There’s a scene in Paul Murray’s novel Skippy Dies (2010) in which a science teacher called Mr Farley talks about the word ‘amphibian’. He says that it refers to an organism able to survive both on land and in water, and that it comes from the Greek for ‘double life’. Though you would be hard-pressed to draw a clean analogy, Murray surely qualifies as an amphibious writer: funny and cerebral, brilliant at an improbable range of things and driven by a desire to upset perceived dichotomies. He has compared Skippy Dies to the mix of ‘bubblegum pop’ and ‘white noise’ in the Sonic Youth song ‘JC’. For The Mark and the Void (2015), about the relationship between a banker called Claude and an amoral novelist called Paul Murray, he drew on Barthes’s analysis of mythologies and Nietzsche’s idea of master-slave morality as well as on buddy movies, conceiving the novel as a ‘stationary’ version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, his joint-favourite film (the other is Solaris). In the opening passage of his new novel, The Bee Sting, which has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the soberly reported details of a man who killed his family then ‘turned the gun on himself’ give way to a less appalled reaction: ‘Elaine just said she was surprised it didn’t happen more often … I mean … it’s something to do.’
Murray was born in Dublin in 1975, and his work explores the struggle, as one of his characters puts it, between ‘the quote-unquote “new” Ireland, the Ireland of technology and communication and gender equality, and the “old” Ireland of repression and superstition and resistance to change’. But Murray’s emphasis isn’t social. His postmodern, late capitalist Ireland is a place in which perennial existential themes are evident to an unusual degree. Murray has many things to say about the recent course of Irish history – he has admitted to being ‘obsessed’ with the Celtic Tiger period – but he also recognises the way it can speak to other kinds of fantasy, escapism and denial.
To this end, Murray has deployed archetypal settings – country house, school, capital city, small town – and a wealth of pointed references. An Evening of Long Goodbyes, which follows the misfortunes of Charles Hythloday, a posh young layabout, draws on Yeats’s vision of an aristocratic utopia. In Skippy Dies, which takes place at the private Seabrook College, the beleaguered history teacher, Howard, reads Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That and becomes obsessed not just with the First World War but with the mythology of the White Goddess.
Murray’s work isn’t quite like that of any other writer – certainly no modern Irish writer – but he has learned a lot from Thomas Pynchon. He has learned, for example, the potentially disastrous lesson that it’s possible to write a novel of ideas that’s vast in scope and light, even jaunty, in tone – to write about physics and farting side by side, not just as an exercise in showy juxtaposition or as an assertion of e pluribus unum, but as a sort of conceptual pincer movement. Pynchon’s influence is evident in Murray’s busy textures as well as in particular touches: they must be the only writers who have used a quotation from a Republican president as the epigraph to the fourth and final section of a long comic novel dealing with globalisation, technology and laziness (Gravity’s Rainbow and The Mark and the Void). But the affinity reveals itself most fully in Murray’s engagement with two perspectives on reality – does truth lie in granular detail or a grand design? – and which of these to promote in his books.
The preoccupation among postwar novelists and theorists with representing reality was in part a reaction against modernist attempts to make the novel closed and total. In 1965, Frank Kermode, writing as a participant observer, referred to the ‘growing literature’ on the relationship between ‘form and freedom’. Interventions came from two writers with a background in philosophy: Michel Butor, who portrayed the novel as a ‘search’ for truths obscured by lesser narrative forms such as gossip, newspaper articles and history books, and Iris Murdoch, who argued for the virtue of authorial love over ‘dryness’. But the effort to avoid writing a ‘crystalline’ novel, defined by Murdoch as ‘a small quasi-allegorical object portraying the human condition’, increased the risk of creating something ‘large’, ‘shapeless’, ‘journalistic’. The challenge was to reconcile pattern with looseness, or, in the vocabulary of the time, the eidetic with the aleatory. This dynamic was central, as both a theme and an aesthetic goal, to the work of many novelists who started publishing fiction in the 1950s – Butor and Murdoch but also Anthony Burgess, William Golding, Muriel Spark and Pynchon – and who were not just trying to make sense of our lives but, as Kermode put it, ‘making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives’.
For Murray, ‘a real Pynchon thing’ is the mode of thinking where you put ‘a mould on reality’ to ‘fit the viewpoint you want to sustain’. And he has emulated Pynchon in portraying the seductiveness of a world full of meaning and pattern. In Skippy Dies, Howard, the history teacher, says: ‘I suppose I thought there’d be more of a narrative arc … A sense that’s it’s not just a bunch of days piling up on top of each other.’ Mr Farley tells him that this is the same problem confronted by physicists dealing with relativity and quantum theory. But the conversation isn’t a prelude to acceptance. Howard embarks on an affair and breaks up with his girlfriend, and Murray then traces the fallout from this indulgence of the yearning for narrative.
There is a danger that in dramatising this binarism the novel could succumb to either tendency. Howard might want an arc of his own, but in his research on the First World War he prefers the troops’ version of events – ‘sprawling’, ‘senseless’ – to the one favoured by the generals and later by historians, all ‘overarching meaning’ and ‘Big Words’. Ruprecht, a boarder at Seabrook fascinated by string theory, prefers ‘explanations’ to the ‘chaotic mindless jumble of everything’. His experiments fail but he refuses to give up his dream, deciding that if the world isn’t reducible to ‘strings’, then it must be made up of ‘an infinite number of tiny vibrating stories’, which we try to weave together. But as Mr Farley also says, attempts at a unified theory always ‘fall to pieces’.
It’s a matter of choosing the lesser evil. Paul, the novelist in The Mark and the Void, knows which he prefers. ‘People looking back over their lives, people having revelations, people discovering meaning. Meaning, that’s the big thing … And it’s – if you’ll forgive my language – it’s bullshit.’ His namesake-creator has a soft spot for ‘tight’ endings, which he has likened to ‘a game of Tetris’, but otherwise it’s clear he would rather offer too little shape than too much. Murray is fond of quoting Murdoch’s definition of love: ‘the extremely difficult realisation that other people are real’. And his desire to give space to messy human detail is one of the reasons – along with his impressive productivity and the intricacy of his structures – that his novels are so long. (The shortest, The Mark and the Void, runs to 458 pages.)
In The Bee Sting, however, Murray fails to bring the same stringency, the same quality of bullshit detection, to his own procedures as he does to the illusions of his characters. This is the first time he has confined himself to the conventions of a literary genre – in this case, the family saga, specifically the suburban or town-dwelling family ‘in trouble’. The family saga is especially suited to the unfolding of an inexorable logic, and even the opening detail about the murder turns out to have a special resonance. Amid all the coincidence and circularity, the conspiring bad omens and dovetailing dramatic ironies, Murray doesn’t just struggle to find a viewpoint from which to oppose the superstitious mindset; he seems to be embracing it.
The novel takes place in a dull town in the Irish Midlands. Dickie Barnes runs a Volkswagen dealership inherited from his father. But after an economic downturn, sales begin to fall, and soon he is dogged by rumours of corruption. His wife, Imelda, a famous local beauty, starts selling their possessions on eBay. Their daughter, Cass, has mutated from keen student into party girl just in time for her final exams. Her younger brother, PJ, is being threatened by a local boy convinced that Dickie has fleeced his mother, and, in the little time he doesn’t spend online, becomes involved in his father’s increasingly obsessive survivalist project. The story is told from the perspective of each family member, one after the other, in a familiar third person – though Imelda’s section, by far the longest, is unpunctuated and borders on stream of consciousness.
The story moves forward in time as the baton is passed along, but there are also extended visits to the past (one flashback involving Imelda lasts a hundred pages). Few of the historical revelations come as a surprise. The atmosphere is lugubrious. There are recurring references to ‘darkness’, ‘sadness’, ‘anger’, and talk of things being ruined – plans, meals, moods, days, lives, ‘the world’, ‘everything’. The final section, ‘Age of Loneliness’, shuttles between the established points of view – albeit in the second person – before adopting a quick-fire choral approach, a climactic showdown told in 46 snatches.
The event of the title assumes a central symbolic function, illustrating Murray’s newfound taste for pattern. In an early sequence, Cass discovers that on her parents’ wedding day, a bee flew into the car, got caught in Imelda’s veil and stung her. According to one account, her face looked as though it had ‘a pig bladder’ stuck to it. Cass reflects that the detail is ‘too perfect’, but Murray appears to think it just perfect enough. The incident is revisited in Imelda’s section, when her father-in-law recalls that his late wife ‘thought it was a sign’, and during a flashback to the day itself, when her father tells a passing farmer what has happened and he replies: ‘God works in mysterious ways.’ Later, Cass experiences a sense of ‘wrongness buzzing within her like a bee trapped in a veil’. At another point, she describes feeling as if ‘a whole swarm of bees’ were trapped in her head, ‘behind some invisible veil’.
Murray is often described as a comic novelist, and The Bee Sting has traces of social satire and observational comedy, but many of the jokes don’t land. A scene in which Elaine and Cass talk about the incongruous prospect of ‘having sex with someone called Percy’ (‘Do me, Percy! … Take me harder, Percy!’) is reminiscent of a similar moment in When Harry Met Sally (‘Do it to me, Sheldon! You’re an animal, Sheldon!’). A lecturer at Trinity College Dublin ‘has piercings all over and writes their name as jj’ (Murray adds, for clarity: ‘two small j’s’). Elaine and Cass go to ‘the brand-new pop-up places literally no one knows about, though when you got there it seemed pretty clear lots of people did know’. The book works better as a set of psychological case studies, emphasising the ways in which familiarity breeds complacency and personal experience forms the basis of what can be imagined or conceived. Dickie and Imelda are both aware that life can spring nasty surprises, often hard on the heels of nice ones, and the novel opens at a point when, having long since settled into a comfortable if joyless status quo, they are being reacquainted with this knowledge. The Bee Sting is about people not taking things quite seriously enough, or making decisions for the wrong reasons (wilful optimism, a misplaced sense of duty). Murray’s characters encounter things that seem ‘out of kilter’ or ‘off the charts’. They come to realise, ta-da, that the world can turn ‘upside down’, that everything you ‘thought was true’ can come undone, that the person ‘you thought you were your whole life wasn’t you’.
Murray has never been shy about flagging his intentions. Skippy Dies opened with an epigraph from Graves about daydreaming. The first section was called ‘Hopeland’. Howard worked in futures but discovered that there ‘wasn’t enough future to go around’. Here the same approach to exposition is deployed in a more realist setting, and more relentlessly. Reading it, I was reminded of David Shields’s remark that with most conventional novels, ‘you have to read seven hundred pages to get the handful of insights that were the reason the book was written.’ Here the key term is, once again, ‘the future’, a quantity that the Barneses, shocked to discover the precariousness of their existence, are desperate to control. Dickie’s father tells him that a salesman ‘believes in the future’. A tradesman takes Dickie and PJ around their house, ‘looking at places the future might get in’ before the three of them take part in an elaborate ‘future-proofing’ exercise. Cass’s boyfriend tells her that the past hangs ‘in the present, like smoke in the air, like vapour trails, fading out slowly’; a doctor helpfully informs Dickie that ‘the past remains with us, in all kinds of unexpected ways. If we haven’t made peace with it, it will come back again and again.’ He is surprised that Dickie thinks he is talking about more than pain.
This is a ghost story of sorts. There are various spectres: Dickie’s long-dead brother, Frank, who, we learn, had been Imelda’s first love; ‘alternative’ realities, via PJ’s computer games (‘like if the Nazis had won the war’); the ‘pathways’ not taken; collective decisions relating to the economy and the environment, which result in sudden crashes and climate crisis – a frequent topic of conversation. It’s also haunted by other works, including Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, John Cheever’s Bullet Park and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road as well as novels by Generation X authors: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm. But the closest point of comparison is the film American Beauty. Both portray a man in early middle age, living in an unnamed exurban community, who begins taking risks after a professional setback – and mounting disaffection – lead him to think about what his life might have been. Both feature a pissed-off teenage girl with an attractive, vapid best friend and a glamorous, sharp-tongued but finally sympathetic mother who has an affair with a local hotshot (Big Mike; Buddy the Real Estate King). Both start off as social satire before taking a swerve towards portentousness. Dickie bears the burden shared by Kevin Spacey’s character, Lester, and his antagonist, Colonel Frank Fitts: repressed homosexuality, a concern for home security, a taste for gunplay. The word ‘love’ functions in the novel in much the same way that ‘beauty’ does in the film, as a ruined ideal.
The Bee Sting ’s air of fatalism is reflective of a broader shift in temperament. In 2013, when he was finishing The Mark and the Void, Murray said that he didn’t like ‘purely tragic’ presentations of the world: ‘Anything that presents life only in one register I think is dishonest.’ But by the time he started writing The Bee Sting, he felt able to ‘just dump all of my sadness’ about the state of the world – Trump, Bolsonaro, Covid, climate crisis – into the book. His epigraph, from Donne (‘Those are my best days, when I shake with fear’), contains a mixture of impulses absent for most of the novel’s 640 pages.
The most striking result of this downturn in mood is a loss of faith, even renunciation. In The Mark and the Void, reading a novel is likened to love – something that offers ‘wonderful rewards’ if you ‘stick with it, and put in the hours’, though these days ‘people don’t have time for that.’ In The Bee Sting, however, Murray shifts the blame: this time the novel form isn’t simply outmoded or unsung, but fundamentally flawed. Towards the end, in a section devoted to Cass’s time at Trinity, there’s a standalone paragraph, almost an authorial intrusion, explaining that the novel contributed to the ‘incineration of the real’, as ‘the first instance of what in the 21st century has become a vast and proliferating entertainment industry, an almost infinite machine designed to distract us and disempower us’.
The argument isn’t developed. And of course there’s a well-established tradition that argues more or less the opposite: that the novel serves as a rebuke, ready to defend or arm us against agents of distraction or illusion. That view has formed the basis of arguments advanced by almost every theorist of the novel since Rousseau and by practitioners going back at least as far as Jane Austen. It’s also the bedrock of Murray’s own practice, when he mobilises his abilities as a novelist-searcher instead of spinning a nearly infinite series of variations on one of the things a bee can do.
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