Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

This is a book with much (and many) to recommend it. Lisa Hill aptly calls it a “maelstrom of ideas” and John Self at the Asylum notes “[n]ot much is left out of Skippy Dies – and there is so much energy it that it explodes out in unexpected directions.”

While it may be easier to list what the book does not have, let’s go with what it does have: Skippy dies, the students and teachers engage in hijinks of various sorts, there are crimes, death threats, adventures, romances, grand science experiments gone right and gone wrong, politics, fighting, true love, and…well, I am starting to sound a little like Peter Falk in “The Princess Bride” as he elaborates on the merits of the eponymous book whose story the movie relates. Falk as The Grandfather was right and so is Kevin from Canada. So too is The Reading Ape who makes another (more informative) movie comparison: “Skippy Dies is Dead Poets Society if Dead Poets Society were funnier, more complicated, and believable.” (See also Scent of a Woman.)

Skippy Dies is good.

For great summaries of the book and its plot, I direct you to any of the above-linked reviews. If you have not read the book, you’ll want to hit at least one of those to get a sense of what the book is about before reading my somewhat unstructured thoughts.

As a comparison of the opinions of Lisa, Kevin, and John will show reactions are quite varied, from love to slightly positive ambivalence. Kevin is an aficionado of ”school novels” and, so, really enjoys that aspect. He also finds the characters a great strength. They are. The students at Seabrook College each have distinctive personalities that both makes it easy to recognize them and allows Murray to explore the interesting interactions between them. John Self perhaps most admired Murray’s ventriloquism of anything and everything between “business speak and ad-land jargon to teenage angst and youthful brio”, but recognized the “messiness” as both a strength and a weakness. Lisa was put off by “the stuff about Ruprecht’s theories of physics” and the derivative nature of the adolscent banter and private school culture which powers the book.

I agree with them all, though not about everything.

The students (particularly) are entertainingly distinctive and, frankly, it is a blast to spend time with them. The adults are less so, though I not sure I found them quite as dull as Lisa seems to have found them. I also loved Ruprecht’s digressions into physics, where Lisa found her attention wandering “especially during the stuff about Ruprecht’s theories of physics.” This difference is likely explained by the fact that, just as Kevin loves novels set in schools, I love novels that touch on, incorporate, or, best, obsess themselves with physics. Skippy Dies comes close to the obsession end of the spectrum, though it is not really about physics or science at all. The physics in this novel is used as metaphor and can, I think, largely be tuned out as the rantings of a slightly unbalanced boy-genius. In other words, don’t be frightened by the physics. I just mention it because the physics metaphors permeate the story.

As an example of Ruprecht’s rantings, take this one where he makes an explicit metaphorical connection between physics and the story being told:

‘…When you think about it, the Big Bang’s a bit like school, isn’t it?’

‘What?’

‘Ruprecht, what the hell are you talking about?’

‘Well, I mean to say, one day we’ll all leave here and become scientists and bank clerks and diving instructors and hotel managers – the fabric of society, so to speak. But in the meantime, that fabric, that is to say, us, the future, is crowded into one tiny little point where none of the laws of society applies, viz., this school.’

Uncomprehending silence; and then, ‘I tell you one difference between this school and the Big Bang, and that is in the Big Bang there is no particle quite like Mario. But you can be sure that if there is, he is the great stud particle, and he is boning the lucky lady particles all night long.’

‘Yes,’ Ruprecht responds, a little sadly; and he will fall silent, there at his window, eating a doughnut, contemplating the stars.

This Big Bang metaphor is quite apt, actually, for the school in many ways. There are larger and smaller bangs throughout, very like the interpretation of M-theory (the M in this interpretation standing for “membranes”) where events like the Big Bang are caused by collisions between membranes (essentially separate universes) which transfer or generate massive amounts of energy that radiate throughout the “brane” (universe) before dispersing and cooling until another collision.

Murray returns again and again and again to the concept of different worlds colliding and releasing disrupting energies: the private school kids and drug dealers, the boys’ school and their sister school, the teachers and students, the cloistered life of the school and the politics of the business and finance world, parents and their kids. Then there is the metaphor of the doughnut.

The doughnut shop is a central hangout for the students, it is where Skippy dies, and, as you can see from the above quote, they are nearly omnipresent. Doughnuts are shaped like a torus which, in string theory, is a “perfect” shape. The connection is no coincidence as Murray returns to the doughnuts and the implicit connection with physics and string theory repeatedly. In fact, as I suggest above, he may return to these themes too often, wearing them out with overuse. (And there are other themes similarly beaten past death.) Still, I loved it. String theory as a metaphor for the laws of human relations is beautiful to me, enough that I could stand a little too much in this book as there is generally too little of it in other literary works.

Your eyes are probably glazing over as I delve deeper than I am certified to go in the ocean of science. There is more to the physics than I am able to relate here anyway, so I will just say, if you love such things, there are plenty of ideas to keep you occupied. If you are not into such things, you might not really notice how central they are to Murray’s task anyway because they can also be dismissed as the incoherent babbling of a slightly off-kilter Ruprecht. That’s how Ruprecht’s schoolmates generally take it.

Aside from the physics, the human interactions are done quite well. While the teachers are dull, Murray paints the intimacy of patchwork romances in eye-catching detail, such as this rumination by Howard:

Ah, right – this is how he normally acts with her. He remembers now. They seem to be going through a protracted phase in which they’re able to speak to each other only in criticisms, needles, rebukes. Big things, little things, anything can spark an argument, even when neither of them wants to argue, even when he or she is trying to say something nice, or simply to state an innocuous fact. Their relationship is like a piece of malfunctioning equipment that when switched on will only buzz fractiously, and shocks you when you’re trying to find out what’s wrong. The simplest solution seems to be not to switch it on, to look instead for a new one; he is not quite ready to contemplate that eventuality, however.

And, not to overdo it, but a later seen which also demonstrates the ad-jargon ventriloquism John Self mentions:

‘The Sony JLS9xr offers several significant improvements on the JLS700 model, as well as entirely new features, most notably Sony’s new Intelligent Eye system, which gives not only unparalleled picture resolution but real-time image augmentation – meaning that your movies can be even more vivid than they are in real life.’

‘More vivid than real life?’

‘It corrects the image while you record. Compensates for weak light, boosts the colours, gives things a sheen, you know.’

‘Wow.’ He watches her head dip slightly as she extinguishes her cigarette, then lift again. Miniaturized on the screen she does indeed seem more lustrous, coherent, resolve – a bloom to her cheeks, a glint to her hair. When he glances experimentally away from it, the real-life Halley and the rest of their home suddenly appear underdefined, washed out. He turns his eye to it again, and zooms in on her own eyes, deep blue and finely striated with white; like thin ice, he always thinks. They look sad.

There is a world, a torus-shaped world, in that last paragraph, and it is one of many that Murray shows us.

Yes, many plot points are far-fetched. Yes, the first third of the book (originally published as three volumes in a single slipcase) is much more fun than the rest. Yes, the book is too long. And, yes, the book is, overall, incredibly, soul-searingly dark. It still manages to be fun and the pages fly by and, most importantly, Murray manages at least every hundred pages to get something so precisely right it can make you gasp.

I picked this to win the Tournament of Books before I had read it. I wouldn’t pick it to win now, and not just because I know it did not win. It is not as accomplished a novel as A Visit From the Goon Squad. But it is a damn fine book. As John Self put it: “Murray is a writer to watch; but also one worth reading now.”

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7 Responses to Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

  1. I enjoyed this book thoroughly when I read it last year, soon after the Booker longlist was announced. As you say, the scope of this book is immense, it’s very perceptive and well, for a reasonably chunky book, I read it in a couple of days, as I found it extremely gripping.

    I haven’t read A Visit From The Goon Squad yet, albeit it is next on my to-read list. I’m really looking forward to it, after all the incredible things I have read about it.

  2. Sarah says:

    Each time I encounter a review of this book I make a new resolution to read it. I have yet to stumble across an unfavourable review, although not everyone has enjoyed the physics quite as much as you do, Kerry!

    • Kerry says:

      Well, to suitably lower your expectations, remember I loved Cryptonomicon and, you won’t remember but I can tell you, it was in much the same way I loved the physics-related portions of this book. On the other hand, you can sort of zone out when Ruprecht really gets going, which is what his friends do.

      • Sarah says:

        The thing about physics is that I have an inflated sense of my own capacity to process it. Which led, disastrously, to reading physics (badly) at university.

        Cryptonomicon and physics. Hm. Seem to recall that you mentioned something about that *grins sheepishly* and I was still enthusing right up to the point where I crashed and burned.

        So it’s about time to get my pretensions punctured again. Bring it on, Skippy!

      • Kerry says:

        I think you will get on with Skippy better than you did Cryptonomicon. Or, given Lisa’s lukewarm reaction, maybe not…..

  3. […] Skippy Dies – Paul Murray: Take a chance. Read a book which you would rather […]

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