'Skippy Dies': This Isn't Hogwarts
Paul Murray's novel about tragedy, heartbreak, and quantum physics at an Irish private school is as snortingly funny as it is painfully poignant.
The death of the title of Paul Murray's Skippy Dies is long foretold in an opening scene where the specific cultural frisson of a rapidly changing Dublin of the early-'90s meets the eternal and universal. Fourteen-year-old friends Skippy and Ruprecht are having a doughnut-eating contests in Ed's Doughnut House, a fluorescent-lit emporium of glazed sugar and fat from the States, being as they are outcasts of the outcasts, and so with no reason not to kill themselves with junk food.
As a kind of cosmically unfunny joke, Skippy then begins to gasp for air and turn purple. Ruprecht, whose legacy is that of the rotund and socially awkward genius (a kind of heavyset Stephen Hawking for the pimple-plagued crowd) can do little but stand by the rapidly and mysteriously expiring Skippy and try to assure his friend that all will be fine once the ambulance arrives. That proves not to be the case:
Above the lot, the great pink hoop of the Ed's Doughnut House sign broadcasts its frigid synthetic light into the night, a neon zero that outshines the moon and all the constellations of infinite space beyond it. Ruprecht is not looking in that direction. The universe at this moment appears to him as something horrific, thin and threadbare and empty; it seems to know this, and in shame to turn away.
Though this is the moment that will haunt Ruprecht, Murray doesn't circle back to it for quite some time. First, he has roughly two short novels' worth of story to get through (the book is sold both in a single edition and a boxed three-volume set) and a raft of other characters and conundrums to introduce. First and nearly the most pathetic (which is saying a lot for this novel's underachieving lot) is Howard, a young teacher at Dublin's Seabrook College for Boys who seems about as interested in his own life and career as his hormone-crazed students are in the history lessons he flings desperately at their distracted selves.
Howard, whose schizophrenic and spiritual exhaustion afflicts everything from his job to his girlfriend, is the perfect creature for an identity-crisis institution like Seabrook. It being the '90s and the height of Ireland's "Celtic Tiger" phase, the whole country seems to be stampeding toward the riches and luxuries of the modern age so long denied to their benighted and cloistered people.
Caught up in the swell is Seabrook, one of those bedrock institutions of heavily disciplined and extremely expensive Catholic education whose ranks of priests are thinned by age and controversy and whose leadership is trying to plot a new course into the modern age. The exemplar of this transformation is the principal, known by all as "the Automator", and whose efficiency- and modernity-crazed mentality seems poised to sweep away all history and tradition before it – not to mention will-I-or-won't-I fencesitters like Howard (nicknamed "the Coward" for childhood reasons that Murray only hints at for the most of the novel).
Howard's feckless and ruthlessly satirized indecision hits a rather sad peak at the introduction of a stunning substitute teacher whose every move and word is equally treasured over by Howard and the otherwise rowdy and oblivious students who, in her presence, become obedient and interested model schoolboys. Set against this spectacle of an arrested life (one of Howard's more caustic but understanding friends tells him, "you're the only person I know who went directly from losing his virginity to a mid-life crisis") is the tumult of Seabrook's churning brew of gangly, spotty-faced boys, whose charged give and play provides the spine of the sprawling story.
Inside the aged school grounds – which Murray teasingly builds into a mock-Hogwarts universe, full of history-clogged buildings and hidebound traditions and rumors of ghosts – skulk that band of social rejects to which Ruprecht and Skippy belong. When not trying to ignore Ruprecht's soliloquies on the fascinating possibilities contained in modern physics, the group finds themselves getting strung along on his mad-scientist quests, like the one in which he believes he can build a teleportation device based on a theory of a ten-dimensional universe. Meanwhile, Skippy (who seems at times a younger, more fragile and thoughtful version of Howard) is nurturing a Shakespearean infatuation with a girl at the neighboring girls-only boarding school.
Outside school grounds, that same girl, Lorelei, is out fishing for trouble and diet pills. Her ready supplier is Carl, one of the ghostlier inhabitants of Seabrook, whose burgeoning criminal portfolio seems a direct outgrowth of the sputtering short-circuits that comprise his limited mental faculties. His shortcomings don't make him any less attractive to Lorelei, whose silver-spoon, Real Housewives of Dublin upbringing masks a deeply self-destructive streak that threatens to bring down everybody in the immediate vicinity once the teenage love triangle is formed.
Despite all the gothic trappings and explorations of deeply rigorous mathematic theory (albeit delivered by a potentially unreliable source), Murray's novel is ultimately more dark comedy than anything else. His voice is as vividly cinematic as it is unpretentiously literary, calling to mind Election and Heathers as much as it tweaks the universe of J.K. Rowling and the whole subgenre of British boarding-school dramas (little wonder, then, that it was reported Neil Jordan would write and direct a film adaptation not long after Murray's novel was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize).
A novel that first wallops you across the face before settling in your mind like an unshakable dream, Skippy Dies takes an astringently comic take on the sadness of youth and the disappointment of adulthood while not forgetting that there is something of the magical in the universe, even when seen at its most cold and atheistic. It has some other things to say as well, about the meretricious nature of the modern age and the comic possibilities that occur when white Irish teenagers become infatuated with hip-hop, not to mention the powerplays that unfold in the tightly-scrutinized universe of a school. To say what the novel is about is somewhat limiting, though. Murray's writing is such that it can't quite be bounded by description, it must simply be read.