So I'm wavering. I really wanted to hate this book. In fact, after the first chapter in which we meet Howard (round about page 27) I thought to myself, this is a load of crap. This is a modern take on Dead Poet's Society (guy grows up and comes back to teach at his alma matter wishing upon wish that life was meaningful). So Paul Murray saw DPS when he was in high school and is now re-writing it in Ireland? And then another few pages in when it becomes obvious just how many drugs are in the book (really I wasn't sure that Skippy died from an overdose in the first chapter, I thought it might have been a seizure of sorts until I met Carl and Barry and then realized that we did in fact have a drug book here...not that I don't like drug books, I just wasn't prepared as such in the first 50 pages). Well, then when I realized it was a drug book, I went "oh my God, this is not just a rip-off of DPS, but it's also a take on Infinite Jest." And then I read the book jacket (something I try never to do, but my eyes wandered and I saw that it even calls itself similar to IJ (and to Harry Potter, although I did not get any similarities there). So I really wanted to read it and pan it and give it a 1 star. However, by the time I got to the point where Costigan rants about Dead Poet's Society (so Murray tips his hat to both while stealing a lot of material from each) in the novel, I decided I actually liked it and wasn't so upset anymore about the fact that he was re-written stories that have already been told. And yes, I do know that every story is just in fact a repetition of the only story...blah, blah, blah.
So, more negatives first: I get that sexual molestation was required for plot development and Howard the Coward's second cowardly act (both of which, of course involve Tom Roche), BUT I thought it was a cheap shot. I think there were enough other reasons for Skippy to overdose (although I also don't think it was suicide, just apathy) without throwing in the whole Catholic school and sexually abused boy wrench. Certainly adding the twist/question of whether or not Father Green was also abusing him was doubly unnecessary. I am not a fan of the Catholic Church (or any organized religion or any God for that matter), so this is not some misconceived outrage against blasphemy towards the priest. I just think the sexual molestation was a cheap shot and I would have liked to see Murray require Howard to compromise his principles in a less obvious way. Couldn't we have a flashback to how he sold out and fucked up in his stock market career to put him in the same place?
In a similar vein, I'm not sure where Murray lies on the religious belief continuum. Certainly, he writes about a religious school and manages to leave out a lot of religion. He accuses the priests of dirty behavior (but then it turns out the secular teacher is the only real miscreant). I didn't want more religion, but I was left wondering at the end about three things...maybe this is not a negative, maybe it's good for me to wonder BUT...who is the sacrificial (ie Jesus) lamb here? Is it Skippy? He dies and the rest are redeemed (sort of and eventually)? Is it Father Jerome? He saves them all with the fire alarm and then calmly accepts the burning inferno (travels through hell to save us from hell)? Or is it Carl? He is the Demon himself (so he thinks), but he is also just a simpleton who knows what he wants (Lori), but not how to get it (her), and is really quite sympathetic throughout (despite his bullying and drugging, he is the lost and neglected little boy), and he is the one who ultimately rises from the dead (Jerome and Skippy stay dead, but in Costigan's letter the implication is that Carl was rescued and recovering nicely)?
I liked that there were several threads to the complicated theme of assymmetry (more on that below in the positives) BUT I think that stretching the Graves quote on war to imply that boarding school is as difficult as being in the trenches was going a bit too far.
I gave the novel four stars, ultimately, because of the complexity of the threads (not strings, but really it could have been a pun here) that all wove together nicely. Ruprecht's obsession with M theory and the assymmetry that occurs throughout the world is a nice tie-in to Skippy's romantic troubles. I love the supercollider theory of sexual attraction (pg 171). I think Murray also tied in the theme of boredom (especially Aurelie's arguments that to be bored is the biggest crime) and Howard's difficulty accepting adulthood (I love the difficulty he has seeing people as adults who he has also seen do various undignified things like put carrots up their nose) to the idea of M theory since ultimately everyone's quest for purpose is just a quest to escape this reality (read universe).
It was a good read. It was entertaining and thought provoking. Ultimately provided yet another argument in that whole quest for happiness or meaning and purpose in adult life.