Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Skippy Dies
Paul Murray
Faber & Faber
2010
Available in hardcover and in a 3-volume paperback box set

So I’ve been struggling to get back to the blog lately.  I left my Crystalis thing half done and made several starts and stops into writing more about books (sorry The Brief Frightening Reign of Phil, I’ll get to you soon… promise!).

But now I want to talk about a fantastic book that I would never had found if I hadn’t read The Instructions.  Over and over, on so many sites, I found references to Skippy Dies right next to reviews or discussions about The Instructions.  And rightfully so.

They’re both long, stark looks at youths in religious-based schooling, plumbing the dark depths of their tortured souls.  Both main characters fall in love early on in the stories, both characters are generally loners with a strong, small group of friends.

One of the main things I came to really enjoy about Skippy Dies was how Murray played with the timeline.

For instance, the main character Daniel “Skippy” Juster chokes to death in the opening chapter and the next four hundred pages is an investigation told in flashback (the subsequent 250 pages tell of the aftermath of Skippy’s death.  Suddenly, we’re there in the weeks leading up to his death, seeing what he goes through.

Additionally, you get several characters’ points of view throughout the novel.

Howard “The Coward.”  An alumnus of Seabrook College who now teaches there.
Carl.  The sociopathic drug dealer who competes with Skippy over the heart of Lori.
Greg “The Automator.”  The Acting Principal of Seabrook.  Quick to anger, always plotting.
Ruprecht.  The science-obsessed, overweight superbrain that sits by while Skippy chokes to death.

Of course, those are only a few of the characters.  Many of the other characters in the book get brief POV paragraphs too.  Some reviews I read complained that the characters seemed like stock characters and, to a point, they are.  The coach, the priest, the bad-ass mail clerk with a heart of gold…  But Paul Murray, much like my buddy Neil Gaiman, can take old ideas and reinvent them in fantastic ways.

Most impressive about Skippy Dies is not only the characterization, but the way the characters interact.  Characters twist in and out of each other’s plots, bounce off one another, and all are affected by both the life and death of Skippy, even if they don’t realize it.

After reading Skippy Dies, I highly recommend it.  Brilliant writing with some of the most touching and poignant passages I’ve read in the last twelve months, excellent story telling, and some of the most fun, sickening, disturbing, and incredible characters in recent literature.

[PS: I started writing this about a two weeks ago and bounced around it a bit, added, deleted, then knew I had to write about The Raw Shark Texts before it left my conscious mind, so this seems a bit fractured than normal, but… there ya go… read the book… READ IT!]

The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall

The Raw Shark Texts
By Steven Hall
Canongate Books, London
2007

Eric Sanderson wakes in his bedroom to discover that he has no memory of who he is.  Even the most basic things are gone.  A check of his pockets gives him his name and picture on his ID, a note on his door tells him to call Dr Randle, who will help explain everything.

So begins Steven Hall’s trippy, insane, highly original first novel.

It starts off innocently enough, as a novel about psychological damage, loss of memory, and a man trying to find his way back into an unfamiliar world.  And then… things get weird.

Eric receives a letter in the mail.  From his past self, referred to in the closing as The First Eric Sanderson.  Because of course he does.  It wasn’t weird enough.  But that’s still in the first forty pages, or so.  The remaining 300 pages deals with many of the same themes as the starting pages… the fragility of memory, the fear of the unfamiliar, one’s ability to trust those who want to help us…

Oh yeah… and a theoretical FUCKING shark made out of FUCKING words.  I know that doesn’t make sense.  But imagine a shark made out of words and letters.  Now imagine that this shark is mostly made of that.  Imagination, that is.  The shark is a concept that travels through the stream of consciousness and feeds on memories.

Yup.  So there’s that.  That’s about page 50.  And it only gets weirder from there.  The Un-space Exploration Committee, Mr Nobody, Mycroft Ward, and many other weird names, terms, and situations occur.  And damn is it ever awesome.

The Raw Shark Texts is a head trip.   Imagine Kurt Vonnegut at his weirdest, Clive Barker at his scariest, and Jaws all tossed together into a blender.  Then add conceptual sharks made out of words, a touch of British humor and wit, and one hell of a third act.

You may break your brain trying, but you need to read this book.  Don’t worry about sleeping again.  I know I won’t.