Paul Murray’s second novel, Skippy Dies—recently longlisted for the Booker Prize—is more than six hundred pages long and tackles subjects ranging from string theory to World War I. Set at an Irish boarding school, the darkly comic tale (Skippy actually does die in the first chapter) is populated by a sharply drawn cast of confused, self-destructive teens and self-involved, irresponsible adults. Recently, Murray spoke to me from his home in Dublin.
Did you draw any of the characters and themes from your own experiences? Were you bullied at school?
I went to quite an illustrious school in Ireland called Blackrock College, and Seabrook College, the school in the book, physically resembles the school that I went to. But other than that, it wasn’t hugely autobiographical. I wasn’t bullied or anything; I wasn’t brutalized in any way. There were much nerdier kids in my school, and they would draw more of the fire, but I could see it going on around me. It wasn’t an evil place. But there was such a limited view of the world. It was a big rugby school, and I was incredibly bad at rugby. They would make you play it until you were about fifteen, no matter how incredibly pointless that was. So if you weren’t any good at rugby, then you sort of didn’t really have any kind of standing in the school.
I think being a teenager is really, really hard. You’re caught in this double bind: You’re struggling to establish your own identity, and at the same time you have absolutely zero of the tools that you need. You’re completely dependent on your parents, you have no money, and your day is mapped out for you from beginning to end. My school was a boys’ school; there were no girls, so life really felt kind of pointless in that regard. You’ve got these huge sexual transformations happening, but if there are no girls, obviously all the energy is just going to be turned into brutalizing whoever is smaller than you.
There was also a real emphasis on grades. The school would push students to perform well on exams and get a lot of points and get into good universities and so forth. The education system in Ireland is a real sausage factory. You go into class and you learn as many facts as you can and you regurgitate them in your exams, and there’s not a huge amount of respect for learning or a huge amount of respect for education. And because a lot of the kids were quite wealthy, some of them looked down on teachers. And the combination of a might-makes-right brutality and also getting a glimpse of the economic hierarchy that held sway in the country—all those things were really disappointing lessons to learn as a kid. It felt like my life began as soon as I left school.
There’s a scene where two teachers claim that it’s the age of the “kidult.” And many adults in the novel behave immaturely. Do you think it’s always been true that adults behave like children, or are we seeing something new?
I do think there’s a definite swing towards narcissism in my generation. You could really see it happening here. Ireland changed very rapidly in the nineties and early 2000s. There was a huge economic boom, and Ireland went from being quite a poor country and a real fiscal and cultural backwater to an economic paradise and a very materialistic society. Everybody spent tons and tons and tons of money on themselves, and it was horrible to look at because it was as naked a picture of greed as you could ever want, or not want, to see. Society became very cruel in many ways, and a lot of marginalized communities were totally left behind. It was a very American model of capitalism that had come in. And the country is now completely destitute. So that was what was happening when I was writing the book, and that’s the world I was writing about. And the kinds of people who were suddenly behaving in this very materialistic way—who you would think would be very happy and confident, because their parents were giving them everything they wanted—were the same kids who were developing drug habits and self-harming and becoming anorexic. These things had never happened in Irish society before, so in some ways it was hard to avoid the conclusion that, yes, this generation was different, and the way it was different was that it was pursuing its own ends very nakedly and artificially, with the result that connections were being damaged or destroyed and people were becoming unhappy and self-destructive.
You’re a thirty-five-year-old man. Was it difficult to write in the voice of a teenager?
I think that twenty years ago I’d have gotten out of school at twenty-three and got married and had five kids and there would be more of a generational gap. But now, in your mid-thirties, you’re still listening to contemporary music, you’re still watching shows that teenagers would watch, so I don’t think there’s the generational gulf there might have been before. And also, I’ve got friends still from school, and when I see them we do regress really quickly—it’s kind of scary—to our teenage state and talk in a not hugely dissimilar way to the kids in the book.
It was also really fun to write about the teenagers. In some ways teenagers are very different because they are very emotional and are very extreme and so forth, but also I think that adults just learn to conceal things better. In some ways, I think there’s an inner teenager who never really goes away, we just learn to keep him quiet.
There are so many disparate themes in this novel: string theory, World War I, pop-star obsessions, the adolescent drug culture, sexual abuse of boys by Catholic priests. How did you land on them?
They grew very much out of the material. I realized quite quickly that writing about school gave you this unique opportunity to have as many themes as you wanted. On the one hand, you’ve got a bunch of characters who are all inside the school, but each of them has his own story to tell; and on the other hand, you’ve got them all studying different things, so that’s a really easy way to get differing subjects in.
I had one basic concept that tied all of the disparate themes together: Each of these people was looking for a big narrative arc, big feelings, and getting themselves into really big trouble as a result. When I was writing the book, one of my housemates was getting into Buddhism, and he told about this famous Buddhist text called the Fire Sermon, which talks about how our very perception of the world is a violent one. Sight is burning, hearing is burning, desire is burning, and so on. I thought that was a really interesting idea. We seek out this very intense reaction to the world, we seek out grand emotions, we seek out grand stories, and we seek out grand experiences because that’s what makes us feel alive, but it’s actually a very selfish and ultimately quite a damaging way to live.
Skippy obsessively plays a video game called “Hopeland.” What is the significance of that?
I wanted the computer game to be this utopian world that Skippy could lose himself in. Skippy’s day-to-day world is very pessimistic and hopeless and just going worse and worse, but his computer-game world by contrast is a realm of romance and beauty and also a world where he has agency. Because if you’re playing a computer game, you’re the boss, the world takes shape around you. Skippy’s experience of the computer game—in which every single detail you come across has something to do with you and something to do with your quest—is sort of the inverse of what he’s experiencing in the real world, the world of everyday that we all live in, in which we don’t have a quest, and the details don’t relate to us, and we have to try and stitch everything together as best we can.
Where did you find inspiration for the book?
There’s a book called The Chocolate War that I read when I was a teenager, which always stayed with me. It’s about all of the hypocrisies and misuses of power that institutions seem by their nature to generate. The school administration is totally corrupt, and they use the school bullies as their muscle. The book was marketed as a teenage novel, but it’s very somber and unflinching, and it doesn’t patronize the reader in the least. I never forgot that book because I think school is a really trying environment, and in some ways is as bad as life gets—touching wood here—in terms of the picture it gives you of the world, of being a very aggressive place where the strongest call the shots and anybody weak or different is squashed like a bug. So that was a real influence.
Daniel Clowes wrote a graphic novel called Ghost World, and he’s got this comic called Eightball, and that was a really big influence on me when I was younger. And another graphic novel called Black Hole, by Charles Burns. It seemed sort of pigeonholed by being a graphic novel. It’s just such a powerful book, but so many people will just look at it and go, “Oh, it’s a graphic novel, it’s for skateboarding people, it’s not for me.”
And what got you writing in the first place?
I read Gravity’s Rainbow in college, and that was a really big one for me. It’s so gorgeously written and so inventive and so imaginative that it sort of makes you want to hang up your pen because you think, how can anything approach this? But it was really inspiring for me when I was younger because it was a bridge between the world of literature and the world of pop culture. I really like pop culture: I watch TV and I listen to music and I look at the Internet. When I was in college I studied English literature, and it felt like there was a divide between those two worlds, because on the one hand you had Paradise Lost and so forth, and on the other you had Sebadoh and Pavement, and both of those world I loved very dearly. But Gravity’s Rainbow was the first book that captured the energy of popular culture. That was the first book that was like, wow, literature can do this, literature can—as well as being a higher art form that expresses grand notions about memory and loss and so forth—be something that my peers could conceivably enjoy. That was a breakthrough book for me. David Foster Wallace I came to a little bit later, but similar thing.