Paul Murray is the author, most recently, of Skippy Dies, due in paperback later this month. He spoke by telephone with his editor, Faber and Faber publisher Mitzi Angel, about his next novel, reading Proust, and what stops boys from putting dental floss up their noses.
Mitzi Angel: So I heard the big news about David Cameron’s holiday reading.
Paul Murray: Yes, my agent texted me at seven in the morning last week to say she’d heard David Cameron had brought Skippy Dies on holiday. The Daily Mail had the headline CAMERON BRINGS DARK TALE OF DRUGS AND PORN ON HOLIDAY, which was cool.
Angel: A Dark Tale of Drugs and Porn! Maybe that’s how we should have described the book in our catalog! Was Skippy the only book he took on holiday with him?
Murray: He took Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore, which sounded to me like your classic aspirational holiday read that never makes it out of the suitcase. But I don’t know how much of Skippy he read, either, because a day or two later the protests and looting broke out and he had to cut short his holiday. Though I liked to imagine him sneakily reading it under the table at COBRA meetings.
Angel: What are you reading?
Murray: I’m reading Within a Budding Grove. Proust.
Angel: Is In Search of Lost Time a book you’ve meant to read for a long time and finally got around to reading?
Murray: Well, actually I was pretty daunted by it, so I’d set it by for my retirement. But the book I’m working on now has a French narrator so I thought I should bone up on French culture. I’m reading it in English, but I thought that this was a key text and it is the key text. I’m realizing while I’m reading it that it is so influential.
Angel: Which translation are you reading?
Murray: I’m reading the Scott Moncrieff translation.
Angel: How many hours a day do you devote to that?
Murray: Nabokov wrote an essay about the first volume in which he says, “In Search of Lost Time makes up 4,000 pages which are about a month’s reading.” That’s Nabokov. It took me a month to read the first volume. The sentences are so convoluted you have to read almost every single one twice. The first time round you’re just looking for the verb, then you go back and work out what he’s talking about. So it’s slow going. And I’m reading other stuff, too. I’m reading John Lanchester’s book about the financial crisis.
Angel: Oh yeah, he’s brilliant.
Murray: He’s fantastic. Do you publish him?
Angel: No, I wish we did. Could you tell us about what you’re working on at the moment?
Murray: I’m working on a novel set in the world of banking in Dublin. It’s about a banker and an author and is loosely based on Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that when bankers dine they talk about art, and when artists dine they talk about money. I guess the conceit is that this particular banker is more soulful and poetic than the author.
Angel: Do you think there are other writers in Ireland grappling with the financial crisis?
Murray: I think Kevin Power is writing about bankers. I know Claire Kilroy is writing about builders. In Ireland, the financial crisis completely dominates the national conversation. Every time you turn on the radio you hear about the huge vortex of debt that Ireland has fallen into, how many more billions the country owes today than we did yesterday. Ireland owes money to everybody. To the IMF, to the ECB, to acronyms around the world.
What it means that we owe all this money, though, no one knows, except that it’s bad. The machinery of finance remains quite mysterious, I suppose, because it’s so boring. That’s how the world got into the state it’s in, because no one really paid any attention to what the bankers were doing, because it was so soulless and empty and boring, and just undesirable in novelistic or dramatic terms.
I’m wondering if the sheer abstractedness of the world of investment banking relates to the huge sums of money they’re paid. You have these extremely talented, extremely clever people, working in an industry that has zero social worth. Their only aim is to make money. If they could make thirty million dollars a year dancing in lederhosen to sea chanteys on a bar, that’s what they’d be doing. I mean, there’s a definite element of prostitution to the financial world. Could you even say that you’re getting paid to renounce your membership of the human race? “I’m going to pursue money at whatever cost and I have no interest at all of doing anything good.” That’s quite a dark decision to make. One of the things I was interested in writing about in this novel was: Is there authenticity to be found in the world of banking? Is there significance to found in the world of banking? And if there isn’t, what does that mean? This huge, inauthentic, virtual factory is right at the center of the world. Does that make any sense at all?
Angel: Yes. Absolutely. Skippy Dies was in some ways also a novel of institutions—the Church and the school both come under scrutiny as do, perhaps less directly, the management consultants. Are you particularly drawn to satirizing institutional behavior?
Murray: Well, I think comedy or satire tends to revolve around human folly, and institutions are the places where folly really thrives. In the same way that people steal stationery from work and tell themselves it’s not really stealing, institutional life encourages us to act in a vastly less moral, less self-critical, less nuanced or humane way than we would at home or on our own. The kind of groupthink you read about in accounts of the banking crisis—seemingly smart people acting like the fat kid in Willy Wonka just because it’s what everyone else was doing—that’s definitely ripe for satire, yes.
I’m really interested in people’s projections of themselves, the various ways that people try to strip out all of the things that make them individuals. So you had these hyper-intelligent people in Goldman Sachs doing these vacant clichéd things like drinking three thousand dollar bottles of wine because that’s what you do when you’re rich. And when you’re acting like that it’s much easier to make very bad decisions that have repercussions far beyond your institution. The cavalier way Wall Street destroyed the world economy is really astonishing. And in Ireland, we have the endlessly unfolding horror of the clerical abuse scandals, where the evil and corruption seems almost without limits. From this perspective, it’s difficult to see institutions as anything other than pathological.
Angel: All this sounds quite dark—but then Skippy Dies was dark and funny; I think the way you wove darkness and light together in Skippy made for a sense of enchantment in the novel. Are you happy with that characterization of the book?
Murray: Well, it is a comic novel. It has a lot of jokes in it. I was working on the book for about seven years, and obviously in that time I had a lot of doubts about it and there were a lot of dark nights of the soul. But the jokes helped—I mean, when I was reading back over a section, and I’d come across a joke that still made me laugh, I’d think to myself, Well if nothing else, that joke is pretty funny. At the same time, it’s sort of weird when people come up and say they found the book funny, because it’s also really dark. You wonder if the other material escaped them, or . . . I think people do tend to pigeonhole novels as one thing or another. If there are jokes, it has to be a comedy. If there are dark elements, if it’s literary, then it can’t be funny.
Angel: But that’s sort of strange given that some of the greatest writers, like Philip Roth, are in many ways the funniest writers, but you wouldn’t describe Portnoy’s Complaint as a comic novel. It seems to me there was a time when being funny in fiction was just part of writing good fiction. Do you think that’s changed in recent years? I see books now specifically published as “funny” books being separated from the more “serious” books.
Murray: I think things have changed, yes. If I can be grand for a minute, I think that literature’s cultural capital has been eroded, or maybe cultural capital in general has been eroded. Writers don’t have the same status they did in Roth’s heyday, for instance, and I think the anxiety they have about their position shows up in the things they write about. There’s a definite hunt for thematic Seriousness, on the one hand, for things that make the writer look serious. On the other, like you say, there’s this very solicitous new genre of “funny” writing, which seems kind of desperate. Also, many readers want different things from literature, I think. For some readers anyway, literature is basically a posh pastime. They want it to be a rarified, ivory-tower class of escapism, in which only aesthetic, beautiful things happen. Beautiful solemnity, a daffodil crushed by a Panzer tank. But historically novels have been a comic form, like Don Quixote, all of it sort of mocking mankind’s grand conception of itself. The very grandiosity, one might argue, that is creeping into the contemporary novel.
Angel: Yeah, telling the truth, which in many instances is funny.
Murray: The truth is funny. The abject truth of being a human. That’s what all of those really foundational novels—Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy—were about. James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Martin Amis. But I think in the last ten years, maybe, calling a book “comic” has become a pejorative thing. There’s this sense that literature has to be serious, like a book isn’t a proper book unless it’s about genocide or something. And you have all these writers sniffing around for genocides. “Has anyone written about Angola?” There’s this writerly search for authenticity, and this equation of authenticity with seriousness, and this indexing of seriousness in terms of human misery, which is pretty morbid, especially when you think that ultimately reading a novel is something that is done for pleasure. You know? Using a genuine historical tragedy in the hope of making somebody cry into his quinoa while reading your book on their lunch break.
Angel: At the same time, I never feel inclined to read a “comic” novel, and I think that if Skippy Dies had been presented to me as a comic novel first and foremost, I would have been put off. I’m not immediately drawn to books that are explicitly devoted to being funny.
Murray: Why is that?
Angel: I suppose it’s because I feel I’m being told what my response to the book should be from the outset; I’m being told I should laugh. I’d rather decide for myself. And I don’t really pick up a book just for laughs. It’s so much more than that.
Murray: Neither do I. I’ll happily watch a comedy show on TV, but if I see a novel with one of those cartoon covers, you know with a man handcuffed to a pig that’s just jumped into a hot-air balloon . . .
Angel: That’s exactly the kind of thing that puts me off! Those types of covers seem to suggest that laughter is the one reward to be had from reading the books. I’m more interested in the idea that humor in fiction might operate in service of something else; that being funny in a good, deep way can also be closely allied to being truthful, sad, even tragic. I think that there are probably some writers who provide for easy laughs, but there are others whose humor stems from a more profound view of how the world works, and how we think and operate within that world. That’s what you do in Skippy Dies.
One thing I was really struck by when I read it was the dialogue, how funny it is, partly because you identify so precisely the way teenage boys speak. But there’s more to writing good dialogue than reproducing the way people speak. Can give us your thoughts on this?
Murray: I like writing dialogue, and I can write it fairly quickly. For some reason when I try to write something in dialogue alone, like a screenplay, I just can’t make it work. But in terms of the novel, dialogue has a real galvanizing effect. It makes the scene come alive, it helps the reader to engage with the characters, it can propel the story forward in a more interesting way than just saying, This happened, then this, then this. There’s a writer I like called William Gaddis. He’s a difficult writer, but he’s also very interesting. He wrote his books completely in dialogue, and it’s sort of like a master class in what dialogue can do.
The tricky part is to make it sound natural. That’s the big illusion, because if you transcribe the way people talk, written out on the page it’ll seem repetitive and even incoherent. In JR for instance, Gaddis tells the entire story—which is hugely complicated and elaborate, and all about the machinations of Wall Street, so very topical—he tells it all through dialogue, and he makes that dialogue sound like natural conversation. But in terms of my own writing, the bottom line is that I like writing dialogue. I don’t know why. I could argue that Ireland is a very oral society. The pub is still the central cultural experience in Ireland, so the society is really based on sitting around for hours on end talking bullshit.
Angel: There’s a great story of yours that’s coming up in The Paris Review, I think, which takes place mostly in the pub, and that’s a brilliant example of great dialogue in a story. The way people talk in a pub.
Murray: It was great fun writing that story. I really enjoyed it. That’s just the way it is. People do talk a lot here.
Angel: I remember you saying that there was a joke that you really wanted to keep in your first draft of Skippy Dies but you had to take out. Remind me what that was?
Murray: There was a scene I was really fond of, with this kid called Geoff Sproke, who’s a friend of Skippy’s and probably the nicest boy in school. He gets drawn into the dark world of role-playing, and one afternoon he’s role-playing with his friends when the school bully comes along, this kid called Lionel, who takes their polyhedral dice. Polyhedral dice are fundamental to role-playing. You’ve got your four-sided dice, your ten-sided dice. So he takes one of their polyhedral dice and puts it up his butt, and Geoff tries to get it back and Lionel beats Geoff up and wedges his head in a dustbin. Geoff’s running around with this dustbin stuck on his head. I thought it was funny but Juliette, my U.K. editor, didn’t think it was funny.
Angel: Do you think that’s because she’d never been a teenage boy?
Murray: One of the great experiences of publishing Skippy was that so many women readers have been willing to enter the mind of a fourteen-year-old boy. I saw Juliette as kind of the barometer for what I could get away with. Most of the crazy schoolboy humor she got, but there were a few moments that she was categorical about. Role-playing—I don’t know what your own feelings about role-playing are—but Juliette said that she had no idea what these people were talking about and that it had to go.
Angel: Well, I was never a teenage boy, but I recognize the way these boys speak, the things they talk about, the cruelty they sometimes display, along with the touching, surprising sensitivity they occasionally reveal toward one another . . . I had to deal with boys in my class being foul and disgusting. The polyhedral-dice story sounds pretty familiar to me.
Murray: Did you go to a co-ed school?
Angel: Yeah, boys and girls.
Murray: A single-sex school is a different world. There are no limits. There is nothing to stop you from putting dental floss up your nose because no girls are watching. There’s no one there to put off having sex with you, so anything can happen.
Angel: Are you still in touch with any of your old school friends?
Murray: Absolutely. A couple of friends from school are going to Berlin tomorrow to visit another school friend. I am very close to these people. We’ve seen each other at our most vulnerable and our most pathetic, so there’s no sense of putting up a front. It can sort of get atavistic, but it’s all fun.
“The Best and Worst Gift” by Paul Murray
“Back to School,” New York Times, September 4th, 2010