About halfway through Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, one of the schoolboy characters, Ruprecht, reconsiders the intracacies of his beloved String Theory:
Our universe, one could almost say, is actually built out of loneliness; and that foundational loneliness persists upwards to haunt every one of its residents.
The loneliness, Ruprecht believes (at least at this particular point in the novel) is a reflection of the subatomic, found in the universe’s constitutive open-ended strings.
Loneliness is this novel’s heart—even though the characters are all living in close proximity. And surely, poor Ruprecht, the candidate for the school’s Best Boy, is one of its most lonely: he does not have much going for him,“[a]part from being a genius.” This line seems, at first, ironic, but by the end of “Skippy Dies,” it ‘s evident that being a genius might not, in the end, amount to much at all.
The book opens with a doughnut-eating contest between Ruprecht and his roommate Daniel Juster—a.k.a. “Skippy,” who is probably even lonelier than his genius friend—which ends tragically. For a book with “dies” in its title, Murray’s sophomore novel (he previously published An Evening of Long Goodbyes) has much more eros than thanatos. It is also one of the most consistently funny fictions of the last few years, and manages to be the perfect kind of unserious serious novel. As indicated above, it teems with science, String Theory, M-theory, multiverses, manifold dimensions and the subatomic world, which are all employed as deadingly effective metaphors. Through its course, Skippy Dies, too, manages to pack all the rigors of adolescent outrage, a strong centrifugal plot, and more Robert Graves references than I’ve ever seen. (And the Graves bit turns out to be a good thing.)
The prep school novel is almost a genre of its own, although this reader confesses to only be familiar with the Dead-Poets-like story The Palace Thief by Ethan Canin (and, err, Hogwarts). Murray’s focus here is less on crafting a bildungsroman and more on exhibiting loneliness in all its forms: there is the lugubrious teacher Howard the Coward, who is tempted into cheating on his girlfriend after their relationship has lost its intimacy; the caustic priest Jerome Green, also tempted, but by his pupils; the villains and possible psychopaths, the punk Carl and the Automator (a.k.a. Greg Costigan, the interim principal); and the sympathetic Lori, who against all probability—at least in this particular universe—relieves Skippy of some of his loneliness. Each of them, like tiny nucleai, sadly reveal that, in the atom/world, the space around the nucleus is much bigger than the nucleus itself.
The particular brilliance of this novel lies in not only how Murray understands young people, but how he understands how they are formed and what that might say about everybody else. He considers, for example, videogames, rather seriously (if in his distinctive seriously unserious way, where many chapters open up in the hyperbolic virtual world), and avoids the trap many writers fall into by depicting this pastime as one-dimensional, thumb-pressing lobotomies. Skippy is a dedicated gamer—he even dresses as a pseudo version of Link from The Legend of Zelda for the school’s Halloween dance—but he plays the games both for escape, and because it seems to be the one area where his mother’s illness has not affected his ability. (Skippy’s grades and his swimming have both recently suffered.) Skippy retreats farther into his games because, precisely, they provide an alternate universe, one much like his roommate is obsessed with discovering (emphasized by Murray’s use of the second person for these scenes). The videogame world doesn’t seem all that different than the Irish folklore that Murray extols, too, although the author wisely figures that the giants Joyce and Flann O’Brien and Yeats have probably covered this area enough that he need only briefly expound.
Skippy Dies is one of those rare novels that puts even otherwise cynical and hardened, skeptical readers in a frantic search for the tissue box, or at least have you frowning at your spouse. Borges once noted that we love books for “the universal periodic table of the human condition.” The science metaphor he used is appropriate for Murray’s novel: Skippy Dies has all the elements of the periodic table, and that’s why it’s hard not to love. The book may sometimes be oversold—for what is brilliant and great in this novel is not terribly new, to adapt and paraphrase Dr. Johnson—and so I hope I’m not doing it here. But there is just nothing wrong with this book.
The characters in this novel end up haunted by Skippy, and by his own—and their—loneliness. Ruprecht mourns by trying to eat the doughnut shop out of its stock. Lori stops eating altogether. Carl is barely perceptible as a human being as the novel draws to a close. Howard the Coward, having made several rather foolhardly—and loneliness-producing—moves, tries to redeem himself. The universe of Skippy Dies may be very, very funny, but it’s also tragic. One supposes all those dimensions must count for something.