Saturday 24 February 2018

Review: Skippy dies by Paul Murray

Overlooked and ignored by all, Daniel 'Skippy' Juster is someone who doesn't even have a starring role in his own life. His family life is non-existent, his teachers can't remember his name and his few friends are anything but a collection of life's winners.

However, when we first meet him in the prologue to Paul Murray's second novel, Skippy has just been catapulted into the spotlight. He could never have imagined that when he challenged his roommate, the scientific genius Ruprecht Van Doren, to a doughnut-eating race that it would result in only one survivor.

Backtracking, we are then properly introduced to Skippy and his cohorts, classmates, enemies and teachers at the Seabrook College for Boys, an elite south county Dublin secondary school that takes a small number of boarders.

And despite impressively scant reference to its Dublin location, this is most certainly a tale of a certain section of the teenagers of our time and place. The very Americanisation of their culture seems to place them floating somewhere mid-Atlantic, complete with all the essential gadgets, accessories and vocal twangs.

But out of such homogenisation, Murray has forged an ensemble cast of gloriously individual and eccentric characters and none more so than Ruprecht.

Thanks to him and his attempts to connect with extra-terrestrial life, I had my own scientific education greatly expanded, as he explained in depth the string theory, quantum mechanics vs Einstein, the 11 dimensions of the many universes, and even the foundations of the M theory. But it is Skippy who holds the reader's heart, Skippy who touches the deepest emotional chord.

As hormones rage, drugs dissolve, families fray and romance bubbles throughout the school corridors, Ruprecht continues with his experiments, but he is oblivious to the irony that the closer he gets to linking to another faraway universe, the closer their own one is to detonating.

As Murray also clearly demonstrated with his debut novel, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, his writing has earned a place in the contemporary international cannon. Murray's characters are so three-dimensionally drawn and brought to such vivid life that they may haunt your dreams.

However, every page is crammed with such a surfeit of images and ideas that it can be quite exhausting at times. And it is interesting that Murray decided to divide this into three distinct sections -- Hopeland, Heartland and Ghostland -- and the book can actually be purchased as one single book or as three short books sold as a set.

Interesting, but not very logical, as these do not actually work as stand-alone stories. The narrative arc is incomplete in each section and the divisions are more like separate acts with the chapters as scenes.

In fact, this division serves primarily to emphasise just how long and drawn out this story is. What started off so freshly and innovatively does not last the pace, despite the fact that Murray's creative imagination never wavers.

Irish Independent

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