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January 29, 2012

The Vicious Circle reads: Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

We assembled on Saturday morning around a table spread with enough brunch to feed several Vicious Circles, and quickly got to talking about the book, Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies. We were surprised that so many of us got through it, a hefty tome at 650 pages, a hefty tome whose bleak outcome is made clear by its title, and which became so unbearably sad to read around page 450. We speculated that part of the reason we were able to take our time as we read it was that none of us really wanted to get to the end. And one of us was so angry at the end, the lack of pay-off for investing one’s time in such a long book. “Well, that’s the way the world works,” we said. There are no tidy endings, and Murray deserves credit for making his novel reflect that reality. Though surely the world is not as bleak as the novel presents. There is far more beauty in the world than Murray shows, and in particular we remarked upon him driving home the point that the adults whom our messed-up children are in the care of are even more messed-up than the kids are. The parents in his novel are stereotypes, drunken mothers in jungle prints whose silicone implants’ sloshing is audible. There are good parents out there. Some of us even had them.

And speaking of stereotypes, we lamented that Murray did not see fit to instill his female characters with the same depth as the male, to write them with the same sensitivity. At the end of the novel, Lori’s character is given some dimension, but otherwise, the girls were the worst “shit girls say” stereotypes. Which is unfortunate because he writes about the teenage boys and their connections so beautifully, and the novel could have been so much richer if the girls had been half as interesting.

But this is the kind of novel whose approach to its subject matter could be used to explain away several perceived flaws. That we never see the girls in all their dimensions because this is a novel about a boys’ boarding school, and they’re so far removed from the girls’ experience. That the story itself seems dated because the school itself is a relic, as anachronistic as its atmosphere. Though we note that this is very much a novel of the present, and we think the novel is structured along the lines of the video games its characters are so immersed in. We remark that the characters’ trains of thought move seamlessly between the games’ narratives, and the actual world around them. We love so much about the boys at the centre of the story, the richness of their characterization.

A few of us are confused because we heard Paul Murray read at IFOA and were left with the impression that this book was funny, but it was so dark, so bleak. The blurbs and reviews also thought it was hilarious, which makes us think that maybe they didn’t read the book. Also, the novel was sold together in three volumes, and we wondered how we might have understand the book if we’d read it in that format, and that we might have read the first or second, and given up.

We liked the way that this novel spoke about grief, and history, and Ireland, while also subverting and complicating stereotypes on the last point. We thought Howard was ridiculous, sometimes amusingly so, but other times just frustratingly so. We loved the Bethani song lyrics, and when Lori sang into the phone. Some of us thought the glimmer of goodness, of wholeness, that Murray provides at the end of the book was enough. Others thought not so much. Some of us found part two pretty tedious, and the whole druid thing, and the secret room in the girls school, blah blah. Prime time for skimming here, but with the final section of the book, we were hooked again.

Books we talked about when we were talking about this book were The History Boys, This Can’t Be Happening at MacDonald Hall, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and Susan Swan’s The Wives of Bath (which we think we’re going to putting on our to-be-read list). We were all pleased to have encountered a book we might not have read otherwise, and a book that was so good for discussion, whose flaws made for interesting and illuminating conversation. And then we helped ourselves to another serving of sausage hash browns, and turned our minds to extra-literary things.

5 thoughts on “The Vicious Circle reads: Skippy Dies by Paul Murray”

  1. HB says:

    Oh, I totally agree. This book made me so sad and a little bit queasy — I kept thinking, ‘but maybe he won’t REALLY die.’ And I did think it was unfair to the grown ups. But a brilliant book nonetheless.

    1. Kerry says:

      The “Maybe he won’t REALLY die” thing is something though, that we’d be so engaged as to be totally irrational. I was hoping Ruprecht really would be able to get him a message via Optimus Prime in another dimension. I was willing to suspend all disbelief.

  2. Tim says:

    I loved this book. I thought it nailed what all-boy Catholic education is like. I wondered how the book would read to female readers, due to the lack of virtually any women of substance in the book. Oddly, I seemed to have thought it was funnier than The Vicious Circle, too.

  3. Sabine says:

    I read it and I am female 🙂 Actually, I didn’t really notice that the girls go short in the book, until I read this review. But I think it’s ok, the book clearly chose a male point of view so it’s less about the girls themselves than what they mean to the protagonists, I think.
    I guess I am a little bit behind, but the german paperback wasn’t out until the end of 2012 – but I wrote a review on this book, too, which will go online on my blog next monday.

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