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September 24, 2010

Book Notes - Paul Murray ("Skippy Dies")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Upon receiving Paul Murray's hefty (600+ pages) Skippy Dies, I was a bit daunted. Big books don't phase me (I am in the middle of Adam Levin's gargantuan The Instructions at the moment), but there are only so many hours in the day and I was afraid I wouldn't have time to read it.

Fortunately, Skippy Dies is one of the funniest novels of the year. The book held me rapt from its first page with its genuine humor often tempered with tragedy. Murray is a master storyteller, his characters (young and old, major and minor) brim with life, and the book's unexpected turns both surprise and astonish.

The Washington Post wrote of the book:

"The mixture of tones is the book's true triumph, oscillating the banal with the sublime, the silly with the terrifying, the sweet with the tragic. In short, it's like childhood. In shorter, like life. The book's refrain -- that we never really outgrow being lovesick, awkward, bullying children -- isn't exactly breaking news, but it's never been truer. As one teacher says in the staff room, 'The twenty-first century is the age of the kidult.'"

In his own words, here is Paul Murray's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Skippy Dies:

I started writing Skippy Dies in 2002. The book is set in a school in South Dublin in Ireland. It revolves around a group of fourteen-year-old boys, Skippy being the hero, or the antihero, who falls for Lori, a (dangerously) beautiful girl from the convent school next door. In the opening scene, he dies during a doughnut-eating race with his roommate, Ruprecht, and writes Lori's name on the floor in strawberry syrup; the book then tracks back to discover how his death came about.

Writing about teenagers was liberating in many ways, because their emotional lives are so dramatic and so unconcealed. They could plausibly say or do almost anything; you could really push things to the limit. I worked hard to capture the intensity of feeling you experience as a teenager – the sense of connection you can feel for your friends, to the point of turning into each other, the sense of adoration you can have for a girl or a boy you hardly know, the loneliness and confusion and despair you can feel for no reason at all. So I was able to listen to intensely romantic songs and revel in the extremes of emotion they generated quite guiltlessly, by way of research. These are some of the songs that fed into the book.

'JC' by Sonic Youth

I could have picked any number of Sonic Youth tracks – 'The Diamond Sea', with its fifteen minutes of extreme noise chaos, I thought of as a kind of model when the plot breaks down two-thirds of the way through the book, and 'I Love You Golden Blue' helped describe the kind of supernatural, obsessive quality that young love can have. But 'JC' is I think my favourite Sonic Youth track, capturing perfectly the volatile teenage mix of attitude and vulnerability, sexuality and anxiety. I love Kim Gordon's voice, and I love the way she sort of fatalistically half-raps the story of a doomed, glancing half-relationship here, with the noise spiralling in the background becoming louder and louder until it overcomes her.

'N-Sub Ulysses' by Nation of Ulysses

When I was growing up in Dublin, there was only one shop that sold indie records, and the owner was your classic record-store snob. Nation of Ulysses was the only band he seemed to like, and I think part of the reason I bought this was to see his sneer briefly lifting, or possibly to distract him from whatever other, less cool record I was buying at the same time. This song is amazing, though: violent, powerful, also sardonic and funny. It's at once a brilliantly OTT manifesto, full of the fiery certainties of youth, and a spot-on subversion of those certainties. There are trumpets; there is an opening monologue, which quotes Nietzsche; the singer makes Kurt Cobain sound like Ella Fitzgerald. Whenever I imagine Skippy as a movie, this is the song it opens with.

'Heartbeats' by Jose Gonzalez

I spent the entire seven years of writing Skippy Dies trying to learn the guitar part for this. For one brief moment, I almost had it down. Now it's slipped away again. Jose Gonzalez is famous for his intensely reverent live shows; however the last time he played in Dublin, an unidentified audience member threw up on my housemate Sandra.

'Tonight, Tonight' by Smashing Pumpkins

I was never quite sure about Smashing Pumpkins, even at their height, but their third album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, is outstanding and this song is the highlight. It's impossible not to get caught up in the sugar-rushed romance of it, and when Skippy finally gets to kiss the girl of his dreams I think of this in the background.

'The Cool' by Lupe Fiasco is about a murdered gangsta who comes back from the dead. It's not a horror story – instead it depicts his confusion as he wakes up in his own grave and starts digging to the surface, like a 'reverse archaeologist' whose 'buried treasure was sunshine'. He doesn't understand what's happened to him, and all he can think to do is get back to his block, where, in the end, he gets held up by the same people who shot him. In Skippy Dies there is a lot of material about the liminal space between life and death, ghosts haunting the living, the way we keep the dead alive in memory. You don't encounter those themes too often in music, but this song is a work of genius.

'There She Goes My Beautiful World' by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Researching Skippy Dies I read a lot about the British poet Robert Graves and his theory of the White Goddess, a pre-Christian deity he believed to be the first muse and the source of all poetry. His search for a real-life muse led him into some pretty disastrous situations, which are echoed by some of the characters in the book. This song is both a straight-up muse-invocation and a very funny review of some of the strange methods pursued by writers down through the ages ('St John of the Cross did his best stuff imprisoned in a box/And Johnny Thunders was half-alive/When he wrote Chinese Rocks'). As far as inspiration goes, I've been listening to Nick Cave for nearly twenty years, and it's really heartening to see he can still write a song this good.

'Odi et Amo' by Jóhann Jóhannsson

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris? nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior. Ain't that the truth. Catullus's brief, agonised poem, which anticipates almost every other poem and song and novel and movie for the next two thousand years, is set beautifully to music here by the great Icelandic composer.

'Thirteen' by Elliott Smith

A really great Big Star song that manages to catch the sensitivity of young love without being tacky or cheesy, covered with characteristic grace and intensity by the sorely-missed Smith.

'Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl' by Broken Social Scene

A handful of lines repeated over and over, this takes obsession and yearning and heartbreak to the absolute limit. It's so incredibly sad that it comes full circle, so that by the end it achieves, in its strange melancholy introverted perfection, a kind of joyousness.

'Time to Pretend' by MGMT

Most days after work I would go for a run, and this song was a favourite. Unlike musicians or directors, writers don't get offered much by way of models or heroin; nevertheless after a hard day at the desk I often took vicarious solace in MGMT's vision of hedonistic artistic excess. I know they're being ironic, but there's still something uplifting and exuberant about this song. Even when they choke on their vomit at the end, it sounds somehow triumphant.

Paul Murray and Skippy Dies links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book (at the Guardian)
excerpt from the book (at Poets & Writers)

2010: The Year in Books review
Another Cookie Crumbles review
Asylum review
Baby Got Books review
Barnes & Noble Review review
Beatrice review
Blogtrotter review
The Blurb review
The Bookbag review
Bookforum review
BookPage review
Christian Science Monitor review
Dallas Morning News review
Entertainment Weekly review
Follow the Thread review
Guardian review
Independent review
Irish Independent review
Keeper of the Snails review
KevinfromCanada review
The Literateur review
Lovely Treez Reads review
Marie Claire review
New York Times review
NPR review
Peter Geoghegan's Blog review
Red Adept Reviews review
Sarah's Books review
SCC English review
Sunday Times review
Telegraph review
Washington Post review

Keeper of the Snails interview with the author
Man Booker Prize interview with teh author profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists