Skippy Dies Uneven but Intriguing Read

By Paul Murray
Faber and Faber, ISBN 978-0-86547-943-2, 661 pp.

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Paul Murray’s sophomore novel opens with a shock: fourteen-year-old Daniel “Skippy” Juster has just died on the floor of a down-market Dublin doughnut shop, the name of his girlfriend upon his lips. Why did Skippy die? Was if for love? Was it the pills he and his friends indiscriminately pop? Was if from a ruptured heart triggered by his recent swim meet? Or is something more sinister to blame?

Murray’s sprawling novel is, at turns, sad, provocative, chilling, and screamingly funny. It is set at Seabrook College, a once-tony-grown-shabby Irish Catholic prep school. It’s a place that’s been cruising on its reputation for decades, the kind of place where “tradition” is constantly invoked in the hope that no one will notice that “venerable” has been steamrollered by “sclerotic.” The priests who nominally run the place are old and tired, as is much of the lay faculty. In fact, the entire staff knows the place is a joke except for “the Automator,” oily Acting Principal Greg Costigan, who is determined to modernize Seabrook and aggrandize himself in the process. The students are certainly aware that Seabrook is just a place where their well-heeled parents stuck them to get them out of sight and out of mind, a reality Murray reveals in several tortured phone calls between Skippy and his clueless father.

Skippy Dies isn’t really about why Daniel Juster died; it’s really about how institutions, families, and individuals fall apart in ways analogous to the famed frog-in-the-pot scenario in which the frog isn’t aware he’s being slowly boiled to death. In many ways, it’s also a metaphor for Ireland. (Remember how the Celtic Tiger turned out to be declawed stray cat?) The kids are especially sharply drawn. Murray assembles a memorable cast. Skippy’s family life is so screwed up that he finds temporary solace in Lori, a little flirt who’s taking him for a twisted ride. His roommate is Ruprecht Van Doren, an obese, doughnut-inhaling nerd who is either a future genius or a young Frankenstein, who is busy building a machine constructed of copious amounts of tinfoil, which he hopes will allow him to access the eleventh dimension! Others in his circle include Mario, who carries his “lucky” condom, which has never been out of its wrapper in the three years he’s possessed it; the über-cynic Dennis; and Titch, a vacuous preppy predestined to follow his old man into the gray-flannel realm of banking and mergers. Murray absolutely nails teenaged angst. He paints a world of boys obsessed by sex and thoughtless in their personal interactions, though vaguely aware of being adrift. Skippy’s group lives in mortal fear of thuggish upper classmen, especially a clique led by Carl, a neo-fascist drug pusher who does his best to hide the demons that would reveal him to be frightened, damaged, and insecure.

Where are the adults to help the kids navigate these shoals? Clueless would be too charitable an adjective. History teacher Howard Fallon is a milquetoast dubbed “Howard the Coward” by students and peers alike, and not without reason. Costigan is what Carl will look like in ten years and Miss McIntyre the amoral temptress Lori will become. The rest are assorted cynics and fools, except for the priests, who are something altogether darker. The adults don’t hear each other, let alone the kids; in fact, they are often revealed responding to imagined conversations, not what was actually said.

Murray uses humor, surrealism, absurdism, and splashes of magical realism throughout. These add needed balance to the pathos and tragedy of a story that’s less coming-of-age than end-of-an-age. At 661 pages the novel sprawls, sometimes effectively, but often not. At 400 taut pages Skippy Dies would have been a small masterpiece; as is, it sometimes stumbles over its myriad style and mood shifts, and the hit-us-over-the-head metaphors. (The theme of futility is, for instance, hammered and anviled home by Howard’s obsession with World War I.) Overall, though, it’s a worthwhile read. I’ll give you a hint: Skippy didn’t choke on doughnuts.


Michelle Williams Stunning in My Week with Marilyn

My Week with Marilyn (2011)

Directed by Simon Curtis

BBC Films, 99 mins. R (language, brief dorsal nudity)

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My Week with Marilyn is one of those “small” films in which not a lot happens-–the sort that would be overlooked were it not so well acted. Lucky for us the cast is superb.

The film’s narrative is sparse and revolves around Marilyn Monroe’s 1957 visit to England, where she made an inconsequential film, The Prince and the Showgirl that starred and was directed by Sir Laurence Olivier. Ms. Monroe was 31 and at the height of her sex kitten fame. So much so, that she was already coming apart at the seams. Her marriage to Arthur Miller was just three weeks old but crumbling, and Marilyn was wracked with insecurities that she addressed through temper tantrums, anxiety attacks, pills, affairs, and the vain hope that she could become a serious actress. Toss into the maelstrom her constant companion, Monroe’s acting coach, Paula Strasberg, who was equal parts method acting guru and Svengali-like mesmerist, and the set of The Prince and the Showgirl was not a pleasant place to be. Monroe often late or absent from the set, and incompetent when she was there. In one delicious line from My Week with Marilyn, Olivier-–played with world-weary aplomb by Kenneth Branagh–remarked that trying to teach Monroe how to act was “like trying to teach Urdu to a badger.” So how did the film ever get made? If we are to believe the memoir of Colin Clark who served as Olivier’s third assistant director–a glorified gofer–it’s because Ms. Monroe found solace in his friendship and in their brief fling. (For the record, Clark was 24 at the time, and not everyone believes his story of having had an affair with Monroe.)

The movie was adapted from Clark’s short play and it only works as a film because the actors make us believe a dodgy story line and a threadbare plot. Eddie Redmayne is well cast as Clark and plays him with the besotted puppy dog loyalty as one might expect from a young lad asked to be a companion to the world’s most glamorous woman. Branagh incisively dissects the 50-year-old Olivier as a man forced to realize that his womanizing charms are a decade out of date and he’s not going to stave off Father Time, seduce Monroe, or become a Hollywood idol. Zoë Wanamaker is even better as Strasberg, whom she turns into a cross between Machiavelli and the Wicked Witch of the West. One glare from Wanamaker is more effective than a ten-minute rant from a lesser actor. Like most British films, even the minor parts are crisply performed by topnotch actors; look for twinkling cameo star turns from Derek Jacobi as Sir Owen Morshead, Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh, Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike, Dominic Cooper as photographer Milton Greene, and Emma Stone as Lucy, the would-be girlfriend that Clark tosses aside for Monroe.

But this film belongs to Michelle Williams who is, simply, the best interpreter of Marilyn Monroe I can recall seeing. Williams doesn’t actually look like Monroe, even with flaming red lipstick, a wig, and a paint-on mole; Williams is more slender, less full-figured, and fresher of face. But you won’t need to check your credibility at the box office; Williams will make you believe she is Marilyn. Most actresses fail as Monroe because they try to channel the public image rather than the inner person. This means they become a photocopy of a photocopy. Williams gets the fact that Marilyn Monroe was a paste-on persona in the same way that Samuel Clemens was Mark Twain or Julius Marx was Groucho. Williams plays to the tension between the coquettish mask and the troubled inner self. We see her wishing, nay aching, to be allowed to be normal, but failing to find any comforting hiding places not illuminated by Marilyn’s glow. She goes from giddy joy to a deer in the headlights when quietly walking a London street only to be mobbed by admirers. In another luminous moment she’s in a schoolyard when the same thing happens. At first she’s frightened, then she turns to Clark and asks, “Shall I be her?” In a flash she turns on the Marilyn act, and the audience laps it up like a cat in front of a saucer of cream. Williams delivers an astonishing performance that should win awards–if enough people actually see the film.

Therein lies a tale. My Week with Marilyn is a bit like the film-within-the-film, The Prince and the Showgirl. The latter got a few good notices and some pans, but was mostly ignored. Monroe next made Some Like it Hot, generally regarded as her most memorable role. In it she gave up the pretense of being a stage actress and played to Monroe stereotypes. In like fashion, Olivier gave up silver screen dreams and returned to the boards for The Entertainer, wherein he made stage history. Will the small My Week with Marilyn win the awards it deserves? Probably not, but somewhere in the future lies an Oscar engraved with the name Michelle Williams.


Society for Prevention for Useless Giving

Until I read a recent issue of The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, I had never heard of SPUG: the Society for Prevention of Useless Giving. I was so amazed that I double-checked to make sure SPUG was legit and not some sort of seasonal prank. After all, academics have been known to pull fast ones in the service of protesting the arcane nature of modern research. Sure enough, SPUG was the real deal.

SPUG formed in 1911 and lasted into the 1940s, though along the way it had a name change to the more positive-sounding Society for Useful Giving. Philanthropic upper-class Society women formed SPUG. Their original inspiration was the disgust they felt toward merchants and advertisers that lured factory workers and working-class women into squandering money on needless things during the Christmas season. Weddings were a close second. SPUG launched an educational and propaganda campaign aimed at convincing those with scant resources not to waste their wages. Were SPUG advocates forerunners of Dr. Seuss’s Grinch? Nope. They had no objection to giving per se–they simply wanted to stop the practice of spending money on novelties, junk, and baubles and shift it to useful things. They reasoned that if one is going to shell out for a gift, it ought to be something the recipient can actually use or appreciate.

So why am I telling you about SPUG? Because it’s the day after Christmas, known in British Commonwealth nations as Boxing Day. It’s akin to Black Friday in the States, a day of retail gluttony featuring markdowns, extended retail hours, and various advertising come-ons. There is, however, a small twist–it’s also the day in which people begin to return unwanted presents opened the day before. We Yanks do this too, but we ought to do so with the zeal of Europeans. As SPUG evolved, it paid attention to recipients as well as givers. A gift, they reasoned, should not be a life sentence; in fact, every individual should purge one’s self of unneeded and unwanted things. As SPUG advocates expressed it, one should never keep anything that isn’t either useful or beautiful. They hoped to move Americans beyond the sentimentality that makes a person keep an ugly lamp in the closet just because Aunt Mary gave it to you. SPUG’s simple advice: Get rid of it!

Those of you reading this blog on Boxing Day can probably conjure an item or two from yesterday that doesn’t enhance your life in any measurable way. So get them out of your house. Return them to the store, re-gift them, donate them to charity or, if necessary, throw them away. We now live in a society in which materialism is more than crass; it’s expensive. In 1984 Americans stuffed items into 289 million square feet of storage bins; by 2007 it had grown to over 2.2 billion square feet. Each year about $20 billion is spent just to squirrel away goods, and some Americans spend more to store their stuff than it would cost to buy the items new. Compulsive hoarding is now recognized as a bona fide psychological ailment. Would it surprise you to learn that, in most cases, the cost of treatment for hoarding disorder exceeds the value of the items hoarded?

SPUG isn’t around anymore, but maybe it’s time to revive it. One of its major virtues was that it asked people to operate within their own value systems, not transform themselves into aesthetes, monks, or Spartans. Remember, the standard was to keep only what is useful or beautiful. Each of those standards involves a qualitative judgment. I don’t find a painting of Elvis on velvet to be beautiful but if you do, by all means hang it above the sofa. On the other hand, if a friend gave it to you as a joke, have a laugh, burn it, and send the ashes to Graceland. Whatever you do, don’t store it.

I claim no greater virtue on this issue. Like many Americans, I own more than I use, have boxes I’ve not opened in years, and possess things that I once thought were beautiful but don’t anymore. I doubt I can go cold turkey and just starting chucking everything. (Phoenix could!) But my New Year’s resolution is to turn back the hands of time and become a member of SPUG. I pledge that I will begin to wean myself of useless and non-beautiful things and work hard to resist adding to the household stash. The goal is to be lighter a year from today. Anybody else in on this? I’m thinking a SPUG support group.