February 2011

Michele Filgate

features

An Interview with Paul Murray

Skippy Dies, by Irish writer Paul Murray, was one of my favorite books of 2010. Many other critics and readers felt the same way, and now itís a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, as well as a contender in The Morning News Tournament of Books. (Full disclosure: Iím one of the Tournament of Books judges this year.) †

Why do so many people admire Paulís second book? Whatís not to appreciate about a sprawling, humorous novel set at a boyís school in Dublin; a book that encompasses the trials of being both a teenager and an adult? Thereís definitely humor here, but Paul also covers some serious territory. I was beyond excited to e-mail him some questions recently. We talked about nerds, doughnuts, and stories: three of my favorite things.

How did you come up with the idea for Skippy Dies?

Believe it or not, it was supposed to be a short story. My initial idea was for a two-hander about a teacher and one of his students. But once I started writing about the school it just kept growing and growing. I found that setting very liberating -- there were so many different characters and situations it allowed, and every character had his own story, so the book could simultaneously be a love story, a coming-of-age story, a midlife crisis story, it could be funny, it could be very frightening and dark. I donít really like to confine myself to one genre or tone, I like moving between the registers -- it would feel artificial to me to deliberately write something as a "comedy" or a "tragedy," defining the tone beforehand. In that respect it helped to have teenage protagonists, because teenagers in their moods and behaviour move very quickly from one extreme to the other, so you could have them doing and saying things that in older characters would be implausible. You could switch from very broad comedy to quite harrowing material in a few pages.

One wouldnít suspect from the title of your second novel that the book is actually quite funny. I feel that writers with a good sense of humor get unfairly pigeonholed/not taken as seriously in the literary world at times. Do you feel the same way? If so, why is there a bias? Where does it come from?

I agree -- Howard Jacobson said some very interesting things about this recently, about how humour has actually come to be seen as a negative in the contemporary literary world. It didnít used to be like that. Historically speaking the novel has always been comedic -- the whole point of the novel was to undercut delusions of grandeur, whatever imperious myths a society might be telling about itself, and to try to depict instead reality in all its modesty. And to try to find some beauty too, in that modesty. And from Cervantes to Fielding to Dickens right into the twentieth century with Joyce, Beckett, Waugh, Pynchon, Amis senior and junior, youíve got writers who can make you laugh out loud even as theyíre presenting very complex treatments of what it is to be human. In the last twenty years it seems like thatís changed. I wonder if itís because TV has encroached so much on the novelís terrain. You know, until relatively recently, the same twenty years arguably, TV could be relied upon to be pretty brain-atrophying and patronizing and stupid. But now you have 30 Rock and The Wire and so forth, which -- having swiped a lot of their moves from the novel -- do such a good job of "entertaining" us that the novelís suddenly on much shakier ground. The novelís not certain what itís for any more, and you get the impression that the literary world, or a part of it, has come to believe its only USP is that itís not funny, or exciting, and treats only of the difficult, worthy, super-serious topics that other media donít. Literature is the place where youíre definitely not going to be entertained, and this once very playful, very capacious form is being used to push this very narrow and programmatic concept of authenticity and of what life really is. So youíre getting this proliferation of unfunny, Extremely Serious novels about shtetls and so forth.

I donít know, if thatís really the case, it seems like a pretty dangerous and self-destructive strategy in the long or even the middle term. I hate the idea of literature as this sort of reserve of rarefaction, where only literary things happen, and reading becomes kind of a penance. Because ultimately that means that writing will go the way of opera, as Don DeLilloís predicted, and become this very minority and somewhat elitist institution, when like I say the whole history of the novel as an art form has been the opposite of that. Having said that, American fiction still has a lot of very high-profile writers who are also funny -- Jonathan Franzen, for instance, is a really gifted comic writer, as well as being a great reader of society and its undercurrents. So maybe thereís hope. At least I hope thereís hope.

Are you drawn to books that take place in academic settings? Why do you think they are popular in contemporary culture?

Well, when I talked to my editor about the book originally, and I warned that it was going to be long and have some maybe quite difficult material in it, she pointed out that having a novel set in a school would automatically give readers a point of connection with it. The overwhelming majority of readers have been to school, and so experienced somewhat similar things to the characters in the book. Having that familiarity there at the beginning meant that I could go to weirder and less familiar places without feeling like I was going to lose readers along the way. Academic settings generally speaking are perfect microcosms -- theyíre self-contained, theyíre hierarchical, there are all the power-systems and abuses of power-systems that we encounter more impalpably in the world at large. And what better way to investigate how a society regards itself than to look at the rulebook -- to see how itís teaching its newest members to think and behave?

Thereís a lot of nerd humor in Skippy Dies. Some of the characters play D&D, and one of the main characters, Ruprecht, is obsessed with a parallel universe. Would you say you relate more to the nerdier characters in the book? I ask this because the nerdier characters are naturally the more likable characters.

I definitely liked the nerdier characters. I think partly because thereís an honesty to them. When I wrote about the more "normal" characters I found it a lot harder, mainly because I think that they were hiding everything important about themselves. I mean, nobodyís normal. But in school especially, you have this huge mass of people in the middle who put all of their energy into dressing and thinking and behaving in exactly the same way as the people around them, and stifling anything about themselves that they fear marks them out as different. So they come across as bland, because theyíre deliberately trying to appear bland, and itís very difficult to get past that wall. The nerdier characters -- itís a strange feature of human behaviour, that intelligent people, particularly intelligent kids, donít have the same ability to cover themselves up and blend in with their surroundings, even though it would be to their advantage. Instead they play D&D and bring all kinds of calamity down on themselves. And donít get girlfriends until theyíre 29.

One of my favorite quotes in the book is on the second to last page. You write: ďMaybe instead of strings itís stories things are made of, an infinite number of tiny vibrating stories; once upon a time they all were part of one big giant superstory, except it got broken up into a jillion different pieces, thatís why no story on its own makes any sense, and so what you have to do in a life is try and weave it back together, my story into your story, our stories into all the other peopleís we know, until youíve got something that to God or whoever might look like a letter or even a whole wordÖĒ Does this match your personal view of the world we live in?

Towards the end of the book, Howard (one of the teachers) takes his students to Memorial Gardens on an unauthorized field trip. He wants his students to understand the nature of history. ďĎItís a good example of how history works,í Howard says. ĎWe tend to think of it as something solid and unchanging, appearing out of nowhere etched in stone like the Ten Commandments. But history, in the end, is only another kind of story, and stories are different from the truth. The truth is messy and chaotic and all over the place. Often it just doesnít make sense. Stories make things make sense, but the way they do that is to leave out anything that doesnít fit. And often that is quite a lot.íĒ This quote kind of says the opposite of the previous quote I mentioned. So which one is more truthful? Do we learn more from stories or from history?

Iím going to combine those two questions. No oneís asked me that before, and I never thought of those two statements as competing philosophies. I think Howardís line about history refers to the kind of master-systems we have inflicted on us by the powers that be -- these ways of thinking that claim to have reality all figured out. So recently we had Fukuyama telling us that history had ended. In finance, we had the Internet boomers telling us weíd entered a new paradigm of endless growth, and the quants claiming theyíd eliminated risk. In science, thereís a constant succession of these narratives -- weíve mapped the genome, we can see the neurological mechanisms responsible for what we call love, weíre one step away from the Grand Unified Theory that will explain absolutely everything. A hundred years ago -- twenty years ago, in Ireland -- you had priests performing this role, of instructing us what to do from a position of having unique access to the secrets of the universe. And the fact is, theyíre all wrong. The massive wrongness of almost every economist in the world we saw in the Credit Crunch, though weíd already seen it in the Internet bubble a few years before. Why did we listen to them again? 9/11 illustrated just how far history was from ending. M-theory struck me as a really nice encapsulation of the ultimate uselessness of these ways of thinking -- itís the total explanation of reality, but not only can we not canít actually understand it, we canít even understand how to understand it.

The truth of it is that you canít "master" reality. Life is random. Itís too big to understand. And pretending to or striving to have it figured out comes from, according to Nietzsche anyway, a fear of life and a desire to escape from it into some comforting little bubble. Loriís monologue at the end is opposite way of thinking. We donít know what the future holds. We donít know what the next ten minutes hold. Itís scary to be alive. But, some things are definitely there, and definitely real. Iím real, and youíre real, and instead of ignoring you in the pursuit of some mythical Answer, maybe Iíd be happier actually talking to you and finding some common ground between us. Maybe that would help me to understand myself a little better, and to feel less alone. And if I felt less alone, maybe Iíd be readier to accept the randomness and the chaos and the uncertainty of the everyday.

Many scenes are set at a doughnut shop. I have to ask. Whatís your favorite kind of doughnut?

When I was a teenager the American chain Dunkin' Donuts opened a branch in Dublin. For me and my friends, this was like a spaceship landing, because at that time Ireland was quite similar to Eastern Europe -- poor, cut off from the rest of the world, culturally quite repressed and static. So Dunkin' Donuts was the coolest place in Dublin. As a teenager though I spent all my money on cigarettes and I never had enough left for doughnuts, so I used to just sit there drinking their horrible coffee. Since I quit smoking Iíve developed a real sweet tooth, but Dunkin' Donuts is gone, which is probably a good thing.

Can you talk about the difference between writing Skippy Dies and writing your first novel?

The obvious difference is that An Evening of Long Goodbyes was written in the first person, through the eyes of a wealthy layabout called Charles Hythloday. I really liked writing in his voice, and having that single perspective was very useful in terms of bringing together the different strands of the book. But it was also limiting for the same reason -- there were so many things Charles just wasnít able to say -- so when I started this book I was excited about the possibilities of a book written in the third person with multiple narrators. The books are similar in some ways, theyíre both based around these slightly gothic structures (an old house, a school) and go from there into contemporary Dublin. But Skippy has more emotional extremes, I guess, and also a much more complicated plot. And time travel.

What are you currently working on?

Iím working on some short stories at the moment. Iíve got an idea for a novel that I want to start working on later this year -- itís going to be short, thatís my main ambition for it at this point.