Sunday, September 30, 2012

Thoughts on Skippy Dies

Skippy Dies is the kind of book that readers transitioning away from young adult fiction can appreciate.  It's also a book that long-time literary fiction fans can devour.  It's a dream in every respect.

Paul Murray's 600+ page opus tracks the drama that occurs in an Irish boarding school when Daniel Juster attempts to juggle a mother dying of cancer, the pressure of competing on the swim team, falling in love, and handling irrepressible peers (and one bully).  It goes badly.  He's Skippy, after all.  The death occurs at the very beginning of the book, but Murray quickly flashes back to the start of events and allows the reader to track the series of events that lead to Skippy falling dead during a donut eating contest with his roommate, eccentric genius Ruprecht Van Doren, who's never lost a contest in fifteen attempts.

Skippy Dies is filled with unexpected parallels, a perfect symmetry that each of the characters involved are never privy to, believing as their lives implode that the universe is full of chaos, irreconcilable with the truths they desperately pursue.  Because half the novel tracks a pack of obnoxious teenage boys, Murray has written both an excruciatingly funny book, and also one that's impossibly tragic.  Other writers might have tried to find some more definitive redemption in this mess, but Murray prefers to let his story find the hidden ironies that exist in the real world, exactly the thing his characters struggle against.

It's what Harry Potter might have been like if J.K. Rowling only had one book to tell her story.  Or what Stephen King might have done with Carrie if there was a whole class of misfits, teachers and all.  It's uncompromisingly brilliant.

Split into three parts ("Hopeland," named for the game Skippy plays and remains one of the many secret worlds inside the story; "Heartland," where all the main characters struggle to obtain their goals; and "Ghostland," in which everyone tries to figure out life after Skippy), Skippy Dies is a long short read, easily digestible (especially if you have the three-volume box set like I do) and completely engrossing, tackling the biggest questions we know without making it seem difficult, like one giant epiphany, requiring the whole cast of characters to unfold.  You won't like all of them, but the more Murray sticks with them, the more you understand how they're necessary, how the chaos of their lives ends up coming together.

Will it make you feel better about your own messed-up life?  Well, maybe a little.  But as Murray goes to great lengths to explain, understanding something is a lot more complicated than any one element can make possible.

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