Two Novels by Paul Murray

By Spencer Cawein Pate

Few books have brought me as much pleasure in recent years as Paul Murray’s two novels to date, An Evening of Long Goodbyes and Skippy Dies. (I’ve read both multiple times.) Murray, an Irish writer, reminds me of a quote from Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy: “Tears and laughter, they are so much Gaelic to me.” Like Beckett, Murray skillfully weaves together tragedy and comedy so as to make them inseparable.

Murray’s first novel, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, centers on a brother-sister pair living in a country mansion following the death of their wealthy father. The brother, Charles Hythloday, fancies himself an aristocratic country gentlemen, but when reality intrudes upon his fantasy in the form of overdue bills, romantic disenchantment, and the housekeeper’s Bosnian family living secretly in the home’s uncompleted extension, Charles is forced to leave his idyll and get a job. Meanwhile, his sister Bel, an actress, is caught up in an attempt to transform the family home into a community theater. One of Murray’s greatest strengths is his superb ear for distinctive, witty dialogue, and the ensuing comedy also functions as a finely observed and often affecting commentary on social class and Irish culture during the country’s economic boom of the late nineties. 

The most unusual feature of An Evening of Long Goodbyes, though, is the bifurcated ending. Charles refuses to tell the reader exactly what happened; instead, he gives us two options, a happy one and a sad one. This sounds clumsy or frustrating in the abstract, but it works surprisingly well in execution. Murray is trying to make us consider how the ending of a novel can retroactively transform the mingled sentiments contained in the narrative–like the intertwined strands of a DNA helix–into a single emotional affect. (This is what psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan meant when he referred to the point de capiton, or “quilting point,” that brings closure to the symbolic order through the knotting of a final master signifier.) By refusing resolution, the book fibrillates between tears and laughter, making it seem closer to real life than either straightforward tragedy or comedy. Charles becomes older, sadder, and wiser, but the open-ended nature of the novel leaves the reader feeling as though he or she has just said a long, lingering goodbye to a group of old friends.

With Skippy Dies, Murray found a way to seamlessly fuse together tragedy and comedy. The novel mostly takes place in and around Seabrook, a Catholic boys’ boarding school in Ireland, and the narrative follows the parallel lives and loves of its teachers and students. As an educator, I’m perhaps predisposed to be emotionally affected by books set in schools (provided that their depictions of school feel truthful to experience), but Skippy Dies is especially resonant for me. It’s not only an astonishingly accurate exposition of the anxieties, challenges, and rewards specific to the teaching profession, it’s also one of the most honest and unromanticized portrayals of adolescence ever written. (Although the very qualities that make it such an accurate portrait of young adulthood are precisely the same qualities that would render it unsuitable and inappropriate by the narrow standards of “young adult fiction.”) I have no idea whether Murray has ever worked as a teacher, but he absolutely nails the cultural milieux of contemporary teenage males, the confusions of identity that are inherent to the process of growing up. His characters are complex and exceedingly well-drawn (the novel’s central group of friends often reminded me of my own social group in junior high school), and once again his dialogue strikes a tricky balance between the naturalistic imperatives of literary fiction and the energy, wit, and intelligence that animate conversation in the comic novel.

Skippy Dies is elegantly structured in three sections, with a brief prologue and epilogue to frame the novel as a whole. Each of the three parts builds to a narrative climax that also serves as a remarkable tragicomic setpiece–a school dance that spirals out of control, a covert mission to break into the neighboring girls’ school (when I first read the novel in college, this sequence had me worried that I would burst out laughing and wake up my roommate), and a school anniversary concert that quickly turns disastrous. The prologue is a flash-forward to the titular event–a Seabrook student dies during a doughnut-eating contest–which chronologically slots in between parts two and three. There is a sense of mounting dread as we approach Skippy’s death, but the last third is where Murray really shines, as his characters deal with the aftermath of tragedy, finding their relationships and perspectives forever changed by their loss. The semi-comic conclusion that follows is one of the most genuinely moving in recent memory because it feels emotionally earned.

Murray’s novel thus preemptively confronts and deflates the arguments of spoiler-averse readers–we’re not reading to find out whether Skippy lives or dies, we’re reading to discover why. It’s the accumulation of rich detail and incident that matters, which is appropriate for a novel whose central theme is the reconciliation between random chance and deterministic fate (a theme that is expressed in turn through metaphoric imagery drawn from string theory, Irish mythology, and WWI history). In a novel as frequently hilarious as Skippy Dies, its level of gritty realism–the plot touches upon suicide, molestation, drug abuse, infidelity, eating disorders, parental neglect and poverty–is occasionally shocking and upsetting, though never gratuitously so. Murray is often stylistically daring as well, such as using stream-of-consciousness techniques and unusual typography to limn the arc of a drug trip.

But by contrast to the ending of An Evening of Long Goodbyes, the ending of the last section of Skippy Dies sublates tragedy into comedy in the classical sense of the word (although the coda that follows closes the book on a melancholy note). This is not the same as saying that comedy has the power to undo tragedy, to reverse the arrow of time; rather, comedy is a further dialectical twist that begins where tragedy ends*. Whereas tragedy is contingent, cyclical, and immanent, the result of the gap between mankind and the Absolute, comedy is transcendent, allowing us to access and laugh at the Absolute itself. Tragedy is given, but comedy is sublime. It is akin to alchemy, transmuting the gold of humor–of love and friendship–out of the raw materials of human hurt.

In the first paragraph I compared Paul Murray to Samuel Beckett, but Beckett is far more dour and minimalist than Murray. Ultimately, Murray is much closer in spirit to his countryman James Joyce, a fellow comic writer at heart. Like Joyce’s masterworks, Paul Murray’s books are hilarious, warm, expansive, forgiving, cathartic: they will make you cry and laugh uproariously at the same time.

*I recommend Alenka Zupancic’s The Odd One In to anyone interested in a dialectical meditation on comedy. Zupancic’s theoretical orientation is Hegelian / Lacanian, and she correctly points out that Hegel’s appreciation for the art of comedy–in his estimation it’s the highest form of art, a judgment with which I am in complete agreement–is one of his most unique and appealing qualities among philosophers.

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