Friday, July 30, 2010

Paul Murray's "Skippy Dies": Book Review

Neither Hogwarts nor "Catcher in the Rye," this captures the "de-dreamification" of being a boy of fourteen and a teacher at twenty-eight. Murray sets this in a Catholic day & boarding school in Dublin, where he lives. The novel yesterday's been placed on the Booker Prize list, so it'll surely gain attention. It's long-- 660 pages to be divided into three volumes for its official release.

These handsomely watercolored covers add to the appeal of a book that may seem pitched more at the J.K. Rowling than the J.D. Salinger set. However, as an "mature" reader, I reckon that adults will enjoy (or cringe) more at passages such as: "there are only the pale torpid days, stringing by one like another, a clouded necklace of imitation pearls, and a love binding him to a life he never actually chose. Is this all it's ever going to be? A grey tapestry of okayness? Frozen in the moment he drifted into?"

The plot expands rapidly. "Hopeland" introduces the college, the boys and masters. "Heartland" brings romance attempted or achieved to various aspirants. Parallel universes beckon others. "Ghostland" darkens the action as the enemies loom. It takes in poetry, physics and virtual reality in an ambitious manner reminding us of the possibilities of release from the mundane.

In a narrative merging the imaginary with the actual environments, it may prove an early foray into a 21st century novel that mixes the way that young people enter stories that they see as well as those they have (or have not bothered to) read. Even in a dumbed-down secondary (in more ways than one) world, that of consumer-addled suburbia in a crowded and weary Irish city landscape, Murray seasons his chronicle with insights into ideas. He reminds you of the power of what lies beyond what we can see.

This complicates this story, which begins to unfold on different levels, akin to the mind-altering nature of what a circle of Seabrook's teens find. There's some unevenness in tone; a tale this elaborate does wander. Murray's style relies now and then on too many adverbs, but Murray's excitement shows through his obsessed characters. The conniving figures peopling Seabrook College-- from teachers, students, and the game world that draws in the youths-- do demand patience to get to know them, in their adolescent banter or mature ennui. Murray can delineate both the domestic frustrations of middle age and the terrors of teen-inflicted torment.

It's gently satirical. It dares to reach further than most books do that send-up growing up. There's a humanism here and a respect for learning, for all the double-entendres and schoolroom follies. And, as the title shows, death comes, on page one. Maybe it's not Beckett's "Malone Dies," but there's the grimly wry Irish touch of mortality, here at a doughnut shop run by malaprop-mocked Chinese immigrants.

Murray seems to have come up through such cruel society as reduced to this boy's school-- on both sides of the lectern. It can be bruising and tender to compare your own coming of age to that endured by the teens at Seabrook. I liked his ear for idiom and slang, and his knack for entertaining but sharp explorations of fads, trends, peer pressures and their impact on fading tradition in his home island.

Therefore, for those looking for 1) a sprawling evocation of how Irish life's altering under affluence, 2) how teenaged boys change and don't change from how they've been, and 3) how literacy however threatened by electronics and gaming may be able to still immerse you and these characters into intricate, panoramic plots, a bit messy but all the more accessible for their approach that takes in so much of modern life-- this novel's recommended. It takes you away from the everyday into the fantastic. But it remembers you must come back down to earth, after all. (Posted to 7-30-10; Amazon 8-7)


tamerlane said...

I think it's appropriate to ask whether live will be one bland string of "gray okayness". Keep an eye peeled for the Drala to color the drab! SOMA is death.

Sounds like Murray has measured the narrow confines of his earthly cell, but doesn't realize he's always held the key....

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Reading on in this massive work, TL, you'll find the stories evolve away from this initial flounder in the domestic morass of conjugal stasis.