Michelle Woods reviews Skippy Dies by Paul Murray and (re)discovers the Twilight Zone of the teenage mind

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A teenage suicide leads to sudden fame and a world of possibilities in an Ireland trapped between history, myth and a fast-arriving future.
At Seabrook College, the imaginary posh Irish high school at the center of Paul Murray’s very funny and poignant Skippy Dies, the boys are talking about the zombies in their computer game, when one of them, Geoff, says:
‘They sound sort of like my parents,’… He gets up and stretches out his arms and staggers around the room, saying in a sepulchral zombie voice, ‘Geoff … put out the garbage … Geoff … I can’t find my glasses … We’ve made great sacrifices to send you to that school, Geoff …
The notion of zombies, the dead and undead, history and the present, but especially the utter realism of the transition between childhood and adulthood – and the twilight zone in between – suffuse the novel.
If you’re a demon for fast-plotting, this 700 page novel may not be the one for you. But it does have pace and a strong charm in recreating a teenage world, its argot, and its way of seeing things, that you might have dusted away. It’s a pleasure to return to it, in all its awkwardness and strange magic. Reading the novel brought back that day-dreaming quality, the sense of possibility, of belief in the strangest things that thud all too soon into the realism of adult life. 

Paul Murray
The adult view is told through the lens of a history teacher, Howard, aka Howard the Coward. He failed in the finance world (the ‘shocking’ revelation in the novel is that he was fired for losing 3.5 million in a minute – presumably a scene written before the present financial crisis. Chickenfeed! I thought). An alumnus of the school, Howard’s return prompts the parallels between the world of the boys and what they eventually turn into – the real zombies of Celtic Tiger Ireland.
Howard begins the novel, like the boys, utterly uninterested in History. A fellow teacher, Slattery, blames it on the new generation:
… who live in a continuous sugar-rushed present, in which remembering is a chore left to computers, like tidying your room is a chore left for the Third World maid.
But over-relying on technology seems also an Irish disease. Howard’s American girlfriend, Halley, thinks:
Irish people are crazy for technology. She’d thought that a country with such a weight of history might be prone to looking backward. In fact, the opposite is true. The past is considered dead weight – at best something to reel in tourists, at worst an embarrassment, an albatross, a raving, incontinent old relative that refuses to die.
But Howard, through the novel, becomes a convert to the love of the past.  That’s partly to avoid talking to Halley after he has sex with the foxy substitute teacher, Miss McIntyre, who has kept all of the second-year boys in thrall to geography:
She cradles a globe, which while she speaks she caresses absently as if it were a fat, spoiled housecat; it almost seems to purr as it revolves langorously under her fingertips.
“.. just beneath the surface of the Earth,’ she is saying, ‘temperatures so high that the rock itself is molten – can anyone tell me what it’s called this molten rock?’
‘Magma,’ croak several boys at once.
‘And what do you call it, when it bursts up onto the Earth’s surface from a volcano?’
‘Lava,’ they respond tremulously.
Michael O'Leary WWI poster
 
Howard can’t offer lava spurts, but he gets increasingly interested in WWI, especially Irish involvement in the war – a subject that has been non grata until very recently.*  When the eponymous Skippy does die, his mother (who is also dying) offers Howard the WWI uniform of Skippy’s great-grandfather as a tell-and-show** for the kids. It’s proof that of the 200,000 Irishmen who fought for the British cause, many died and were injured, mentally and physically. Their story was written out of the Irish history books because it didn’t conform to the post-Independence narrative, in which all that happened between 1914 and 1918 was the Easter Rising.
But rewriting history comes to bite Howard on the ass. He becomes complicit in hiding the sexual abuse of Skippy by the swim coach (one of the priests thought about it too but didn’t get round to it on time). Essentially bribed by the school not to talk, Howard realizes that this is the way the world of Seabrook College has worked for years. What prompted Skippy’s suicide?  We never find out if it is this abuse, the fact of his dying mother, or the betrayal of his putative girlfriend Lori, that pushed him to it, writing in doughnut jam as he dies “Tell Lori …”.
Lori becomes a celebrity – offered modeling and TV contracts – in a world gone mad on fame and the present. What Murray does beautifully is offer the world of childhood fame as an alternative, one not yet dulled or exploited commercially by the zombie adults:
These boys’ abilities are regarded quite as highly by their peers as the more conventional athletic and sporting kinds, as is any claim to physical freakishness, such as waggling ears (Mitchell Gogan), unusually high mucous production (Hector ‘Hectoplasm’ O’Looney), notable ugliness (Vince Bailey). Fame in the second year is a surprisingly broad church; among the two-hundred-plus boys, there is scarcely anyone who does not have some ability or idiosyncrasy or weird body condition for which he is celebrated.
The imaginative appraisals of one another, and the high tolerance, even demand, for oddity and eccentricity include even the enormously fat Ruprecht von Doren (aka Ruprecht von Blowjob). 
 Ruprecht is obsessed by string theory.  He’s also  in love with Professor Tamashi at Stanford (which he views as a magical place, like the world of Star Wars).**

He tries to invent a machine of tin foil that will bring them to parallel universes, because our universe “is made of loneliness.” Love, he thinks, might look a little different if there are several universes out there at once. He also thinks the machine might bring Skippy back to life, until a fellow pupil, Dennis “an arch-cynic whose very dreams are sarcastic”, proves he can’t.

While Skippy Dies is not a perfect novel,  it did really move me and at points made me laugh out loud – particularly the thought of how flat we make our adult worlds.  We give in so easily to the denial of the imagination, the possibility of other worlds. Perhaps we should heed Slattery’s advice to Howard:
Life makes fools of us all sooner or later. But keep your sense of humour and you’ll at least be able to take your humiliations with some measure of grace. In the end, you know, it’s our own expectations that crush us.
 ***
 EDITOR’S NOTES
*so grata is it these days that John Doyle composed a song inspired by it, “Farewell to All That” which he performed at last year’s Masters in Collaboration with Andy Irvine.  The title was taken from Robert Graves’ book, which is actually Goodbye to All That.
** Is this Irish for “show and tell?”
***It is.

How do you remember school?  Are you undead now?

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