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.