Posted on | August 29, 2010 | 8 Comments
Paul Murray’s second book, Skippy Dies, has been long listed for the Man Booker Prize 2010, and to be honest, that’s the main reason why I picked up this book. I had added it to my to-read list when claire (@ kissacloud) mentioned it ages ago, but it just kind of sat on the list, till the Booker long list was announced earlier. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not planning on reading the entire long list. In fact, truth be told, once I read The Slap, I think I’ll be done with the Booker for this year, although there are two caveats:
- If the winner is one of the books I haven’t already read
- If I stumble upon an amazing review of one of the books on the longlist that I haven’t already read
I digress again – back to Skippy Dies:
Daniel “Skippy” Juster is nicknamed so due to his buck-teeth which makes him resemble a kangaroo. He is one of the main characters of this ambitious tragicomedy, which is set in Seabrook, an expensive Catholic school for boys in Dublin. In the prologue itself, Skippy dies during a doughnut eating race at a local hangout, with his best friend, the genius Ruprecht. Skippy collapses, and in his final moments, he squeezes raspberry syrup out of a doughnut, and writes, ‘TELL LORI’. The rest of the book goes back in time, and then forward, with the incident described above as the pivotal point.
Seabrook is run by Holy Paraclete Fathers, although Greg “Automator” Costigan, the acting principal who is a thoroughly vile character, intends to change that. Then there are the teachers, the bullies (who are en route to becoming full-fledged criminals), the perverts, the sex-obsessed students and of course, the fairer sex – girls!
In this 661-page chunkster, various stories intertwine, to create a book that goes well beyond a boarding school story. There are the obligatory school bullies in Carl and Barry, who start dealing drugs. Carl borders on being totally psychotic – his hands are scarred with cuts, he hates competition and he has his eyes set on Lori, an attractive student from the all-girls school next door. Then there’s Howard the Coward, who was a student at Seabrook. Currently, Howard is the history teacher, living with his American girlfriend, Halley, but infatuated with the new geography teacher, Aurelie McIntyre, “an investment banker not used to that kind of unbridled depravity.” There’s a slight play of words when it comes to the unlikeable French teacher, Father Green, whose name in French translated to Pere Vert, and there’s the typical friendly teacher cum coach, Tom Roche – another teacher who used to be a student at Seabrook, and was on his way to become a national sportsperson before an injury robbed him off those dreams.
Ruprecht the genius has already been mentioned – he is a genius, single-handedly responsible for raising the average grade of the class by four percent. He wants to go to Stanford, has a role model in Professor Tamashi (who doesn’t seem to exist, if I google his name?) who is a professor of m-theory (an extension of string theory that says there are eleven dimensions), and spends his time looking for extra-terrestrial life. He comes up with grand plans on how to draw the aliens into conversation or open the portal to the parallel universe(s), and dreams of winning the Nobel Prize, or studying under Prof. Tamashi.
“When you think about it, the Big Bang’s a bit like school, isn’t it? 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.”
And what about Skippy? Well, he’s on the swim team, a good student, who seems to be going wayward due to some things going awry in his personal life, the details of which we aren’t privy to until much later in the book. In a way, he’s the glue that holds a bunch of the boarders together – boarders who don’t take kindly to Ruprecht but still befriend him because of Skippy. The buck-toothed boy is in love with Lori, a girl he’s never met in real life, but seen through the lens of his genius friend’s telescope. At a school dance, he finally talks to her, and they leave the dance together.
So yes – all the typecasting has been done, all the stereotypes introduced. But, the manner in which Murray brings them all together is anything but typical. It’s not Harry Potter, but then again, it’s no Malory Towers! The characters are real twenty-first century characters, and despite the stereotypical roles that have been created for them, they do step outside the boundaries every now and again. None of the characters are perfect, although some are likeable and some loathsome. However, I did find myself rooting for Skippy throughout the book – not sure if it was a direct result of the book being entitled Skippy Dies or if he was actually a sympathetic character though, or …
This book is funny and tragic – the banter between the students, the dialogues between the friends had me smiling a fair bit, but in equal measure, I found myself shaking my head. I don’t really know if I should be asking this question, but seriously, how much time do fourteen year old boys spend thinking about sex? Or all the double entendres? I shouldn’t have asked that, should I have?
It’s really difficult to sum up this book in such few words – the book encompasses so much more. We learn more about the characters, their histories and their future. We see Howard through his obsession with World War I, and we see Lori alternating between two extremes of innocence and provocativeness; we see Skippy from being morose and obsessive to being jubilant and we see Ruprecht doing a complete metamorphosis from looking for life beyond earth to compulsively eating doughnuts. More importantly, we see how one event can change things so dramatically – almost like the butterfly effect – even if people haven’t been directly affected by the incident in question. We contemplate questions – what’s more important, punishment or honour? reputation or justice? reality or the version of history provided in our text books? the “right” thing or what people expect? And the list goes on and on…
Despite being massive, I found myself flying through this book – specially the first two chunks, Hopeland and Heartland. The penultimate section, Ghostland, was probably the most thought-provoking section though, and I found myself reading that chunk slower than the previous two – which is kind-of ironic, as I normally like flying through the last bit of the book, and taking my time with the beginning to settle in and acquaint myself with the book, the characters and the environment.
Have you read Skippy Dies? What do you think its chances are to make it to the shortlist? If it did, to be honest, I wouldn’t have any complaints, despite the fact that parts of the book are colloquial, and I did want to scream when some of the students were texting each other, and textspeak filled the page. And, have you read Murray’s debut novel, An Evening of Long Goodbyes? Recommend it?
How’s your Booker reading coming along so far? Or, do you avoid the prize-winning hype just because it’s not worth it?