Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

May 24, 2011

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.”


Unofficial ToB 2011 Contest: Prize Selection Update

April 5, 2011

The winner of the contest, Mike, has made his prize selections. He chose Freedom by Jonathan Franzen and Great House by Nicole Krauss. The first was, obviously, the runner-up in the ToB 2011. Krauss’s work was a favorite of mine in 2010 and a book I wish had been included in the Tournament. At any rate, Mike will get to enjoy them both. He chose the ebook format for his Kindle.

Thanks again to everyone who played along.


Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

April 5, 2011

For the best review of this book I have read, please check out Kevin from Canada’s laudatory and knowledgeable treatment.

I know almost nothing about horse racing. I have only ever seen horses race on television (or webstream just last night to confirm that Charles Town still has horse racing). The world Gordon shapes into a beautiful novel is entirely foreign to me. That has the disadvantage of my having to learn some racing terms and the ways horsemen and women make a buck at the track. For instance, while I had heard of claiming races before, I had no understanding of how the system worked. Gordon (with the help of KfC’s review) brought me up-to-speed unobtrusively. It still took me to the end of the first race to feel like I had a good grasp of the goings on. The characters were interesting enough and the human strivings sufficiently compelling that I had already been drawn into the story, even if the world behind the track was uncomfortably foreign.

Gordon uses a rotating perspective to give the reader a method of learning everything required to understand the characters’ machinations without long paragraphs of exposition. All the major characters voice the novel from time to time. The most interesting choice was Gordon’s decision to use second person voice for Tommy Hansel, a young upstart who rolls into town trying to get over on the locals. Tommy has a passioante relationship with Maggie Koderer, a wild haired girl who is new to racing.

[Maggie] lies asleep in the straw in some tiny striped shirt that won’t pull down all the way over her belly button, and her jeans are taut and shiny over the keelbones of her hips. She is so small in the middle that you can pull the jeans down to her knees by opening just the one button with a soft pinch of two fingers, and look out now if she doesn’t let you do it, without even opening her eyes to ask who it is, the slut, golden straw sticking in her dense fuzzy hair, thorning the kinky pigtails. And that coassack face of hers, slashed by just the one blade of dusty light that comes through the crack in the barn door. She is so light even in that most rounded and muscular part of her, where the strong sinews twist together in a basin, that you never see her push up to let you, rather she arcs and floats a little over the sweet straw to meet your hand, like a magic lamp with its wick floating in oil….

The choice of giving the second person voice to Tommy is not accidental even if the basis is not apparent near the beginning. Tommy is a dangerous character. Maggie has an odd attraction to him. There is the physical attraction as the above quote signals, that sexual energy comes partly from Tommy’s good looks (e.g. “a beautiful, feline walk, spare, athletic, no cowboy loose-jointedness about it”) and partly from his menacing nature:

[T]here was something odd about his hands. They curled backwards behind his writsts, hiding themselves, as if they knew they were not to be trusted. She knew, herself, that they did not always mean her well. They knew how to do many things, or rather, they knew how to do one thing, how to tame animals, but this they did from a whole forest of angles, and always on sufferance, for under their gentleness was threat.

To balance the naïve enthusiasm of the new kids, Gordon provides the seasoned Deucy and Medicine Ed. The two of them have been around for decades and have seen the likes of Tommy and Maggie hundreds of times. Medicine Ed, an elderly black trainer, is an engaging character and the chapters in which the third person narration includes his thoughts are some of the best. More than any of the other characters, Medicine Ed sees the horses as beings worthy of respect and, sometimes, awe. While he received his nickname for his dabbling in shady performance enhancement substances, he treats the horses with the dignity due fellow sentients.

When Medicine Ed finally had Little Spinoza alone, he tell it into him: Get ready, son. The women gone to take your manhood, he broke the news, not like it was the ned of the world, and next come disease, hospital cases, and death, but like it was the thing the horse ought to know. The first cold had come and they were walking round and round the shedrow in a silver fog that beaded up the cobwebs and the horses’ eyelashes.

Wasn’t no idea of mine. I saw wait a short while, see how he do. Nothing ain’t gone change that horse much at his age. I say he a little bit of a crybaby, that’s all, but easy to settle once he riled. You be surprised, I tell em….They start to laughing. Pretty soon they cackling like witches. Got me outnumbered, what it is.

Medicine Ed checked himself. This was a stab-back and two-face thing to say about the women. They don’t mean no harm, he added. He didn’t want to be a wrong influence on the horse. What good it do if the horse love him and hate them others?

Gordon description of the horses and their personalities grants them a dignity and respect too. They are characters as rich and vital to the novel as any of the humans. The book is romantic about horses (and the lower-echelon trainers, grooms, and jockeys) without romanticizing them. That’s not an easy feat to pull off. Gordon does it beautifull, making this one of the most enjoyable reads of the Tournament of Books.

That is not to say the book is perfect. Some of the plot developments are too predictable, some owe too much of a debt to gangster movies and stereotypes, but the book holds together. I believe KfC when he says that the characters are believably eccentric. Niche worlds seem to attract an outsized portion of the Two-Ties and Joe Dale Biggs of the world. Gordon has tapped into the seedy underbelly of racing in a way I have not seen before and with technique that charms. I will be keeping a lookout for some of her other work, even if her stories do not always have horses in them.


Unofficial ToB 2011 Contest: Winner and Final Leaderboard

April 4, 2011

Current Leaderboard:

1. (35/40) Mike
2. (33/40) Jed
3. (27/40) David, Jeremy
5. (26/40) Darren
6. (25/40) Amy, Susan, The Reading Ape
9. (24/40) David, Kinna Reads
11.(23/40) Jennifer
12.(22/40) Andre, Andrew, Jim

(The above represents everyone who managed to snag 20 or more points out of a possible 40.)

Congratulations to Mike! Leaving only five points on the table is impressive. Great job. A propo of nothing, are there any stocks out there you like?

The Tournament has crowned another worthy winner this year. Despite the ups and weirdly frosted cakes, this has been an excellent tournament. The judges all seemed to take the Tournament with appropriately lighthearted seriousness. It was a blast for me and I hope you all had a great time following the Tournament too. Congratulations, again, to Mike. To everyone else, there is always next year…..well, yes Goon Squad, until there isn’t.

Thank you to everyone who played along!


Unofficial ToB 2011 Contest: Finals Preview and Update

March 31, 2011

Current Leaderboard:

1. (27/32) Mike
2. (25/32) Jed
3. (22/32) Jim
4. (19/32) Christy, David, Jeremy, Kathryn
8. (18/32) Darren, Greg
10. (17/32) Amy, Gary, Susan, The Reading Ape

There will be only one more jostling of order, so only one more chance to make the top 10. Of course, One is the only important number. With only eight points left to earn, nineteen is the threshold for having a chance at the current leading score of 27. That bar will likely rise, however. Good luck to anyone still with a chance. Thank you to everyone else!

My preferred winner of Finals: A Visit From the Goon Squad

Radhika Jones turned in one of the best opinions of the Tournament both in advancing Goon Squad and in explaining why it is an excellent book. While Freedom has one vote in the bag, Jones sounds pretty convinced of Egan’s awesomeness and should go for Goon Squad. Contest entrants were overwhelmingly pro-Goon Squad with their pre-Tournament predictions: 37% picked Egan for the Rooster. Freedom is no surprise, 29% correctly foresaw it lasting to the Championship Match, however, only about half of those (13% of the total) yelled Freedom with their Finals breath.

I want Goon Squad to win. Most of you want Goon Squad to win. Most judges will want Goon Squad to win.


Unofficial ToB 2011 Contest: Zombie Round Update

March 30, 2011

Current Leaderboard:

1. (23/28) Mike
2. (22/28) Jim
3. (21/28) Jed
4. (19/28) Christy, Kathryn
5. (18/28) Greg
6. (16/28) Elizabeth
7. (tie) (15/28) David, Jeremy, Laura
10. (tie) (14/28) Darren, Felicity, Lillian

If you are not on this list, the brass ring has slipped your fingers.

My preferred winner of Zombie Match One (The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake v. A Visit From the Goon Squad): A Visit From the Goon Squad

Lemon Cake has been stumbling through the Tournament like a lame zebra across the Serengeti. While A Visit From the Goon Squad lost its first fight against Freedom for pride and dominance, it is still a lion. This is the round of the Zombies. Let them eat cake!


Unofficial ToB 2011 Contest: Pre-Zombie Round Leaderboard Update

March 29, 2011

Current Leaderboard:

1. (19/24) Mike
2. (18/24) Jim
3. (17/24) Jed
4. (tie) (15/24) Christy, David, Jeremy, and Kathryn
7. (tie) (14/24) Darren, Greg
10. (tie) (13/24) Amy, Meagan, Susan, and The Reading Ape

My preferred winner of Zombie Match One (Freedom v. Room): Freedom [Edit: I meant Freedom, but typed Room. Hmmm.]

I do not have great reasons for this as Room is laying on the table waiting for me to finish Skippy Dies. However, based on others’ opinions, I do not expect great things from Room. Freedom sounds more ambitious and more accomplished. It definitely has its faults, but I expect and prefer a Goon vs. Freedom rematch.


Unofficial ToB 2011 Contest: Semifinal Match 1 Leaderboard Update

March 28, 2011

Current Leaderboard:

1. (14/18) Jim
2. (tie) (13/18) Christy, Jed, and Mike
5. (tie) (11/18) David, Jeremy, Kathryn, Kevin from Canada, Meagan, and Susan
11. (tie) (10/18) Darren, Elizabeth, Gavin, Greg, Kinna Reads, and Lillian

My preferred winner of Semifinals Match Two: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Contest Entrants’ Choices:

This is kind of a Butler vs. VCU type matchup. Only one person correctly predicted that Next and Lemon Cake would make it to the Pre-Zombie Round Final Four. (Congrats, Susan. She predicts Next will advance.) So there can be no aggregation of pre-tournament predictions regarding this matchup. Anyway, this crowd has about as much wisdom, judging purely on results, as the coin in my pocket. Of course, that’s still more wisdom than I have…

I find myself in the surprising position of hoping that Lemon Cake wins this, mainly because I was less offended by it than by Next. Of course, to be as offended as I am by Next could suggest it accomplished something. But my position is that its lack of accomplishment is precisely what offends me. It tricked me into thinking it might have something interesting to say and then only pretends to have said something. Or I could just be misunderstanding the whole thing.

Go Lemon Cake! With or without chocolate frosting, whichever Zombies prefer to eat.


Unofficial ToB 2011 Contest: End of Round 2 Leaderboard Update

March 24, 2011

Current Leaderboard:

1. (12/16) Jim
2. (11/16) Christy, Jed, Mike, Susan,
3. (9/16) Amy, David, Jeremy, Kathryn, Kevin from Canada, Lawrence, Matt, Meagan, and The Reading Ape.

Kevin from Canada, Mike, Tim, and Susan are the only four to correctly pick The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and three of the four are rewarded with a spot on the leaderboard. Tim is just back at seven. Congratulations to the leaders. There are still over half the available contest points left to go (a perfect score would be 40/40), so leaders can become losers and vice versa.

My predicted winner of Semifinals Match One: A Visit From the Goon Squad

Contest Entrants’ Choices: 63% Freedom vs. 71% A Visit From the Goon Squad (these numbers add to well over 100% because many chose both to make it to the Zombie Round and I learned from Florida how difficult it can be to try to determine voter intent)

A Visit From the Goon Squad should be declared the winner. Where Egan’s work is lean, Freedom is flabby. Where Franzen tries to be profound, Goon Squad is. Neither is perfect, but A Visit From the Goon Squad is more perfect. It should win and the percentages (which have generally shown the wisdom of this crowd to be lacking) suggest it will.


Unofficial ToB 2011 Contest: Match 3, Round 2 Leaderboard Update

March 23, 2011

Current Leaderboard:

1. (12/14) Jim
2. (11/14) Christy and Jed
3. (9/14) Amy, David, Jeremy, Kathryn, Lawrence, Matt, Meagan, Mike, Susan, and The Reading Ape.

My predicted winner of Match Three of Round Two: Model Home

Contest Entrants’ Choices: 8% The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake vs. 11% Model Home (of the four novels chosen to advance past the second round in the final bracket section, these were, as in yesterday’s match, third and fourth, respectively)

I am predicting Model Home because I enjoyed it more. Beyond the premise, I am having trouble remembering much of anything from The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Model Home has its flaws (including the “Arrested Development” homage), but it is a more successful fulfillment of its ambition than Lemon Cake.