review by Tessa
Faber & Faber 2010
Warning: this review contains so many quotes. Here’s the first one as an epigraph.:
“You know, you spend your childhood watching TV, assuming that at some point in the future everything you see there will one day happen to you: that you too will win a Formula One race, hop a train, foil a group of terrorists, tell someone ‘Give me the gun’, etc. Then you start secondary school, and suddenly everyone’s asking you about your career plans and your long-term goals, and by goals they don’t mean the kind you are planning to score in the FA Cup. Gradually the awful truth dawns on you: that Santa Claus was just the tip of the iceberg — that your future will not be the rollercoaster ride you’d imagined, that the world occupied by your parents, the world of washing the dishes, going to the dentists, weekend trips to the DIY superstore to buy floor tiles, is actually largely what people mean when they speak of ‘life’.” (25)
Daniel “Skippy” Juster – Sure, he dies, but there’s so much more to him.
Ruprecht “Blowjob” Van Doren – Skippy’s roommate and string theory obsessor.
Lori Wakeham (Frisbee Girl, Lollipop Lips) – trying to figure out what she wants in life and how to get it while also being the object of two boys’ fantasies.
Carl Cullen – I believe if you saw Carl he would have what is known as a flat affect – also cut up arms, a serious obsession with Lori Wakeham, and not enough EQ to know what to do with that obsession even if it were returned.
Geoff, Mario, Niall & Dennis – the main core of Skippy’s friends.
Howard “the Coward” Fallon – haunted by his past, and sort of stuck there, too – he’s teaching history at the school he attended
Farley – friend of Howard, a sometime instigator and sometime voice of reason
Aurelie McIntyre- businesswoman turned substitute geography teacher, incidentally she’s pretty good-looking, just kidding, that’s not really incidental
Greg “the Automator” Costigan – really wants to bring the modern money into the school, and really wants the school’s current Director to quietly die and let him take over.
Father Green (Pére Vert) – archetypal scary priest
The White Goddess - something different to everyone, but relevant to all.
If a Skippy dies in Ed’s Doughnut House, does he make a sound (in the sense of being remembered by his friends, family and loved ones)?
“‘This is Biology. These kids are fourteen. Biology courses through their veins. Biology and marketing. …They want to hear it from an adult. …They want to hear it confirmed officially that for all our talk, the adult world and their subterranean sex-obsessed porno-world are basically the same, and no matter what else we try to teach them about kings or molecules or trade models or whatever, civilization ultimately boils down to the same frenzied attempt to hump people. That the world, in short, is teenaged.’” (63).
I say: This in-depth look at the lead-up to and fallout from the titular event, centered around an Irish Catholic school is concerned with how the world is for teenagers, and how it looks to adults working with teenagers, and how it is the same and different for both sets of people. And the nature of time and memory and how that makes history, and if human lives are unimportant or important within that gigantic concept.
What is this book’s intention? Is it achieved?
I’m going to answer the second question first: yes.
And as for intention, it’s better rendered in questions. So, Skippy dies. Why does he die? Is there a reason? How does it make his friends feel? How is it seen by the adults who came into contact with him? How did he see it? Etc. The book serves to explore these questions and more (see previous paragraph).
I don’t really want to describe the mechanics of the plot because they will sound falsely mundane.
On the flap copy, I’m guessing much to the author’s chagrin, Skippy Dies is compared to Harry Potter AND Infinite Jest. That’s a bit much for any book, but I will say that it does have similarities to the latter. There are many characters in the book, and the book discovers their quirks as a friends discover the weird parts of each other’s personalities, which is to say it lets them emerge over time. They are described because they exist but they’re not presented to the reader on a Platter of Quirk. I felt the same way about Infinite Jest, except Infinite Jest had a much bigger scope and often was hyperreal.
What Paul Murray does so, so well, so amazingly well, with the narrative is accordion it in and out so that somehow it is simultaneously big (Irish mythology and folklore, string theory) and small (jokes about lucky condoms, usage of zombie voices) while also making loud pleasing sounds and not making the reader dizzy. And much like an accordion it has structures inside of it that make everything work and hold everything together (in my metaphor these are the big themes of the book: death, depression, history, the point of life).
Here’s a great example of the first thing. Ruprecht is talking to Skippy at the Halloween dance. He’s talking as usual about scientific theories, relating to the world through them – and Murray describes the scene in deadpan, hilarious detail. Small moments.
“‘Fascinating,’ Ruprecht muses to Skippy. ‘The whole thing seems to work on a similar principle to a supercollider. You know, two streams of opposingly charged particles accelerated till they’re just under the speed of light, and then crashed into each other? Only here alcohol, accentuated secondary sexual characteristics and primitive ‘rock and roll’ beats take the place of velocity.’
“Skippy has gone to replenish his punch. Ruprecht sighs quietly, and looks at his watch.
“Patrick ‘Da Knowledge’ Noonan and Eoin ‘MC Sexecutioner’ Flynn pimp-roll by, plastic Uzis tucked under their arms, the faint frisson of tension still detectable between them, the aftermath of a heated debate earlier today over who was going to come as Tupac, which debate Patrick won, meaning Eoin is now waddling along in a fat suit, dressed as Biggie Smalls. The squalling riff from Cream’s ‘Layla’ blasts from the speaker; in the DJ booth, Wallace Willis nods to himself: oh yes. ‘Flubber’ Cooke, who has come in his supermarket shelf-stacking uniform, explains to a sexy nun that while it’s part of his costume, the trolley is actually company property, so although he’d like to let her ride in it, he can’t.” (171-172).
Meanwhile, he opens many sections with spot-on descriptions of what it’s like to exist in Autumn. The descent. The universal Autumnal experience (I realize this is not universal to people who live nearer to the equator, sorry). Big things.
“Autumn deepens. A fresh chaos of yellow leaves covers the lane up to the school each morning, as if it’s been visited overnight by woodland poltergeists; after school, you make the return journey through a strange, season-specific gloaming, a pale darkness, spooked and paradoxical, which makes your classmates up ahead seem to fade in and out of existence. The hobgoblin shadow of Hallowe-en, meanwhile, is everywhere. The shopping malls bristle with pumpkins and skeletons; houses lie swathed in cotton-wool cobwebs; the sky cracks and fizzes with firework-tests of increasing rigour. Even teachers fall under the spell. Classes take odd detours, routines slowly vaporize, until by the late stages of the week, the rigid precepts of everyday termtime seem no more real, or even slightly less real, than the fluorescent ghosts glowing from the windows of Ed’s Doughnuts next door…” (157)
And sometimes big and small are in the same passage, as here, when the friends are giving Skippy advice on what to put in his text message to Lori:
“‘How about, instead of “if you want to meet up again”, you say “if you want me to sex you hard”,’ Mario says.
“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.
“‘What have you got so far?’ Geoff asks.
“Skippy presses a button. ‘“Hi,”’ he says.
“‘It’s the only thing everyone agrees on.’
“Geoff frowns. ‘Actually, I’m not all that crazy about “Hi”.’” (264).
In an equally structured but subtle way, themes of the book recur as thoughts from different characters, framed in different ways, so as to fully exploit their themeyness. Theme-itude. One of the big themes is history and memory, because how are we humans to achieve immortality if not by being remembered, however inevitably inaccurate memory is.
Which is what Howard Fallon is trying to get at when he takes his history class on an unsanctioned field trip to a neglected monument for the Irish fallen of WWI:
“‘We tend to think of it as something solid and unchanging, appearing out of nowhere etched in stone like the Ten Commandments. But 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.’” (556)
And what the Automator is also getting at, from a different perspective, when he chews Fallon out for doing this:
“‘Maybe you’re right,’ the Automator continues, ‘maybe the [school]book does leave a chunk of stuff out. And maybe in the future someone will dig it up, and make a TV documentary, and there’ll be exhibitions and pull-out newspaper supplements and people all over the country will be talking about it. But when they’re finished talking, Howard, then they’ll go back to their kitchens or their golfing holidays or whatever they were doing before. The “truth” as you put it, won’t change a goddamn thing.” (564)
And what the developer is trying to get out of agreeing to when he has to explain on TV why he still wants to put up condos over an ancient archaeological finding near Fallon’s house:
“‘So you’re saying it should be bulldozed,’ the reporter says.
“‘I’m saying we need to ask ourselves where our priorities lie. Because what we are trying to build here isn’t just a Science Park. It’s the economic future of our country. It’s jobs and security for our children and our children’s children. Do we really want to put a ruin from three thousand years ago ahead of your children’s future?’
“‘And what about those who say that this “ruin” gives us a unique insight into the origins of our culture?’
“‘Well, let me turn that question around. If the position was reversed, do you think the people of three thousand years ago would have stopped building their fortress so they could preserve the ruin of our Science Park? Of course not. They wanted to move forward. The whole reason we have the civilization we have today — the only reason you and I are standing here — is that people kept moving forward instead of looking backward. Everybody in the past wanted to be a part of the future.” (574)
And the value of memory in history is what Fallon is trying to call upon as he inexpertly lends the depressed Ruprecht an ear and some advice:
“‘The book [a history of his dead son’s regiment in WWI] took [Kipling] five and a half years to complete. He found it extremely difficult. But afterwards he said it was his greatest work. He’d had a chance to commemorate the bravery of these men, and to keep the memory of his son alive. A man called Brodsky once said, “If there is any substitute for love, it is memory.” Kipling couldn’t bring John back. But he could remember him. And in that way his son lived on.’
“This parable doesn’t produce quite the effect he intended; in fact, he is not sure that Ruprecht, tracing Sprite-spirals on the table with a straw, is even listening. The youth behind the counter looks at his watch and begins to dismantle the coffee machine; an electric fan whirrs, like the smooth sound of time passing inexorably from underneath them. And the, not looking up, Ruprecht mumbles, ‘What if you can’t remember?’” (582)
All in only 20ish pages, tying together plot threads and characters with the poignant string of a well-wrought theme. Don’t read my stupid metaphors. Read this book.
If the awkwardness and reality of Freaks and Geeks met the bravado and partying of Skins (UK).
If the boarding school scenes in Infinite Jest met the faculty life of Lucky Jim
Then you’d have Skippy Dies.
Oh and in case you’re interested in other books set in the closed school environment aka boarding school, we have 2 lists for you:
Links of interest:
Neil Jordan is going to direct the movie adaptation?? I’m interested.
An interview with the author at Bookslut.