the way that we’re living, is all take and no giving

October 19, 2010 § 4 Comments

Without a doubt, what all the reviewers tell you are true. Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies is a superb book, a world unto itself set in Seabrook, a boys’ boarding-school in Dublin, Ireland. There are allusions to Robert Graves’ mythic White Goddess, Celtic myths, M-theory, the first World War, and what seems like every emotion and experience one imagines must be known to modern Irish teenagekind. Murray’s writing is funny and sharp, as when he describes Titch, Seabrook’s current it-boy with the ladies:

Titch, in short, is so remarkably unremarkable that he has become a kind of embodiment of his socioeconomic class; a friendship / sexual liaison with Titch has therefore come to be seen as a kind of self-endorsement, a badge of Normality, which at this point in life is a highly prized commodity.

Within a few sentences, Murray has described that boring everyboy in every Anglo-American school designated to be the Popular One – the unbearably tedious Finn Hudsons of the world who will put you to sleep but manage to get the most girls and have the most “friends”.

This is a book about boys and men and men being boys, and in Murray’s hands, these boys of Seabrook are at once fragile, heroic, obnoxious, and tender, especially in their relation to one another. In the case of Daniel “Skippy” Juster – the boy who dies in the first chapter – his is a life lived by a tentative walking on eggshells, a boy who is unable to break free from the dark and foreboding ties of family. He is a mess because his family is a mess – a more Freudian boy-child could not have existed. All of his family’s flaws and minor tragedies seep into him unfiltered. From the start you get the sense that this poor kid doesn’t have a chance. His one major shot at happiness comes in the form of Lori, one of the most beautiful young girls around for miles. She initially appears shrouded in mystery, a distant object of uniform desire for all the boys, but of special note to Skippy. She touches something deep inside him – gaining entry into a tiny little locked room in Skippy’s psyche to which no one, even Skippy himself, has the key. Skippy thinks that “the beauty of this girl is something bigger, something beyond, with infinitely more sides to it – it’s like a mountain with an impossible shape that he keeps trying to climb and falling off, finding himself lying on his back in the snow…” Lori ignites in Skippy something more, definitely, than mere throbbing loins.

Desire is never simple

The course of infatuation never does run smooth. The fear is that the act of knowing ruins the desire, but more likely it simply roots it in the realm of action and responsibility where flights of fancy often have to come to a crashing halt. Or as Lacan might perhaps say if his words were to be butchered by me: sexual relations, in order to function, will always have to be screened through some fantasy because the realness of it is too traumatic. Where we’re dealing specifically with sensitive, tormented young men in popular culture, though, this ultimate objet petit a has nothing to do with lust – even if she is the hottest chick around – but more to do with the young soul’s timorous and instinctive yearning for pure and unvarnished Beauty. As Murray writes it, every other boy around may be thinking of ways to sex up Lori, but Skippy is concerned with her As a Person, in so much as Her Person remains elusive, perfect, and untouchable. A mountain – whose beauty will mean more once he climbs it. Or will it, after he has climbed it, mean something less? Will it be cast aside as he moves on to other girls, something to be revisited only in memory?

This burgeoning love for Lori on Skippy’s part is cleverly layered with yet another story of obsession and desire, but of the adult variety. The boys’ History teacher, Howard Fallon (“Howard the Coward”) is newly-fixated with a substitute Geography teacher, Aurelie McIntyre. At their first meeting, when Aurelie learns that Howard is teaching his kids about the First World War, she suggests he reads them Robert Graves because “he was in the trenches” and because “he was also one of the greatest love poets.” The Goddess as Muse motif is laid out here as Howard observes Aurelie’s physical movements and notes: “She squeezes her hands sensually, a goddess forging words out of raw matter.” Howard is in his late twenties, but the effect of a flesh-made-Goddess, whole and real in front of him, is not something even his seasoned, grown-up impulses can withstand – of course he wants her, but this desire is complicated by the unfortunate matter of his existing girlfriend, Halley.

Howard is a former Seabrook boy returned to teach in the school. The hermetic space of a boys’ boarding-school, the old-boys network, the world it creates in and of itself is a major indication that Howard is never really willing to leave this world behind and enter the realm of adulthood. Howard used to work in investment banking for a time, but finally chose to return to his alma mater for a teaching stint even as he seems repelled by Seabrook and its legacy. Howard’s very character shows readers how the realm of adulthood is a purely imaginary act, sustained by collective imaginings of shoulds and oughts of which no one really has a bloody clue. It’s precarious and sustained by its ultimately insecure sense of flexibility – the man-child ever-ready to play and have fun sometimes, ready to take on responsibilities and “man up” at other points. The reason why some boys don’t want to “grow up” and become men is because they are uncertain of what the cultural and societal construct of manhood requires of them.

Howard seems more of a boy than the boys of Seabrook. His infatuation with Aurelie is grounded in the emotions engendered by her physical presence. This is complicated, because the initial moment of “falling in love”, whatever one may take it to mean, encompasses desire and the yearning to be near the other’s physical presence. In Skippy Dies, however, the female characters worthy of male attention are uniformly described as being beautiful – nay, STUNNING, and also uniformly coveted by and agreed upon by ALL men as stunning. If their beauty is not worthy of note, they’re distinguished by their yearning for men who don’t want them, as in the case of Halley, Howard’s girlfriend, and Janine, Lori’s friend. This, really, is nothing new in art or in popular culture. It’s familiar and predictable. The women worth paying attention to from a man’s perspective are the beautiful ones. It is, however, banal and depressing. This very typical manner of framing gender and sexual relations feels even more disappointing in a book as dazzlingly imaginative as this one.

The society in Skippy Dies is the kind that fucks-up every one of its children. Janine, for instance, wants bad-boy Carl, who is, even as far as fucked-upness goes, beyond the pale. Carl, also the product of a hideous family situation, is a drug-pushing, drug-addicted self-destroyer who, among other things, lusts after Lori. Strangely enough, his obsession with her – peppered as it with repulsive imaginings of violent sexual acts he’d like to inflict upon her, imaginings straight out of internet porn – is quite unbearably sad, because it seems like Carl mentally debases her simply because he needs, but can’t have, the solace she seems to offer. Sure, he’s drawn to her lollipop-sucking shiny lips with a mad amount of lust from the start, but Carl seems to know that she exists as a person precisely in the world from which he wants to run. His conflicted, tormented thoughts are deftly written by Murray to show how Carl seems to be playing out expected forms of being for a teenage male who wants to be seen as strong, ferocious, and studly. Carl registers the signposts of manhood on how to perform and re-enacts these performances even as his thoughts reveal a private self that knows no rhyme or reason about its very existence.

Janine, nowhere close to being as hot as Lori, gives Carl blowjobs in the hopes that Carl forgets about Lori and begins to want her. Why she does this is devastating and puzzling, because any girl in her right mind would run screaming from Carl. But in the hierarchical, heavily-stratified world of adolescence, social capital carries more cachet than any possible form of self-aggrandizement one can dream up. Lori is pretty and the most wanted and desired, and having what Lori has / had is probably the closest Janine can get to being able to enjoy a small slice of Lori’s appeal; appeal that is steadfastly denied to her because she lacks the right looks and the right framework to perform those looks. It doesn’t even matter if it means debasing herself around a boy who is clearly only using her to get closer to Lori, because the other option of invisibility is not only self-debasement, it’s self-erasure.

These boys are sexist, and predictably so, because in adolescence one feels that one must either quickly learn how to make a public display of acceding to the status quo, or make a public display of doing the exact opposite and rebelling. In that same way, the type of teenage girls portrayed in Skippy Dies don’t seem to be invested in rebelling against sexism either – because the alternative pretty much renders them either insignificant or negatively visible. The male characters who don’t refer to other girls as bitches or whores and evaluate them on the size of their boobs or the symmetry of their facial features are the ones who have the hardest time of it in the social sphere – Skippy, and to some extent, his best friend and roommate Ruprecht (although Ruprecht’s singular devotion is only towards the abstraction of science and quantum physics).

There is a depressing sense that this crude adolescent sexism simply morphs into pseudo-sophisticated adult sexism by way of better learning and mastery of language. There is a scene, when Carl and his other fucked-up friends are talking about which living women they’d like to have sex with, where one boy suggests Beyonce and is shot down by another who laughs and reminds him that she’s “black”. Similarly, Howard has a discussion with his colleague, Jim Slattery, who tells him about Graves’ The White Goddess:

… it delves into various pre-Christian societies – Europe, Africa, Asia – and keeps finding this same figure, this White Goddess, with long fair hair, blue eyes, and a blood red mouth. Right back to the Babylonians, it goes. His theory is that poetry as we know it grew out of this goddess worship.

“Blue eyes, a blood red mouth,” Howard thinks, his own personal Goddess made flesh in Aurelie. (What hope is there for female poets, though? Both Muse and Creator in one – perhaps the only option is to stick one’s head into a gas-oven and die.) But more to the point, yes, the mythic idea of this blonde, white, blue-eyed Goddess who, according to Graves, is to be found everywhere in the world, is accepted wholeheartedly by Howard because that is exactly how it plays out in his own life.

However much it looks back to the past through Howard’s history classes and modern-day superstitions built upon tantalising myths, and however much it looks to the future via Ruprecht’s heartbreaking and hilarious botched physics experiments, Skippy Dies is resoundingly realistic. Realism means that in this particular wedge of Dublin society, sexism is rampant whether or not it is acknowledged, and race is nonexistent, presumably because Irish boys’ boarding schools of prestige and stature rarely allow in boys of a different hue. Worse still, crimes are committed by figures of authority, and religion and traditionalism hang like dank spectres over the general psyche seduced by the usual suspects of modern life.  There are abusive priests, negligent parents, and profit-and-glory-chasing teachers and headmasters. If anything, Skippy Dies is proof of how the stratified social hierarchies inherent within late modernist society is its own straitjacket – stifling not only the people it hopes to manage, organise, and categorise – but the very ideals of society it wants to promote.

Towards the end, the life lessons inflicted upon Lori have managed to infuse her character with a depth that wasn’t there at the start. But this is also because the objet petit a no longer exists after Skippy dies. Free of Skippy’s adoring gaze, the reader is left to deal with Lori as a real person, all wasted-away flesh and eating disorders and haunted dreams. While Murray’s depiction of Lori sometimes seems a little too familiar – pretty girl with the troubled life and the hidden torment – he nevertheless gently attempts to portray the exigencies faced by a young beautiful girl in a society that demands too much of her in some aspects, and barely nothing in others.

We see things for a little while from Halley’s perspective – hers is a crisp, dry voice that grows on you, but unfortunately she only gets a very small section of the book. In true mythic Goddess form, we only ever see Aurelie through the eyes of others, chiefly Howard’s. Adhering to the predictable modern-day fairytale-gone-wrong trope, the Goddess turns out to be kind of a heartless bitch, after all. Aurelie’s that kind of beautiful woman who leaves the unsuspecting young man confused and a little bereft, , his life turned inside out – touched by Beauty for so short a time.

If all this makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy the book, this would be untrue. I couldn’t stop reading it because Murray’s skills of writing and storytelling are immense. Skippy Dies is an intensely imaginative experience and a labour of tender love towards its (male) characters. Murray’s writing has the enviable ability to get at the heart of the matter with precision, as when the school principal, also known among the others as the Automator, tells Howard, “Dreaming’s not something we encourage here either, Howard. Reality, that’s what we’re all about. Reality: objective, empirical truths.”

Reality is what Skippy Dies is fundamentally about, as well, precisely because the dreaming proves to be painful and regrettably more real than reality itself.

P/S (Oct 21): For the longest time I was trying to remember what Skippy Dies vaguely reminded me of, and it just hit me today: Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club. Posh boys’ school, beautiful girl as object of attention, male friendships. But somehow, Coe’s book somehow did it better, if I remember correctly. It’s been years since I read it. It’s due for a reread.

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§ 4 Responses to the way that we’re living, is all take and no giving

  • Aishwarya says:

    If I recall correctly the doughnut shop owners are Asian immigrants, aren’t they? I know there’s definitely a scene somewhere where Carl and his friends attack/bully them for this.

    As for the sexism, I’m inclined to think rather more of what Murray does with gender – particularly in the third book, with Lori.

    I’m glad you liked this! It’s by far my favourite book of this year.

    • Subashini says:

      Yes, I have to clarify that there was so much that I enjoyed in this book despite my comments re: sexism. Was it Feminist Hulk, in talking about Brett Easton Ellis, who said that his books aren’t sexist so much as they are a window into a sexist culture? Something like that? I learn a lot from Feminist Hulk. Anyhow, that’s how I feel about this – it’s like Murray attempts to depict this within this enclosed boys’ boarding-school culture, but I still had trouble at times with how the female characters were framed. I agree, though, that Murray does some interesting things with Lori in the final book. I do wish we had seen more of this from the start because she became a lot more interesting towards the end, and by then it was time to leave her behind.

      Thanks for your recommendation; I wouldn’t have been as keen to read it immediately if it wasn’t for your infectious enthusiasm. 🙂

  • chaosbogey says:

    Between the two of you I pretty much have no chance at not reading this anymore. On the question of sexism and gender, your observations re Janine really struck home hard (especially ‘because the other option of invisibility is not only self-debasement, it’s self-erasure’).

    I’ve been that girl, to some extent, and I wonder whether the appeal of the bad boy- worst boy, even- isn’t somehow coded into being, I dunno, the desperate girl? My point being that Carl might be using J, but its likely the dysfunction goes both ways: it feeds her the bottomless pit that is her self image. Bah, I’m going to go read the book NOW and comment w/o, y’know, projecting. Lovely post!

  • Subashini says:

    Thanks very much for your comment; I appreciate it. I was a little unsure about what I was writing because I didn’t want to judge the book so much as bring to light these points that bothered me as I read it, and sometimes the line blurs for me especially with regards to issues of gender.

    You have a point there, about the dysfunction being sort of the catalyst for the appeal of the “bad boy”. Most interested in hearing what you make of the character after you read it!

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