Though it ends with an act of arson and several near death experiences, the novel Skippy Dies by Paul Murray left me feeling serene. I felt filled with an overarching sense of meaning, of internal stillness, that comes at the end of a very good book. This is not altogether a good thing–it’s difficult to be fully engaged in a text whilst you are still suspended in the amber of its magic. But it left me grasping at disparate details, at small things, to assemble them into a whole, to pick apart the compositional threads of the novel’s wholecloth and then try to weave them back together.
I’d argue that that’s what the whole book is about.
But I’m putting the cart ahead of the horse. This is a good book. The actual, physical book is nice. The American hardback is published by Farber and Farber Inc., and you can tell they invested in it. The paper (oh the paper, the glorious paper) is smooth and soft and lends it a reassuring solidity. The cover is abstract, but in a good way: it communicates something in the end, resembling waves drawn in watercolor, shaky and bleeding into each other at the intersections. The typography is nicely balanced and not at all intrusive, and there’s some fun stuff with formatting that would be lost in a digital edition: an instance of E. E. Cummings-like fiddling with spacing and symbols; a popstar’s name rendered in what looks like Curlz MT instead of the steady serif of the rest of the text; a sci-fi inspired font for SMS communication. They’re small, these variations, and used sparingly, but they make the text feel whole. It feels polished and finished, like an entity unto itself. (Might I add how nice it is that the kids text in this book? I feel like in a lot of literary fiction, technology simply fades into the background. It’s like Facebook or any facsimile thereof simply doesn’t exist. No one skypes, no one has to go charge their car, no one almost walks out into traffic because they were playing games on their phone while walking around with earbuds in. Tcheh.)
The title is a spoiler. Daniel “Skippy” Juster is a boarder at a prestigious Irish school. He is in his second year, which is roughly equivalent to 8th or 9th grade, and within six pages he is dead. So, okay, while the jacket copy’s comparison to Infinite Jest is mostly off the wall, the two are similar in that they revolve around a death, and that though Skippy is the protagonist, the novel just as often takes place from the perspective of other characters: Lorelei, girl he’s infatuated with; Howard Fallon, his history teacher; Carl, the menacing and more than slightly crazy classmate who harasses him. Murray invokes the poltergeist of adolescent lust almost too well. Awkward, all-consuming infatuation, lust, jumbled sex ed, schoolyard politics… and a reminder through the adults that all that still lurks below the polish of maturity.
He also uses the second person, and though the first time I was taken aback by the sheer novelty, it feels natural. It lets him slip readers into a pocket dimension within the book’s greater arc–into Carl’s fracturing and dream-like reality, into Skippy’s video games. It works. It makes me so happy that it works.
The one thing that irks me a little is the end. In places it feels rushed–that act of arson pulls back from the limited perspective of the rest of the piece. It moves quicker, yes, but it felt a little glossed over. And the novel’s thesis of sorts is spelled out rather plainly in the last few pages… but I sort of liked that.
I’m dumb sometimes. Epiphanies cannot be summoned on command. But the experience of this book, and books in general, is one similar to my layman’s knowledge of the relationship between the quantum and the relativistic as they stand now: two realms indivisible, their interactions incomprehensible, except for the beautiful idea that we are all comprised of buzzing strings that bind us into one whole, across infinity, across space-time and n dimensions. (I said layman’s knowledge, okay?) But it felt like Murray (and his publisher and editors) has been spinning this web of stories, of characters and actions and plot and typography and cover design into one whole, into one moment dwindling down to a single point, into a supercompact dimension a breath away from ours and unimaginably dense: pages 654 and 655. It felt like an ending, and a good one at that.