“We’re too old
We’re not old at all.”
In the opening scene of Skippy Dies, in which the climactic and eponymous action of Paul Murray’s novel occurs on the floor of Ed’s Doughnut House, Daniel “Skippy” Juster attempts to scribble, with jelly as his ink, his final message to the world. “Tell Lori” is all he manages, but the intention seems clear. “Tell Lori you love her? Is that it?” his friend Ruprecht asks desperately, and Skippy exhales, smiles, and passes away.
Set in Seabrook, a fictional all-boys’ Irish secondary school, Murray’s second novel is best described as an attempt to fill in the blanks—those left by Skippy’s final message (was his final smile an affirmation of Ruprecht’s clichéd hypothesis or simply an acceptance of his death?), by his death, by lives that don’t correlate to the expected narrative arcs we seek, and by this quizzical and evolving universe around us. How exactly do we explain ourselves? Indeed, Murray quickly makes an analogy between the Big Bang and puberty: “[E]verything that is, everything that has ever been…all crammed into one dimensionless point where no rules or laws apply, waiting to fly out and become the future,” in the words of Ruprecht.
Seabrook is that dimensionless point, and it is a realistic, hilarious, and altogether beautifully crafted setting. So much of what makes Skippy Dies so smile-inducing is Murray’s spot-on diction and descriptions. The hallways of Seabrook:
“In Our Lady’s hall, hormonal surges have made giants and midgets of the crowd. The tang of adolescence, impervious to deodorant or opened windows, hangs heavy, and the air tintinnabulates with bleeps, chimes and trebly shards of music as two hundred mobile phones, banned during the school day, are switched back on with the urgency of divers reconnecting to their oxygen supply. From her alcove a safe elevation above it, the plaster Madonna with the starred halo and the peaches-and-cream complexion pouts coquettishly at the rampaging maleness below.”
The setting also allows the author to bring together a cluster of diverse and memorable characters. There’s poor Skippy, our earnest entryway into the school’s corridors; Ruprecht, his mad scientist roommate who traffics in M-Theory; his History teacher, Howard “The Coward” Fallon, who notices that the decade since he graduated from Seabrook has done little to change his status in the school or the world (his contemporary, Farley, refers to himself as a “kidult”); and plenty more. Seabrook rivals Enfield Tennis Academy in terms of character depth, both in number and development (and what it lacks when compared to ETA’s hyper-intellectualism [see: Michael Pemulis and Eschaton], it makes up for, perhaps, with realism). Murray’s ability to craft several secondary and tertiary characters whose storylines remain significant is a testament to his overall vision.* The tendentious friendship, for example, between “arch-cynic” Dennis and the more juvenile Geoff is one of the novel’s most touching and realistic.**
*I suppose now’s as good a time as any to air my grievance against people calling this book too long. Skippy Dies would lose so much of its impact were it to shortchange the dramatic development of its “other” characters; Murray’s creating a world here. And even so, this thing fits together like an episode of Seinfeld—a really long, 661-page Seinfeld episode.
**The only character who perhaps comes off as one-note is Mario, but his constant, naïve chattering about sex is too consistently hilarious to complain about.
John S thinks Tim may have been a bit hasty in dubbing Skippy Dies the best book of the year. He’s sticking with his guns from earlier in the year.
Murray manages to dive deeply into any number of erudite topics—the origins of the universe, the function of history, the basic elements of growing up—in his characters’ diverse voices. He can smoothly transition from Lori’s abbreved texting to Howard’s Tim O’Brien-esque examination of history to Ruprecht’s 14-year-old breakdown of M-Theory. The novel is written in a third-person that feels more personal, as if it adapts to the character on the page.* When Lori is tired, she feels “like a game of Jenga that had been going on for ever and now just wanted to fall down.” When Ruprecht and his less portly partners-in-crime dress in all black to break into the neighboring all-girls school, they resemble “fugitive punctuation marks: two brackets and one overfed full stop.” When Aurelie McIntyre, the deliciously named temptress of a substitute teacher, works her magic on Howard, “it’s as if she’s walked into his memory and chosen her outfit from the wardrobe of all the preppy golden-haired princesses he yearned for hopelessly across the malls and churches of his youth.” He excels in meshing the juvenile with the sublime, a tendency illustrated most notably when the lyrics of Lori’s favorite pop song (by Bethani—an apparent conflation of Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus whose name always appears in the font “Curlz”) are interwoven into a performance of Pachelbel’s Canon in D.
*Murray is also wise enough not to present his voice as that of one of his characters, as another popular and very good book of 2010 did.
The heart of the novel, though, is what Murray terms the “grim de-dreamification” of growing up, which can roughly be defined as the students’ evolving understanding that the phrase “limitless possibilities” grows increasingly false with each passing day. All the characters fantasize: Skippy and his drug-dealing rival Carl about Lori, Howard about Aurelie, Ruprecht about Stanford and travel along the eleventh dimension, Mario about finally getting to use that lucky condom…. But their dreams fall victim to that inevitable onset of reality—the kind that does indeed start to hit you at 14, when you discover that you can now make decisions that have legitimate and far-reaching consequences. It’s refreshing to see this kind of serious treatment of a period in life that is too often viewed overly sentimentally.
Murray delves into this loss of innocence most deeply, of course, with the death of his protagonist, about which he manages to have its cake and eat it, too. In revealing the death of Skippy in the opening pages (and, I suppose, the title as well), Murray prevents Skippy’s passing from feeling especially melodramatic or emotionally crippling; I don’t think I would have taken the novel as seriously from the beginning if the scene of Skippy’s death were folded neatly into the narrative where it fit chronologically. At the same time, when we reach that point in the story some hundreds of pages later, Skippy’s death still manages to resonate—in a way that, for instance, Finny’s never does in A Separate Peace.
The de-dreamification is indeed grim; it’s tough when you discover, as Ruprecht does toward the end of the novel, that so much of what you think of as possible and true is not. How do you respond to such crushing revelations? Ruprecht begins to view love as merely an organizing myth and loneliness as the foundation of the universe. Skippy, well, he dies.
Underneath it all, though, there’s a latent hope that these interconnected strings—“an infinite number of vibrating stories” according to Lori—make sense on some level, that there is in fact a Hegellian Geist or Howard’s “narrative arc” that compels the world to behave as it does. It’s a final uncertainty that brings us back to the novel’s opening question about how we explain ourselves and our world.
Like homework, we’ve still got to fill in the blanks.