Misfits. Cracking telly.
Misfits. Cracking telly.
#1 Barcelona FC
Paul Murray’s second novel Skippy Dies, is my pick of this year’s contemporary fiction. The cliché so often applied to great examples of mainstream fiction; “It’ll make you laugh, It’ll make you cry” has never, for me, been as applicable as to this epic, hilarious, often wicked, tragic and profound examination of growing up, growing old, love and frustrated ambition against the backdrop of a Dublin public school, its pupils and staff.
A far-cry from literature’s most (recently) famous public schoolboy, Murray’s kids fizz with both cocky, teenage wit and a vulnerable humanity which makes them instantly more likeable than any of Hogwarts alumni. Likewise their teachers grapple with personal and professional failure, a gradual slide into irrelevance in the face of a rapidly changing world and also, some altogether darker themes.
The tragicomic still stands as a very singular generic beast, requiring a deftness of stylistic touch to balance an underlying pathos with moments of high comedy which stand alone as genuinely funny, rather than as moments of bleak, forced relief, and with Skippy Dies, Murray demonstrates this in spades. Interestingly as it seems, given the Booker judge’s decision to exclude Skippy from the shortlist, but to wax lyrical over the uniqueness of another tragicomedy: Jacobson’s Finkler Question, as a worthy winner (this is no critique of Jacobson, a fine writer and deserving winner, rather a question of consistency on the part of the judges)
To sustain the emotional complexities of over a dozen major characters, whilst spinning a highly unpredictable plot encompassing a variety of devices for 600 pages is an achievement in itself, but to do it whilst keeping the reader oscillating between bellowing laughter and the kind of profound, introspective melancholy which makes one simply have to stop reading altogether for a moment, is truly remarkable.
I’ve consciously avoided the temptation to summarise the plot, characters or best lines, because this book is just something you have to read, removing any it from its context wouldn’t do it justice. It flies by, so don’t let the length dissuade you, the short punchy chapters and, hilarious instantly likeable characters mean that the book flies by.
The over-saturated, homogeneous nature of much of the contemporary fiction market, particularly regarding the relationship between the larger publishers and booksellers, mean that gems like Skippy can often been missed entirely, never picked up or under-represented. Refreshing then, that in this case, a mass-market novel from a major publisher should turn out to be intelligent, moving and genuinely hilarious.
“analysis from the Economist Intelligence Unit.”
Why do we offer congratulations to those who inform us of their pregnancy when, surely, condolences should be offered instead?
Vondogood insouciantly adjusted a minature, greaslicked follicle from its reverential site atop his brow. This apparently perfunctory correction of his appearance was, however, novel, given his normal extreme disvanity and indifference to any constructed image which other may have of him.
Ahead his sightline the patient quivered and hyperventilated. The dirty white light powered by the camp generator lying far beyond the fence, flickered occasionally, exposing the hastily painted interior.
Other. Observing, in stasis, a very separate time.
He stepped forward and, placing his palm on the patient’s forehead, used his thumb to stretch the eyelid up (as he had been taught, so many years ago, in Freiburg, with Dr Hoffelgammer), shining his torch into the lens, seeking signs of being.
From the gramophone in the corner, a Schubert symphony played, dislocated from presence.
He stepped back, conscious of a sudden, violent disarrangement within his sensory apparatus. Dropping the torch he lurched and thrashed his arms, falling as he did and, half gripping the edge of the examination table upon which the patient lay, collapsed on the floor.
Again, Dr Hoffelgammer’s word pulsed, inside the intensity of the pain, an adjunct to the realisation of his destruction, reverberating as his tremulous, terminal reality metabolised before his eyes.
“As we can see from this patient, the coupling of aneurysmal dilation and increased wall stress is approximated by the Law of Laplace.”
The light flickers.
The Symphony climaxes, then dies. The spinning recurrence of the crackling ’45 now the only sound in the room.
The patient, still, remains.
Our will towards a painless, infinite life is driving the construction of our extinction.