Literature has a ghetto, and it is the Comic Novel.
In today’s literary scene we have reached a point where a great many novels which have the audacity to be funny, not sarcastic or self-referent but genuinely funny, are assumed to be mere “entertainments” and consigned to their own little play-space off at the fringes of the contemporary canon. Even, indeed especially, novels of serious intent and ambition which are also funny receive one-way tickets off to the fringe. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read “wicked satires” or “madcap romps” or “darkly funny tours de force” and come away from the experience depressed, or at a minimum sobered. Sure, there can be humorous incidents. But even in tragic works, or “satires” notable for the cruelty with which they attack their heroes, it seems that an authorial sense of humor is enough to punch a ticket to the comic slum.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the trend began in the 1970s and 1980s, when the predominant English-language literary trend was that of Pointless White Male Angst, and when literary theory was beginning to obsess over the deconstruction of text and the inability of authors to ever communicate with their readers. All of a sudden a gap opened up between authors who used humor as a weapon against social injustice (Catch-22, Vonnegut, Ellison in a way) and authors who used humor as a way of expressing deep sadness and meaninglessness. The former, especially Vonnegut, have been excluded from the highest literary circles. It’s simply not fashionable to take a philosophical stand in a novel, and it’s not at all fashionable to be funny.
David Foster Wallace, a writer who fought tooth-and-nail against attempts to throw him into the Comic Ghetto, points a finger at the unwillingness of novelists to take moral stances in new fiction: “Such is the modernist legacy that we now presume as a matter of course that ‘serious’ literature will be aesthetically distanced from real lived life…. It would probably be better to call our own art’s culture now one of congenital skepticism. Our intelligentsia distrust strong belief, open conviction. … [their instincts are] removed from what’s really important–motive, feeling, belief.”
One element of that “distance from real lived life” is humor. Wallace is the rare exception, and he was inspired by another exception, Thomas Pynchon; they struggled to create, in Wallace’s words, “a piece of morally passionate, passionately moral fiction [which] was also ingenious and radiantly human fiction. But how to make it that? How–for a writer today, even a talented writer today–to get up the guts to even try?”
So imagine my pleasure at reading a brand-new novel, a very funny novel indeed, which has the guts to try. Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray, is for the most part a picaresque about a group of eccentric 14-year-olds in one of Ireland’s most prestigious Catholic schools, dealing with kid-hating priests, bullies, the girls’ school next door, and the ever-present temptation of a doughnut shop across the street. But make no mistake: Skippy Dies is not a comedy. The kids have to learn a lot more than the capital of Bolivia; they have to grapple with some of humanity’s deepest, most basic fears and quandaries. It’s a mark of Murray’s skill that I was genuinely surprised when Skippy, yes, died.
One of the lessons of Skippy’s death is that many events in life don’t simply have “a cause” which we can blame on somebody or explain away. The plot initially unfolds as a seemingly endless series of stresses on Skippy’s life, many of them unexpected, none of them something we can point to and say, “Oh, that was the cause of his problems.” It’s all too easy to say, “he behaved that way because of problems at home,” one of the excuses Skippy’s teachers make here, or to suspect sexual abuse by the school’s priests, but Murray reminds us that life is never, ever that simple.
A fat science geek named Ruprecht, who can count Skippy as his only friend, has a lot to learn about grief and is plunged into crisis over his belief in the orderliness of the universe. He, too, crafts an explanation for Skippy’s death and, in a moving scene with the dead boy’s girlfriend, watches his theory, and his theory that the whole world can be easily explained as a sequence of theories, collapse in tatters.
A teacher named Howard (“the Coward”) learns that seeking something new is often an attempt to escape; another learns of the way that guilt encourages further temptation. A girl named Lori finds comfort in pain. There’s really a lot going on here, and the genius of the “comic novel” disguise is that some of the characters can discover morals to their stories without the reader getting a whiff of preachiness or cliche.
Another of the book’s pleasures is the natural, easy-flowing prose. There is no “distance from real lived life” here: the reassuring, refreshing element of Skippy Dies is that a lot of it sounds like it was written by somebody you know. And the plot juggles an at-first bewildering array of storylines of which sense is indeed eventually made (though I still disliked the bullies’ pill-selling subplot). Only a short, silly epilogue saves the ending from being distinctly un-comic: it is a letter to parents from the school’s new principal, a robotic man whose fuel is naked ambition and whose nickname is The Automator, explaining what has just happened and giddily proclaiming his humility upon taking his new job.
I didn’t expect a novel of ambition, or moral complexity, or emotional interest when I bought Skippy Dies. But it is all those things, maybe too ambitious as it tackles string theory and drugs but also a poignant look at loss and how people sort out the aftermath of a death (think about that word: after-math), and a reminder that, even in school, the truth is more complicated than we can see from one angle. Better still, Skippy Dies confirms that at least one writer actually remembers what it is like to be a student, rather than trying to make bogus cliched stuff up.
But as I said: I didn’t expect any of that when I bought the book. I bought the book because I have a little test I administer at the shop called the “first-sentence test.” It’s pretty simple: if the first sentence of a novel is good, I read the first page. If the first page is good, I put the book on my reading list. If the first sentence of the novel is bad, off it goes to the scrap heap.
Generally the test is a fairly reliable indicator of how much I will like a work. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections has failed the first-page test a record four times, whereas novels as diverse as The Broom of the System, The Catcher in the Rye, A Visit from the Goon Squad (essay forthcoming), Catch-22, and The Brothers Karamazov are all high scorers on the first-sentence test and all works I love.
Skippy Dies is the all-time high scorer on the first-sentence test. It is No 1. I was so astonished I bought the book on the spot. Here is its first sentence:
“Skippy and Ruprecht are having a doughnut-eating race one evening when Skippy turns purple and falls out of his chair.”
After that, the next 660 pages were easy.