The scope of the second novel, Skippy Dies, by Irish author Paul Murray (An Evening of Long Goodbyes, 2004) is indicated by its simultaneous publication as a slip-covered set of three paperback volumes (“Hopeland,” “Heartland” and “Ghostland”). Though widely praised as a comic novel, it opens with the death of its protagonist and subsequently proceeds through an account of life at a Dublin boarding school where students suffer from bullying and romantic malaise, and teachers (many of them former students) suggest the dead-end fates that await their pupils. Yet Murray’s narrative of “the juggernaut of puberty” is as exuberantly and ambitiously entertaining as its sensibility is dark.
Is this novel comic? Tragic? An interplay of the two?
The novel goes to some dark places, so I think it would be misleading to call it a comedy. That said, I wouldn’t classify it as a “tragedy” either—that word seems to me to separate traumatic events off from real life, to draw a line around them, when in fact the real tragedy of tragedy is that it happens to ordinary people living ordinary lives. I didn’t set out with the specific intention of making the novel one thing or the other. I just wanted to tell the story of these kids as honestly as I could. So in some places it’s funny, and in other places it’s sad—that seemed to me a truer reflection of what life is like.
Why does the novel start with Skippy’s death?
To be honest, I thought it was a good scene that would grab the reader’s attention. That was the main reason for putting it there. After Skippy dies, the book flashes back, and you don’t find out why he dies for 400 or so pages. My concern was that the reader needed a hook to pull her through those 400 pages.
Also, Skippy’s death at the start helps to pick him out as a central character, which helps in a book with so many other characters. Skippy’s quite a reclusive, quiet boy, and if he wasn’t highlighted at the start, I thought he might be overshadowed by some of the noisier but less central characters.
How do you see the three distinct sections working together? They seem like more than chapters, less than separate books.
You’re right—although each part has a different tone I thought of the three sections as being distinct parts of one whole, as opposed to separate entities of any kind. Splitting it up into parts was a way of giving shape to a long text. At the same time, it happened quite naturally—in the first draft there were these turning points where everything changed. You could even argue that the three parts give a kind of synopsis of what happens—the first is all concerned with hope and wishing; in the second part, the wishes come true, and everyone gets what they want; and in the third they have to deal with the disastrous consequences of that.
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Faber and Faber/FSG / August / 9780865479432 / $28.00
This book was featured in the Kirkus Best of 2010