Props 1 & 2 – Reading and Being Controversial
Probably the best thing about having so much free time is being able to read and read and read. Oh and getting up at questionable times of the day. And then reading. Back in bed.
I’ve read some wonderful books this year, some so-so offerings and one particular novel that I loathed. My favourites, in the order I feel today, are
I wasn’t madly taken with the critics favourites The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht, The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver or The Marriage Plot – Jeffery Eugenides although they were all worth reading and had some moments of brilliance. Sarah’s Key – Tatiana de Rosnay was just foolish chick lit which was a huge shame as it had the bones of an incredibly moving and unique holocaust story. Sadly the author seemed more interested in a tedious modern love story. It was also the worst written novel I read all year – by far, although maybe that was due to its translation. Runner up for least favourite book I read this year is Canadian misery in print, Mercy Among the Children – David Adams Richards. There were many others that I enjoyed but don’t particularly merit a mention either way. Better to talk about the standout novel which made me despair and wonder about all these critics who seem to fall over themselves celebrating anyone from Ireland who can string a sentence together – Skippy Dies – Paul Murray.
Reading & Controversy
Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies is relentless, not least of all in its unnecessary length – a good third being excessive video game fantasy and scientific drivel, which became tedious to say the least. You are confronted on almost every page with homophobia the like of which I have never encountered in a book before. Without exception every character is devoid of morals, compassion and backbone. Not one adult in the book shows the slightest regard for the children in their lives and the children themselves exhibit extreme cruelty after cruelty to everyone around them. My problem is that there is zero questioning of the homophobia, racism and hatred that spring from every page. I accept that many people are okay with that but I prefer to read more rounded stories with characters that show more than one dimension. Life is full of hardship but there is also kindness and hope to be found everywhere, no matter how small – something that is entirely absent here. In fact none of the cruelty, racism or homophobia is challenged in any way, why?
I felt the unchallenged onslaught of homophobia by almost every character to be like a chisel slowly hacking away at me. I worry that, like in the school, when you hear something so often it becomes acceptable – but I for one can never read or hear these words of hatred and not be affected. I certainly didn’t laugh at them as many reviewers have been able to.
One of many, many examples of why I severely dislike this novel is the following scene, directed at an Asian lady working in the doughnut shop.
In her gook voice the words come out, `Can ah help yo?’ like she is retarded. `Yes, I would like an Agent Orange juice please. You doh have? Okay I will have a napalm sandwich’
`Those gooks have wormy little dicks’. He makes an imaginary rifle with his hands and points it at Gookette and fires two bullets into her. `You stupid bitch, he wants a blow job’. He takes a five-euro note from his wallet and crumples it up and throws it at her.’
Why did the narrative need to take on the appalling racism too? Surely there were enough characters taking on that role to leave the tiniest space for a different voice, an alternative point of view?
I finished the book wondering if it should be acceptable to package racism, homophobia, child abuse, drug abuse and intense cruelty as a story and justify it by saying that this is what occurs in boarding schools – without any balance, justification or humanity? While degrees of this are undoubtedly present in today’s society I found it infuriating and one-dimensional to see people depicted only in such a linear way. Society is made up of many colours and I found Paul Murray’s characters (every single one of them) to be, not even black and white, but pure black.
A few weeks after Skippy Dies I had the luck to read Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman. Now Mr Murray here is a way to tell a very similar story but in a far more realistic and compassionate way. The main character, Harrrison, is confronted with much the same hardships found in Skippy Dies but manages to retain a strong individual spirit despite the horrific cruelty that exists in school and the inner-city housing estate where he lives. These are very similar themes as in Murray’s book but here you not only see the negative aspects of life and youth but also the optimism and genuine desire to be happy. It is a wonderfully charming and indeed heart wrenching story. It is sensitively written in a way that the humour is rich and the experiences realistic. The characters’ reactions to the very negative situations they find themselves in is the very spirit of the book and it packs a huge emotional punch for that very reason. The drive behind the story and characters is inspiring and understandable. It glows brightly where Skippy Dies manages to suck the life out of everyone.
It is in every way as compelling as Skippy was one-dimensional – a wonderful read.