Michael Sopp, review of Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, on The Litterateur (8 Feb. 2010).

[ Source: The Litterateur [home; this review; accessed 08.10.2010 ].

It seems that if you open any novel written by a man in the last decade there’s a good chance its protagonist will be a prepubescent genius. It’s difficult to trace the origins of this phenomenon. In England at least it may have something to do with Mark Haddon’s best-selling The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and its autistic, prime-number-obsessed narrator, which seems to have spawned a literary virus that has since spread across the Atlantic and beyond. Oskar, the nine year old narrator of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a vegan, tambourine-playing inventor cum private detective; the nine year old Saul in Adam Foulds’ The Truth About These Strange Times can (among other feats) reel off pi to a bespoke number of decimal places; and the twelve year old T. S. Spivet, whose Collected Works formed the subject of Reif Larsen’s debut novel last year, is a world expert cartographer.

A preteen protagonist with anything less than an Ivy League PhD must be considered a chronic underachiever in this context. Indeed, the child genius character has become as ubiquitous a postmodern device as mad fonts or rambling footnotes. It was therefore with early anxiety that I learnt on page one of Paul Murray’s second and most recent novel Skippy Dies that its teenage protagonist, Ruprecht Van Doren, is ‘an overweight genius’ with a penchant for Yahtzee and ten-dimensional superstring theory. Unfortunately, early fear quickly turns to palpable disappointment as Murray’s novel, which 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.

Disappointingly, our physicist hero is just one of many cardboard cut-out characters that populate Seabrook College, the exclusive Dublin boarding school that is the setting for the novel. The staffroom consists of a collection of pedagogical stereotypes that, were it not for their being at least nominally Irish, might have been dragged directly off the set of Dangerous Minds . Thus in addition to the prematurely cynical history teacher Howard, there is the harmless old blunderer Jim Slattery, the attractive, enigmatic Miss McIntyre, and the erstwhile teenage rugby star Tom Roche who, having been cut off by injury in his prime, now runs Seabrook’s games department and, bitterly single, is married only to the school. Of course one cannot set a novel in a Catholic Irish boarding school without, at the very least, intimations of either physical or psychological abuse. In Skippy Dies the staple coupling of Catholic catechism and deviancy is found in the figure of Father Green. He teaches French (making him a literal Père Vert), and has a habit of publicly interrogating Skippy and his peers with regard to their sexual proclivities.

One scene in the first book (the novel is divided into three parts - entitled Hopeland, Heartland and Ghostland) in which Skippy is induced to vomit over his classmate under Father Green’s interrogation is one of the book’s rare highlights, successfully combining farce with horror. However, this is not a Lord Dismiss Us sort of institution; Seabrook is very much a twenty-first century boys’ school, i.e. a neurotically heterosexual one. Nor is this Joyce’s Clongowes Wood, and aside from the dubious Father Green, the Paraclete Fathers at the school take a back seat, and the Catholic element in the novel remains largely incidental.

It is possible to faintly make out a central narrative to Skippy Dies, one which surrounds Skippy and Ruprecht, improbable roommates who are brought together by their search for love and extra-terrestrial life respectively. Both prefer to engage with life from a distance: whilst the physics Wunderkind Ruprecht uses the telescope in his room to monitor UFO activity and inform his painstaking work with the global SETI project, Skippy is employed in more terrestrial pursuits, directing the lens over towards the neighbouring St Brigid’s School, and getting various close ups of the girls in its courtyard. One of these girls, Lori, becomes the object of his affection, and much of the novel is concerned with their burgeoning, prescription-drug-fuelled love affair, a relationship which is complicated in no small part by Carl, the maniac sometime boyfriend of Lori, who spends his evenings terrorising restaurateurs with his Vietnam-War-obsessed droog, Barry.

The gravamen of the problem with Skippy Dies is thus the fact that, despite its considerable length, there are too many characters and too many stories. After an eventful prologue, in which the titular death mysteriously takes place following an eating competition at the local Doughnut emporium, the novel divaricates all over the place. In the first book alone, Howard’s infatuation for the staffroom femme fatale Miss McIntyre, Carl and Barry’s knock-off pharmaceutical dealings, Ruprecht’s experiments with his Velocity Accelerator in the school’s basement, and a calamitous Hallowe’en party make up multiple narrative branches that are, at best, half-heartedly pleached together. Nor is the novel grounded in any sense of place, and readers who know Dublin will scour their copies for evidence of the city in vain.

The social milieu is very much south of the Liffey, but you could change a couple of place names and transpose the novel to Reading without too much difficulty. With the exception of the occasional pejorative ‘spa’ or phatic ‘alright so’, the language of Dublin is equally absent. The nuances of boys’ school vernacular also seem to elude Murray’s reach - “Von Blowjob, find a dictionary and look up ‘interesting’” is, I think, more of an imagined playground insult than something a fifteen year old would actually say - though the perma-use of the word ‘gay’ is spot on, and made this reader, at least, breathe a nostalgic sigh for his schoolboy years.

Readers who enjoyed Murray’s debut An Evening of Long Goodbyes will be disappointed by this follow-up effort. Whereas Murray’s first novel, a much funnier book, is held tightly together by its epicurean protagonist Charles Hythloday, who at his best combines Ignatius Reilly’s manic indolence with the caroming debauchery of a Sebastian Dangerfield, the narrative of Skippy Dies is too diffuse, and its central pairing of Ruprecht and Skippy cannot hold. Beyond these structural flaws however, there is just too much bad writing in this book. Naturally, there are all the writerly devices that some readers will love and others will find distracting, such as heavily worked zeugmas - ‘It is tomorrow. Skippy’s bare-legged at the edge of the pool, chlorine and earliness stinging his eyes’ - and similes, as well as Murray’s constant shifting back and forward, via Skippy, between the second and third person. But worse than these are the dud passages of clichéd interior monologue.

This is Howard: ‘when the initial sting has abated, he admits to himself that Farley might have a point. Yes, Miss McIntyre is beautiful; yes, what happened in the Geography Room was exhilarating. But did it actually mean anything?’ Or the snowballing tropes that run on for lines and lines without showing any sign of relenting. ‘Frozen in a moment he drifted into’, Howard thus begins the novel phlegmatically stringing together the ‘clouded necklace of imitation pearls’ that make up the ‘pale torpid days’ of the ‘grey tapestry of okayness’ of his existence. Phew. A few paragraphs of this are enough to leave the reader’s head spinning from some sort of metaphor motion sickness; unfortunately, the novel goes on for over six hundred pages.

Ultimately, Skippy Dies is overwritten, overlong, and under thought-out. If you haven’t already, read An Evening of Long Goodbyes instead.

[Reparagraphed for screen.]

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