart is a scene which has extremely current relevance in Ireland and elsewhere, when a cabal of priests, teachers and a lawyer conspire to cover up sexual abuse for the sake of the school's reputation ('At the risk of sounding cynical, I think we have to ask ourselves now how it would serve any of us, and I include in that the boy's family, to bring the police into this'). Murray could hardly have foreseen that his book would be published in the wake of the Ryan and Murphy reports.

At the end of the novel Ruprecht van Doren (Murray has Dickensian fun with names - Zora Carpathian, Hector O'Looney, Odysseas Antopopopoulos...) explains that 'apparently there are these really small strings that everything is made of. Once the strings were part of a much bigger universe, where everything was all joined together. But then it broke in two.' Murray's novel is a big universe itself, with many many strings.

More reviews and material here:
  • Patrick Ness in the Guardian calls it 'one of the most enjoy­able, funny and moving reads of this young new year.'
  • Adam Lively in the Times says it is 'brimful of wit, narrative energy and a real poetry and vision' while being unoriginal in parts, and praises its 'unflagging entertainment of its intelligence, its psychological insight and its range of reference'.
  • Blogger David Hebblethwaite calls it 'a rich, immersive read that you shouldn’t miss.'
  • Jonathan Gibbs in the London Independent says it is 'intricate of structure, charming of surface, adept at winding science and history into its design, (though) it can't in the end decide how serious or funny it wants to be.'
  • In the Observer, Tom Webber calls it 'an extraordinarily well-observed portrait of early teenage life, which wonders aloud how it is possible to negotiate such a seemingly callous society, and what that means for the adult environment these people will compose.'
  • Paul Murray is interviewed on the Penguin site here.
  • And there's a particularly detailed and interesting review in the Irish Times by Kevin Power, author of Bad Day at Blackrock, who says that it's 'a blast of a book. It’s big, generous, heartfelt, funny and sad. If it sometimes seems in danger of tipping into cartoonish sentimentality, then it just as often redeems itself.'
  • For another position, read Michael Sopp's hatchet-job in The Literateur: 'Ultimately, Skippy Dies is overwritten, overlong, and under thought-out.' It 'is lazily written, very loosely plotted and just plain too long, gestures towards ‘tragicomedy’ (to quote the blurb) but ends up being neither serious nor funny.'

(coming next week: a post on boarding school fiction)

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