Infinite Shadow: Reading Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

On the inside flap of Skippy Dies’s book jacket, in a text bubble, mention is made of David Foster Wallace’s tome, Infinite Jest (“First the Enfield Tennis Academy in Infinite Jest . . . Then Hogwarts School in Harry Potter . . . And now Seabrook College for boys: the funniest and most fatal of the three”).

At a December 2nd reading of Skippy Dies in Brookline, Massachusetts, author Paul Murray responded to a question about his favorite “comic novels,” starting his answer by stating his great admiration for Infinite Jest.

Speaking with The Paris Review, Murray ends an interview by alluding to Wallace’s influence.

Skippy Dies is in many ways a different book from Infinite Jest. For one, it’s more accessible. At 650+ pages, Murray’s tragic-comic novel is a bit of a monster, but one not nearly as fearsome as Wallace’s 1,079 page opus. Murray’s book is also less syntactically daring than Infinite Jest, and his narrative voice is more consistently singular and unchallenging. (There are no “Wardine be cry” moments in Skippy Dies.) Skippy also isn’t identifiably postmodern*, or post-postmodern in style; it’s Dickensian sweep feels rather indebted to classic, traditional literary models.

I’ve found, though, in Skippy Dies’s first 450 pages, that Murray’s book shares many qualities and concerns with Infinite Jest, which signals, I believe, more than anything else, good news for fans of IJ.

Critic Harold Bloom has written about the “anxiety of influence,” his belief being that a poet’s work springs from a well of literary influences and is, therefore, not entirely his own. He recognizes the psychological strain to create, to “make it new” as Ezra Pound cried, something that isn’t merely a piece of shadow-art. I think the years-long construction of Skippy Dies, from short-story to epic novel, can be looked at as an example of that struggle.

A great book will change the way I think about things. It will also, inevitably, change the way I write, and the way I think about writing. After reading Infinite Jest in high school, I started questioning the moral value of sincerity, its place and its absence in my life. I also adopted a messy maximalist style; I liberally plopped clauses between commas, rarely broke paragraphs, wrote term papers with un-requested footnotes.

The title object of Infinite Jest was a video so enjoyable that its viewer was unable to ever turn his or her eyes away from it. It was the most obvious representation of one of Wallace’s chief interests: entertainments. Entertainment, and specifically the popular culture it produces, has had a place in the postmodern tradition since its origin. The confluence of high and low art in Warhol’s work, his curiosity with the borders between art and entertainment, purity and commercialism/commodification, is an early example of the application of postmodern thought in the arts. Before IJ, Wallace played with pop culture’s importance most memorably and directly in “My Appearance,” a short story from his collection Girl With Curious Hair, which featured a character named “David Letterman.” Murray also identifies this tenet of postmodernism toward the end of that same brief Paris Review interview: “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 conceivable enjoy. That was a breakthrough book for me. David Foster Wallace I came to a little bit later, but similar thing.”

Prima facie, Murray hasn’t written a postmodern novel with Skippy Dies. It occasionally changes font style for comic effect, and on one memorable occasion (at the finish of “Homeland,” the first of the book’s three sections) inventively plays with a page’s white space, but for the most part Skippy Dies is a clear, linear, classically-structured coming-of-age story. A closer look, though, reveals a book deeply concerned with postmodernity, in ways that will ring familiarly to Wallace readers. In bullets, here are some reasons, a few inter-related, why the Infinite Jest allusion made on Skippy Dies’s book jacket shouldn’t be easily laughed off:

  • School — Here’s an obvious similarity, the one used (cheaply I at first thought) for marketing purposes on the jacket. Murray sets his story in an Irish boys boarding school adjacent to a school for girls. This configuration allows Murray a lot of freedom to explore the deep divisions between adolescent boys and girls. By choosing a college setting he has also specifically chosen a time when the seeds of adulthood are being laid, and values (such as sincerity) are being instilled and challenged. It’s a very fruitful setting for themes, adventure, and of course, humor. Murray was smart enough, also, to focus much of his narrative on a teacher at the school, Howard “The Coward,” a former student at Seabrook doomed forever to the halls of his childhood. Wallace and Murray both use young adults (in addition to grown adults) in their big stories because young adulthood is when ideas enter your brain at the fastest, most disorienting and exciting clip. Typically, you experience life at this time between the twin poles of apathy and action. You become an adult, a fully-realized person, and lose, to one degree or another, the safety net of youth. It’s a time of sexual awakening and recklessness. You are simultaneously at your most vulnerable and your most defensive.
  • Sport — At Seabrook, Skippy is on the swim team. While swimming’s role in Murray’s book isn’t entirely analogous to tennis’s hugely important function in Infinite Jest, there are some parallels. Murray uses swimming and sports to illustrate how young adults recognize their practical functions in life, as individuals and as members of teams. In Skippy Dies, as in Infinite Jest, there’s an element of choice and, once that choice has been made, a feeling like locked-in syndrome. Both books tackle commitment and personal drive, and also the way in which the things we give ourselves over to most, in combination with the endless external factors of daily life, have the power to break us completely down.
  • Substances — One of the most interesting themes explored in Infinite Jest is that of addiction. Taking place simultaneously at a halfway home and an elite boarding school known for its world-class commitment to boys’ tennis, Wallace draws parallels between the hunger for fame and perfection, and the hunger for smack. Wallace once said that “atheist” is a misnomer in today’s culture; one doesn’t not worship, one simply “chooses what to worship.” I believe he’d say something similar about addiction. We all have addictions, vices, they simply fall on different spectrums of the danger scale. In Infinite Jest, hard substances abound: most prominently weed, alcohol, and DMZ. In Skippy Dies, Murray writes primarily about pills of various purposes: diet pills, mood-enhancers, destabilizers. These pills are used recreationally by the boys at Seabrook and the girls at St. Brigid’s, in much the same way, it seems, alcohol is consumed by teenagers in America. Skippy’s “travel pills” affect his swimming abilities in much the same way weed affected Hal’s tennis skills. (Both primary characters, to note another shared quality, are, for the most part, introverts who turn to their drugs of choice as a means of escaping reality.)
  • Sincerity — In his essay, “David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction,” Adam Kelly writes, “David Foster Wallace affirmed and embodied sincerity as a crucial value in his life and work, perhaps even as that work’s defining feature.” Paul Murray is not an American writer, but with Skippy Dies he should, I think, be considered, a member of the (unofficial) New Sincerity movement. The recurrence of references to sincerity and fraudulence in Skippy Dies is too overwhelming to dismiss it as one of Murray’s minor themes. Early in the book, it’s revealed that two of the boys, Ruprecht and Dennis, don’t get along very well, because of the two diametrically-opposed ideological planes they live their lives on: sincerity and irony. Throughout the novel, we watch as sincere (if romantic) Ruprecht engages with his world, while the arch-cynical Dennis laughs it off as a joke, only ever an ancillary character to the book’s action. (It’s interesting to note, however, that even in the book’s early pages, Ruprecht is described by the narrator as donning a “persona.”) Sexy substitute Geography teacher Miss McIntyre is at one point described as having gestures that “have this disconcerting hint of unseriousness, of artificiality, as though she has lifted them for her own amusement from some antiquated sitcom.” Skippy and his father perpetually engage in a sort of “Game,” in which they both consciously avoid discussing difficult subject matter, such as the mysterious physical or mental condition of Skippy’s mother. Wallace admitted, in interviews, that living authentically in the age of television is a thorny and problematic prospect. Wallace, Kelly writes, suggested that any return to sincerity “must be informed by a study of postmodern fiction, in order to properly take into account the effects wrought by contemporary media, particularly TV and advertising.” The sitcom reference noted above hints at Murray’s likeminded interest in the mediasphere’s effect, an interest which permeates much of this novel’s first two sections.
  • Hyperreality/Postmodernity — The book takes place in the modern day, somewhere in the early aughts. This being the case, lives teenage and adult are heavily mediated and influenced by the time’s technologies. Texting is, for a time at the start, the dominant form of communication for Skippy and his quasi-girlfriend. An early fight between Howard and his girlfriend Halley sees Howard recording Halley with the “Sony JLS9xr,” which features image augmentation that makes the recorded image “even more vivid than . . . real life.” Murray writes, “She seems happier too, with this arrangement, liberated by not having to look into his eyes; she gazes out the window, down at the ashtray, kneads her bracelet against the bones of her wrist. Howard suddenly finds himself desiring her. Maybe this is the answer to all their problems! He could wear the camera all the time . . .” A teacher remarks that kids at fourteen are innately attuned to the material of two academic courses: biology and marketing. Howard wishes his life had “more of a narrative arc,” a desire symptomatic of postmodernity, of boredom with the unremarkable everyday. Two characters are described as living “like two actors in the final performance of a show no one comes to see any more.” The Acting Principal of Seabrook, pitching the idea of recording and distributing DVDs of an upcoming school concert, says, “Psychology of the twenty-first century: people like to capture the spectacle, own it.” We see this again, later, when one character makes frequent, useless use of his cell phone’s video camera.
  • Loneliness — This may be a stretch, as Wallace doesn’t have a copyright on the theme of “loneliness” (or schools, substances, or hyperreality for that matter**), but Murray seems just as much interested in the “stomach-level sadness” that Wallace spoke and wrote so much about. Wallace frequently said that the reading and writing processes had the power to temporary relieve the existential coldness of everyday life, that good fiction created a bridge from reader-to-writer, and that that bridge, while erected, trumped loneliness. Loneliness being always in Wallace’s mind, stifling his life and his work at some points, especially toward the end, it often manifested itself in his fiction. In Skippy Dies, too, we see the words “loneliness” and “alone” recur, sometimes in reference to Skippy, an archetypal loner, quiet even among friends. Here’s a verse from a popular song by the book’s fictional tween-pop sensation Bethani: “I wish I was eighteen, it would be so fine / to show everybody how we pass the time / and all the boys around the world would peek into my home / so there’s always someone watching and I never feel alone.” Howard, in a memorably moving passage, thinks about string theory. Identifying that our universe is made up of “open-ended strings, the forlorn, incomplete U-shaped strings,” he wonders whether our universe is “actually built out of loneliness; and [whether] that foundational loneliness persists upwards to haunt every one of its residents.”
  • Double-Binds — I haven’t given this shared feature much thought, but there is a moment early in Skippy Dies in which a schoolteacher, a Catholic priest, outright asks a student if he’s a virgin in front of the whole class. A “yes” promises approval from authority and mockery from his peers, while a “no” guarantees disdain and possibly punishment from on high, and social acceptance from his fellow students (until, of course, they realize that he’s lying, that he is a virgin). Compared to the double-binds of Infinite Jest, especially the one involving the kleptomaniac who suffers from agoraphobia, also posed to students by a teacher, Murray’s appear somewhat simple. Wallace’s lifelong preoccupation with and passion for deep, mathematical, philosophical thought (most evident in the recent publishing of an undergraduate thesis of his, as well as his maths-heavy book about infinity) resulted in fiction that often featured highly complex double-binds. (Speaking of infinity, on page 245 of Skippy Dies, Skippy thinks of a girl who made “sideways-8s” with her finger through the air, the closest thing to a direct reference to infinity [and so, possibly, Infinite Jest] that I can remember.)

If I finish Skippy Dies by the new year, it will have been the best book I read in 2010. I think Infinite Jest is in many areas (lingual brilliance, geometric structure, scope, self-reflexivity) a superior work, but is in some ways less successful than Skippy Dies. Murray’s book is far more approachable and, frankly, more consistently fun. It’s a surprisingly thrilling page-turner, which, much as I enjoyed reading Infinite Jest, is something I cannot say for Wallace’s doorstopping masterwork. I’m also tempted to say that Skippy Dies has more heart than IJ, but that might be not only unfair or untrue but fundamentally unquantifiable.

I must stress that I don’t read these similarities as evidence of plagiarism. I side with Bloom (if I understand him correctly) in that I find the challenge of “mak[ing] it new” insurmountable, especially in a hyperrealistic, media-saturated global culture. All novels are mysteries, equations. Occasionally familiar factors re-appear in new works. It’s the wormy nature of influence, and it’s to be expected in works that are products of a culture in which writers and readers alike are bombarded with information and media at an unprecedented rate and volume. Besides anesthetization, being influenced seems the truest and most common reaction to info-bloated life, as ordered by the Internet and other seductive media mediums. As Michael Chabon has written: “All novels are sequels; influence is bliss.” Plus, the similarities I’ve distinguished here are all matters of content; Murray’s style, save a few excessively stream-of-consciousness, rule-breaking scenes, shares little with Wallace’s. And Skippy Dies, though patterned nicely, wasn’t written, I don’t think, with fractals in mind.

I said above that a great book will change the way I think about things. Murray was obviously changed after reading Infinite Jest, in much that same ways I was: as a reader, a writer, and as a person. He started looking in the same directions Wallace had looked. It’s been hard for me to read Skippy Dies autonomously. I’m more attuned to what it shares with Infinite Jest than what it does differently, better, worse. My reading life, it seems, is characterized by an “anxiety of influence.” The writers I read unknowingly face the great, maybe impossible challenge of making a singular impression in my memory. I yearn for the novel that defies the referential reader impulse: the actually incomparable book. Skippy Dies isn’t that book, but it is (so far) one of the most charming, hysterical, and heartfelt products of our post-postmodern moment that I’ve ever had the good fortune to come across. Once I complete it, Murray’s novel will likely sit in that colossal shadow, Wallace’s shadow, which may itself, too, rest within another shadow altogether, shadows covering shadows, with the rest of my favorite, wonderfully inspired books.

*I apologize for my overuse of this overused word. For a crystal-clear takedown of the “postmodern” label, which, despite what the long length of this post suggests, I wholeheartedly agree with, check out Dennis Cooper’s succinct “No Mo’ Pomo.”
**I think he might actually have a theoretical monopoly on “sincerity.”
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4 Responses to Infinite Shadow: Reading Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

  1. Allan says:

    Thanks for the review. The cover has caught my eye from the racks a few times; next time I’ll be moved to actually pick it up.

    Regarding “a girl who made ‘sideways-8s’ with her finger through the air” being a possible IJ reference, given his stated admiration, I’d say it’s a clear nod to Orin’s habit of tracing “idle little sideways 8’s on the postcoital flanks” (p 289) of his partners. (The symbol’s also mentioned–and more explicitly identifed–elsewhere: “Not real bright — she thought the figure he’d trace … was the numeral 8, to give you an idea.” (47))

  2. brooks says:

    What an excellent review! I’m nearly finished with the novel and I absolutely love it. I agree with the IJ comparisons. I also can’t help thinking of Steinbeck when reading the novel, although I’m unsure why. Maybe it’s the sincerity I detect in East of Eden or The Winter of Our Discontent or maybe it just touches me in the same way. I’ll have to meditate on that for a bit.

  3. willhansen2 says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful response. There are many specific parallels of plot and character that might be mentioned, of which two seem especially interesting to me:
    1) The misunderstood teenager, unable to speak and in mortal danger, in the very first scenes of each book.
    2) The afterlife. Both DFW and Murray broach the mystery of death through the possibility of ghosts or “wraiths,” and juxtapose such traditionally “supernatural” phenomena with scientific attempts to explain those phenomena.

  4. Pingback: Womanless Worlds « The Ambiguities

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