Paperback : 07 Apr 2011
Read an extract from: Skippy Dies
Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010, Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies is a tragicomic masterpiece about growing up and learning about life in a Dublin boarding school.
Ruprecht Van Doren is an overweight genius whose hobbies include very difficult maths and the Search of Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Daniel ‘Skippy’ Juster is his roommate. In the grand old Dublin institution that is Seabrook College for Boys, nobody pays either of them much attention. But when Skippy falls for Lori, the frisbee- playing siren from the girls’ school next door, suddenly all kinds of people take an interest – including Carl, part-time drug-dealer and official school psychopath. . .
A tragic comedy of epic sweep and dimension, Skippy Dies scours the corners of the human heart and wrings every drop of pathos, humour and hopelessness out of life, love, Robert Graves, mermaids, M-theory, and everything in between.
‘That rare thing, a comic epic. . . Murray is a brilliant comic writer, but also humane and touching, and he captures the misery and elation, joy and anxiety of teenage life’ David Nicholls, Guardian
‘A triumph. . . brimful of wit and narrative energy’ Sunday Times
Irish writer Paul Murray has received much critical attention since the publication of his first novel An Evening of Long Goodbyes which was Shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award in 2005.
‘A triumph . . . brimful of wit, narrative energy and a real poetry and vision . . .
Paul Murray proves that he can conjure up a whole psychic world, from its darkest, most
savagely funny cruelty to its wildest flights of fantasy-fuelled innocence . . . Most of
all, though, what readers will take away is the laugh-out-loud hilarity of some of the
‘Glorious, a very funny novel…Skippy Dies overflows with wonderful writing and
“My book of the year is Skippy Dies by Paul Murray: a marvel of tone and
sensibility. It's a coming of age tale, set in a grim boarding school, and a love story,
and also a murder mystery; it's a truly, deeply alive book, and the funniest I've read in
years. I believe that this book would have made James Joyce laugh out loud”
Daniel Swift, New Statesman
Do you think the word 'epic' should be used to describe Skippy Dies?
Hearing the word “epic” makes me think of things like the lliad, or Paradise Lost. Or a really long drum solo in a Led Zeppelin song. In short something that is very long and lofty and kind of hard work. Skippy Dies is long, definitely, but there are very few heroic Homer-esque deeds. And there are a lot more jokes than Paradise Lost. And I guarantee there are no drum solos.
The book's called Skippy Dies but of course it's not just about Skippy -- do you think of any of the characters as being the protagonist, or main character, or even just the character the reader might have most sympathy with? Or was there one who you felt closest to when you were writing the book?
It sort of moved around – initially I did think of Skippy as the main character, and then Ruprecht, who’s his roommate, later on. But there are so many characters, and they’re all important. Eventually I realised the book was really about the school – it was the story of Seabrook College, told through the experiences of this group of kids. And it was about friendship, which in my head became a kind of counter-force to the controlling influence of the school, which is trying to mould the boys in a very particular way. I felt quite paternalistic about all of the characters, but there’s one kid in particular, called Geoff Sproke, who I especially liked. He’s this quite goofy but very earnest and kindly-natured boy. He talks in a zombie-voice quite frequently and he has a phobia about jelly.
Do you identify more with the boys in your novel or with their teachers?
When I began the book I thought I’d better put in an adult character, in case readers felt at sea with all these 14-year-olds. So there’s a man called Howard, who’s teaching history but really is very uncertain about where he should be in his life. As the book progressed I enjoyed writing his parts more and more. That said, I think as a writer you identify with all your characters, even the antagonists that you know everyone is going to hate. Ultimately the story is told mostly from the boys’ point of view. But the effect their teachers have on them, for good and for bad, is a fundamental part of it. I’ve never taught, but I have a couple of friends who are teachers, and I have great respect for them. It’s a hard job. But a good teacher can change your life.
Do you think of Skippy Dies more as a tragedy or a comedy?
I didn’t expressly set out to write either a comedy or a tragedy – I don’t think life really works that way. I had these characters’ voices in my head and I wanted to tell their story and stay true to them. That said, I had a fair idea early on of how it was going to end, so even when I was working on a funny scene my conception of the book was as something quite dark. For readers who don’t know where it’s going to go I suppose it might seem an out-and-out comedy, for a while at least. I don’t think that there’s a whole lot of humorous literature out there, so when people read something funny they can be surprised when it goes another direction. But the mixture of comedy and darker material would reflect my experience of life more honestly than something totally comedic or unremittingly bleak. When things are at their worst, we make jokes to help us through; conversely, at times when we’re supposed to be without a care in the world, we can find ourselves feeling very anxious and lonely. That’s the way we’re made and in the novel I wanted to represent that.
Some of the teenagers in the book undergo some quite traumatic times -- eating disorders, drug abuse and so on -- do you think that the events that the book describes are quite universal and representative of ordinary teenagers' lives, or do you think of what happens in the book as being related to the very specific circumstances and environment these teenagers live in?
In Ireland, where the book is set, we had this huge economic boom for about a decade. Suddenly there was money everywhere, and a whole generation of kids grew up who were used to having their every whim indulged, who had never known a time when just putting food on the table was a real struggle. You might expect these kids to have been super-happy and confident, but in fact there was a significant rise in things like self-harming and eating disorders. It’s always been hard being a teenager, because it’s a time of life when you’d rather be anywhere than in your own skin, but lately all kinds of sinister forces have gathered to try and squeeze as much money as they can out of teenagers’ sense of placelessness and that hasn’t helped. Neither has the materialistic, status-obsessed lifestyles pursued by the older generation. The kids in this book are from a fairly wealthy background and some of the problems they have would be associated with that background. Teenagers from poorer backgrounds would have different problems. But I think the causes of those problems ultimately are the same.
Teenagers are interesting to write about because everything with them is very much on the surface. They live on a somewhat operatic scale, because they are very emotional, and because they haven’t yet learned how to cover up those emotions like adults do. For that reason they can appear different to us and their behaviour sometimes seems extreme. But it’s important to remember that, whatever they do, they’re taking all their cues from the older generations. They’re entering a world that we created and if it’s making them depressed and hate their bodies and get eating disorders that seems to me to say something very disturbing about what kind of a world that is.
Were there any parts that you found difficult to write?
I find writing pretty difficult at the best of times, but some things made this book especially tricky. The fact that there were so many characters, the fact that a lot of things have to be held back from the reader for long portions of the book, the fact that Skippy himself is quite withdrawn and reclusive, which made his story harder to tell. Some of the book’s pretty dark – there’s one boy called Carl who’s really quite disturbed, and his sections can get quite violent and strange. Friends of mine who’ve read the book say to me that the Carl-sections must have been the hardest parts to write. But I really enjoyed those parts, whatever that says about me.
Is it, to your mind, very much an Irish novel?
To be honest, I’m not sure what an “Irish novel” is. Ireland’s very big, but Dublin is still pretty different from, for instance, the wilds of Donegal. And South Dublin is quite different from North Dublin. And Seabrook, which is the fictional suburb where the school is located, would be different from other, less wealthy parts of South Dublin. So I don’t know how much it tells you to say this is an Irish novel. I had a bunch of characters and I wanted to tell their story as faithfully as I could; I didn’t want to make any grand statements about the state of the nation or anything like that. I don’t think anyone would want to read six hundred pages of my opinions about the state of the nation, not even me. And I don’t think you need to know or care about Ireland to read Skippy Dies. I remember my editor saying to me a long time ago, when I told her I was starting this book that might well end up being quite weird and long, that the beauty of a novel set in a school was that everyone’s been to school, so whatever their background is, readers will be able to connect with it to some degree. And I hope they do.
Is Seabrook anything like the school you went to?
Well, I suppose inevitably I drew on my memories and associations to some extent, in terms of the basic layout of Seabrook, for instance. My old school is what the word “school” means to me, after all. But I think things have changed enormously since I left, even leaving out enormous macro-events, 9/11, the war in Iraq and so on. The Internet, for instance. Bebo is huge in Irish schools. Alcopops. Cocaine. Mobile phones. Big Brother. All of those things have had a sizeable effect on the way kids interact and view themselves. From the outside looking in, it does seem more confusing to be a teenager now than it ever was before.
Who are your influences?
That’s a hard question. “Influences” I kind of think of as belonging to an earlier part of my life – the writers who made me want to write, who opened my eyes to the possibilities of writing. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon was probably the most important book to me in that regard. When I read it in college it was like a bomb going off in my head. The writing was just astonishing, and brought in all kinds of things – rock music, cartoons, a giant octopus – things that I related to but had never thought could belong in “literature”. He just tears up the rule book. Other influences – Beckett – ‘Waiting for Godot’ captures the mixture of comedy and tragedy with absolute perfection. It’s astonishing. The late David Foster Wallace was colossally important to me, of course. David Lynch – Twin Peaks started when I was fifteen or sixteen and just blew me away. Nick Cave similarly. I suppose I was always attracted to these maverick figures who pursued their own visions and refused to compromise.
That said, influences are exterior things that you hide behind because you’re not quite fully-formed. Eventually you have to ask yourself what it is that you have to say, what it is that you can bring to the table. I’m still inspired by anyone who tries to do something true in his or her own way. As you get older you realise how much courage and tenacity it takes to stick to your guns in this particular field, and that’s how writers would influence me these days. But obviously I want to be careful not to rip anybody else off, so actual aesthetic influences would probably come from outside the world of books though. I listen to a lot of music, and I’d hear particular acts or songs and think, this is the kind of mood or tone or state I’d like to evoke. All art aspires to the condition of music, as the man said. So in a strange dreamy way I can’t really explain that would inform how I’d imagine the world of the book, though I don’t know how much it affected the actual plot or the technical business of writing.
Can you tell us what you're working on now?
I’m going to be smart and not say anything about it, other than that I hope it doesn’t take me seven years.
Size : 129 x 198mm
Pages : 672
Published : 07 Apr 2011
Publisher : Penguin
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