Womanless Worlds

July 9, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished long, long ago: Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray.

Big, fat SPOILERS abound below.

I liked Skippy Dies a lot, which is the desired response, but still an odd thing to say of a mighty dark book.  Its first edition comes in a sweet little three-volume boxed set, each volume in bright tartan wrappers.  It comes to be liked; it stays a while and its sweetness turns bitter.  (Incidentally, I wish this triple-decker throwback strategy would catch on.  I suspect it actually reduces publishers’ production costs — but would be happy to be disabused of the notion — but beyond that, it feels so much more like you’re making progress in flipping through the pages and volumes of three paperbacks rather than one narrow-margined doorstop of a hardcover.)

I won’t say much about the DFW resonances here, especially since they’ve been thoughtfully summarized here.  If you’re reading closely and have read Infinite Jest closely, you’ll see homages and responses all over the place.  Instead I want to focus on a particularly compelling passage, nearing the end:

He delivers his lessons mechanically, not caring whether the boys are listening or not, quietly loathing them for being so predictably what they are, young, self-absorbed, insensate; he waits for the bell just as they do, so that he can dive once more into the trenches of the past, the endless accounts of men sent to their deaths in the tens of thousands, like so many towers of coloured chips pushed by fat hands across the green baize of the casino table — stories that seem, in their regimented wastage, their relentless, pointless destruction, more than ever to make sense, to present an archetype of which the schoolday in its asperity and boredom is the dim, fuddled shadow.  Womanless worlds.

That’s about Howard “The Coward” Fallon, who has fallen into an obsession with World War I, having lost his girlfriend and most of his pride along with her.  But yes: “womanless worlds,” and the awful things that take place in them, are the subject of this book.  War.  Boarding school.  Fathers with sons without mothers.  Sporting competitions.  The priesthood.

Maybe you see where this is going.

I was surprised by how polemical the book ended up feeling; how strong the point of view espoused here really was, how strong the emotion contained in the satire.  (It’s rather an indictment of a lot of contemporary fiction that the reader must struggle to find any such identifiable point of view or emotion; that such things are even looked down upon in many schools of thought and practice.) Part of this is a credit to the way in which Murray puts the reader in the position of uncertainty about Skippy’s central problem; one notices some hints, but does not receive confirmation until Skippy himself remembers it, traumatically.

One could, perhaps, say that it is rather like shooting fish in a barrel to write a polemic advocating that sexual abuse of children is a bad thing, and that neither the behavior itself nor any attempt to cover up such behavior should be excused.  Perhaps.  But it’s not as though we’re all actually following through on this seemingly self-evident advice.  And this is an Irish author, writing about an Irish school.  There’s a strong vein of Irish mythology and folklore running through this book, and an engagement with Irish literature and history; it’s possible to position Murray’s polemic as another in the long line of Irish stories of betrayal and deceit among supposed friends and protectors.  Nothing should be taken away from an author willing to stand up to such institutions as the Catholic Church and the educational system, especially not in Ireland.

One could also say that self-congratulatory approval and encouragement of such polemics from afar is also rather like shooting fish in a barrel.  Perhaps.  But this happens everywhere.  The Sandusky abuse in Pennsylvania, and the response to it from administrators at Penn State, bears shocking resemblance to some of what happens in Skippy Dies.

If that astounding fragment, “womanless worlds,” tells us anything, it is that this is not a provincial issue, not a denominational one, not a national one.  There are connections to those big-world problems of war and evil in the structure of our schools, our religions, our relationships.  Railing against patriarchy and patriarchal systems has become fodder for jokes, but those remain real problems.  The institution which protects itself rather than the young, or that even demands their  “relentless, pointless destruction,” is not an institution worth preserving.  The institution which denies an honest exchange with women, and about sexuality, will always invite and even provoke abuse.   This is a funny, sweet, heartfelt book, but all of the laughs, camaraderie, and teenage love leads to those very serious conclusions.

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