Sunday Salon: Skippy Dies by Paul Murray.
I have been introduced to string theory several times: most recently by Paul Halpern in Collider. It is a weird idea, in some ways it seems more akin to science fantasy than fact, and Paul Murray successfully manages to incorporate the main ideas in his novel Skippy Dies informatively and with pleasing subtlety. Some strings are supposed to be able to travel between universes, and the boys in Seabrook College long to escape this universe so that they can go to another more satisfactory one; which for a fourteen year old boy involves being able to have sex with a hot female. It is this basic desire, exemplified by the wonderfully over-optimistic and irrepressible Mario, which for me was the funniest 'thread' in Paul Murray's book. But this is just one thread, and there are many - ideas, characters, jokes, separate stories - all woven together to form a complicated and hugely satisfying whole.
At first, the classes in Seabrook College are ordered, the boys responsive, the teachers laid back; life at Seabrook College is a fine one - like Mr Chips most of the teachers never want to leave. But Mr Chips belonged to another, more polite time, and Seabrook College is a school that must embrace the ruder, rougher years of the early twenty-first century, and in doing so it starts to unravel: there are mobile phones with cameras that can easily record every intimate moment, prescription drugs to fine-tune any aberrant behaviour, on-line forums connecting the most disparate individuals and, of course, continual and absorbing fantasy games.
Paul Murray uses these instruments of the new technology extremely adeptly. He also, pretty wonderfully, weaves together the aforementioned high science of subatomic theory and folk-lore, psychotic conditions and the less dramatic worries that afflict everyone. He deals, movingly, with the effect of war, disloyalty, and the suppression of sexuality, eventually producing something of a Jacquard-weave of a novel. It is rich not only in humour but also, after Skippy dies, the passions of guilt, conflicting desires and grief. Skippy dies, but he can be brought to life again; not through the invocation of science or the supernatural but simply by remembering. As Skippy's friend Ruprecht von Doren is forced to acknowledge, in this universe, this imperfect and inadequate system is all that we have.