The Skippy Dies author Paul Murray explains his tilling of a fertile but oddly neglected field.
Back to school
Our schooldays are a traumatic, sometimes mystifying, yet wholly necessary part of the journey into adulthood. Love them or hate them, romanticise or exaggerate them, one thing's sure: they're completely unforgettable. Fertile ground for fiction, then, yet this is a genre stuck in the first half of the 20th century, forever bound up with St Trinian's, Goodbye Mr Chips and Billy Bunter. That's why the new novel from the award-winning Irish author Paul Murray is so refreshing. Skippy Dies, a 672-page, three-volume epic, is a contemporary, tragicomic tale set in Seabrook College, full of adolescent japes and disillusioned teachers. It's poignant, merciless and absolutely true. Murray seems just as surprised as me that it has taken so long for someone to set a novel in a world we can all recognise.
"There are so many different characters in a school, which means you can go in plenty of different directions," he says. "It's the one place where people of every shape, size and personality are together. You can look at the world through the eyes of someone super-intelligent, or someone who's really having problems coming to terms with reality. All human life is at school, in a way." The life at Seabrook College is certainly different. A traditional boarding school in one of Dublin's posh suburbs, its pupils include a 14-year-old mathematical genius, Ruprecht, who dreams of access to another dimension. His best friend is the titular Skippy, so named because of his unfortunate likeness to a kangaroo. Skippy is in love with the "woman" of his dreams at the neighbouring girls' school, battling with an over-attentive gym teacher and dealing with a mother who is dying from cancer. He's also, as we learn from the prologue (and indeed the title of the book), dead - meeting his end after a fateful doughnut-eating contest. Was it a gamble to foreshadow the story in this way?
"I guess it was," says Murray. "But Skippy Dies is such a big undertaking that you really have to have some immediate focus to it, a reason to read it. Here, that's finding out how Skippy gets to the point you first read about in the prologue. More than ever, I'm in competition with all these other media and so my books need to be interesting, readable. Enjoyable." And Skippy Dies is certainly that. In truth, so was Murray's first book, the Whitbread Prize-nominated An Evening of Long Goodbyes, a satire of "new" Ireland. It's taken seven long years for a follow-up, and the endearingly frank Murray admits to being "quite frightened" by just how long.
As his literary peers published their second and third books, the Dublin writer was ploughing through Skippy Dies, and then redrafting it, editing it, stripping away the fat. It barely seems possible that it was once even longer than the doorstop I have in front of me. Crucial is the story of the novel's hapless history teacher, Howard, whose quarter-life crisis - he's teaching at the same school he attended as a boy, he's ditched a lucrative career in the City and he's in an unremarkable relationship - gives Skippy Dies another, more adult dimension. His head is turned by a supply teacher who introduces him to the war writing of Robert Graves. But he also represents one of the key ideas of the novel, that the disillusionment that goes hand-in-hand with so much of modern life stifles, unnecessarily, our enjoyment of it. Howard reads Graves's memoir, with its strong narrative, episodes of courage and heroism, and mistakenly contrasts it with his own life: sprawling, chaotic and not really adding up to much.
"Maybe it's a western thing, but I really think we're schooled in being dissatisfied with our lives," says Murray. "That's what I wanted to explore with Howard. We're constantly being offered ways of escape via film, music, television, even clothes. All these things are offering you little stories you can immerse yourself in. They all say 'this is the new you, this is the new direction, this is the story your life will become'. But life isn't like that. It doesn't fit into easy narratives. Surely we would all be happier if we tried to live the life we're given and took enjoyment and pleasure from it?"
Isn't that a slightly utopian dream? "Maybe, but the lesson I wanted Howard to learn is that life is what you make it. The life he has is just as valid as fighting in the trenches, and I wanted him to try and realise that. He has this quite important job, you know, and he doesn't see it. He's working with kids who trust him and rely on him, and they're looking to him for inspiration." The real joy of Skippy Dies is that it genuinely defies categorisation. It can be deliciously perceptive: Skippy says that walking among his 14-year-old peers is like "being in a BO smelling forest". It can be almost unbearably painful: as Ruprecht struggles through the aftermath of Skippy's death, one of his experiments makes him posit that the universe might be "built of loneliness". It has a mystery to solve: Skippy's final words in the prologue are "Tell Lori". Tell Lori what? And best of all, it plays to our shared sense of nostalgia in the school disco.
Underneath all of this is the sense that school is a baffling monster of a place. In fact, as the acting head attempts to rebrand Seabrook and bring it into the modern era, Skippy Dies employs sharp satire, in the style of Murray's debut, on an Ireland that has changed beyond recognition since the author left school himself in 1993. "Ireland went from being a poor country to a pretty wealthy country remarkably quickly," he agrees. "I went to quite a posh school but it was at a time when there was so little money in the country, the poshness wasn't really that explicit. Now, school is yet another status symbol in this panoply of status symbols that people are trying to accumulate.
"The education system in Ireland is now just about committing facts to memory for your exams. Teachers are really limited: ultimately their role is to get these kids sufficiently high grades so they can get into university. And class creeps into it in an insidious way - these schools become corporations. The parents are the shareholders, they want to see dividends, they want to see their investment paying off."
So in a sense, school perpetuates the system rather than being an open environment for opportunity and advancement? "Exactly," he agrees. "You know, when you send your kids to a school like the one in the book, you're paying for the network, the name of the school. You're making a brand of your child." Of course, the kids at Seabrook are blissfully unaware of all this - and one of the real successes of the book is how easily Murray moves between the adult and adolescent worlds. Even the way that the children speak feels startlingly true to life, yet Murray admits he has no direct experience of 14-year-old children.
"You know, that part was a gamble," he admits. "You know that story of Nabokov sitting on the back of the bus, listening to teenagers talking and taking notes? I kind of thought, maybe I should do that, but I'd have probably got arrested. "So I just took a chance that the voices in my head were accurate. I guess you encounter enough of that stuff on television that it kind of filters into your brain - how people speak on the internet and so on."
The greater gamble, I suggest, was setting a book in a 21st-century school. We work out that we left school within a year of each other in the early 1990s, and it's fair to say that drawing on the specific experiences of our schooling - as it would be so easy to do - would be a mistake. We had no internet access and no mobile phones: it might sound quaint, but we went to each other's houses and spoke to each other.
"It's an absolutely terrifying thing to be in your mid-30s and saying 'Oh things were different in my day'," he laughs. "I guess it's a sign of how fast the world moves. But it does genuinely seem harder now to be a teenager. And you wonder where this hyper-connected world that kids grow up in now is going to go. I mean, how are that generation going to write a novel? The internet is this giant fidget machine, making it really difficult to sustain any kind of concentration or focus. You know, that may well turn out to be a real demarcator between our generation and theirs."
But what Murray believes still endures throughout the ages is friendship. Skippy Dies is about the school, and how that school is a microcosm of an Ireland he believes is taking some quite negative turns. But in the end these children, for all their bullying and teasing, realise they do actually have each other. "Do you know a Sonic Youth song called JC?" asks Murray, seemingly at a tangent. He knows I probably do: the album it's on, Dirty, was required listening as we were both finishing school.
"Well, JC sums up this book, I think," he says. "Sonic Youth have this bubblegum pop side to them, but that's combined with blasts of white noise. And even though teenagers today would probably say 'What is Sonic Youth?', JC is a really good evocation of life as a teenager. You spend a lot of time being poppy, messing around and stuff. But at the same time there's this dark undertone which makes life quite scary and difficult. Put it like this: it's the romance and the terror."
And you don't get that from a St Trinian's book. Skippy Dies (Hamish Hamilton) is out now.