The Mark and the Void, by Paul Murray, Hamish Hamilton, 480 pp, ISBN: 978-0241146668
Imagine Flann O’Brien introduces Tristram Shandy to Ross O’Carroll Kelly, and also imagine that Ross is doing a course in twentieth century French political activism. The result would probably not be anything like Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void, but at least the analogy may give you an idea of how funny this book is, and how crazy ‑ in a good way.
The novel opens with a statement of its own premise (or maybe it’s a pseudo-premise):
Idea for a novel: we have a banker rob his own bank. … That’s the set-up. What do you think? Would people buy it?
(Note: This is extremely compressed; the ellipsis above represents three pages of backstory.)
The banker in question is Claude Martingale (a surname redolent with connotations), a disgruntled but mild-mannered Frenchman working in the research department of an investment bank headquartered in the IFSC in Dublin, just as the Irish economic boom is imploding.
To me … to anyone working in banking, the last two years have been like the Fall of Rome, the French Revolution, the South Sea Bubble and the moon landing, all rolled into one.
Claude is overworked; he has no life; he’s lonely. And he’s being followed by a mysterious figure dressed in black. The man in black turns out to be an impoverished and feckless writer called Paul, who tells Claude he wants to write a novel set in a bank, with Claude as its protagonist, in the role of Everyman. He goes so far as to compare his proposed novel to Ulysses. Claude is intrigued and flattered, and allows Paul to inveigle his way into his confidence and into the inner sanctum of the glass edifice of Transaction House, where the Bank of Torobundo is located.
Claude wants to know more about Paul, but this is a metanovel (shucks, it’s probably a parody of the metanovel): Paul is the author and Claude is his character, and they can’t have a casual friendship, or so Paul claims.
“Do you think Billy Budd knew where Melville lived? … Do you think Emma Bovary knew what Flaubert did all day?”
The truth is that Paul has a great deal to hide, and it’s not just his volcanic relationship with his wife or the calamitous pyrite-ravaged ghost apartment block that he lives in. But if Paul is the author of the putative novel in which Claude is to star, it is Claude who is the first-person narrator of The Mark and the Void itself; Paul may be writing Claude, but Claude is also ‘writing’ Paul. Though the real Paul (Murray) is of course writing both of them. How much more meta can it get? (It gets more meta.)
If Claude is the protagonist of Paul’s non-existent novel, Paul himself is co-protagonist of The Mark and the Void. (And by the way, the title – I have it on good authority – comes from Barthes.) The literary world that he inhabits, or fails to inhabit, is mercilessly and hilariously savaged. There’s a reviewer who only rates books about genocide; there’s an editor who is encouraging but rather bumbling and laughably misinformed; there’s a rival author who is monumentally pompous; and there’s neurotic and desperate Paul, totally unable to make money, by fair means or foul – and he tries quite a few foul means. The writer struggling to write and to make a living in a society that does not value writing is at the same time derided and valorised in the character of Paul.
There are times when Paul speaks with great passion about writing, and it is tempting (and probably not incorrect) to attribute what he has to say to Murray himself:
“The stories we read in books, what’s presented to us as being interesting – they have very little to do with real life as it’s lived today. … A boy goes hunting with his emotionally volatile father, a bereaved woman befriends an asylum seeker, a composer with a rare neurological disorder walks around New York, thinking about the nature of art. People looking back over their lives, people having revelations, people discovering meaning. Meaning, that’s the big thing. The way these books have it, you trip over a rock you’ll find some hidden meaning waiting there. Everyone’s constantly on the verge of some soul-shaking transformation. And it’s – if you’ll forgive my language – it’s bullshit. Modern people live in a state of distraction. They go from one distraction to the next, and that’s how they like it. They don’t transform, they don’t stop to smell the roses, they don’t sit around recollecting long passages of their childhood … I want to write a book that isn’t full of things that only ever happen in books,” he says. “I want to write something that genuinely reflects how we live today. Real, actual life, not some ivory-tower palaver, not a whole load of literature.”
Paul’s analysis/send-up of the contemporary novel may be part of the smokescreen he creates to conceal his true purpose in attaching himself to Claude, but what he has to say here makes a pretty convincing case for The Mark and the Void itself, which is far removed from the kind of precious literary novel that Paul berates. Though, of course, since this is a metanovel, it is, at one level, precisely “a whole load of literature” – so it is perhaps ill-advised to identify Paul too closely with – er – Paul.
Paul is, however, a charlatan, and he has no intention of writing a book about Claude. He foolishly imagines there is actual money in actual safes in the bank, and his real motivation in befriending this naive and weak-willed if rather likable banker is to find a way to rob the bank. He outlines his developing plot to Claude, in an attempt to find out where the money is kept:
“Who hasn’t thought about robbing a bank?”
“But nobody actually does it,” I say. … “I don’t understand what kind of motivation our Everyman can have to do something as non-universal as rob a bank.” …
“Okay, how about – how about he falls in love.”
“Yeah, with a … with a waitress. That girl there, for instance.”
Paul and Claude are in a restaurant at this point, and Paul indicates the waitress, Ariadne, and indeed this is precisely what happens in “reality”: Claude falls in love with the delightful Ariadne, who, in true romantic-heroine style, is beautiful, kind, appropriately engaged on the side of society’s underdogs and unattainable. Fortunately, she has a redeeming, humanising flaw: as well as being a waitress she is also an artist, and her paintings are appalling – one of them resembles a crossword having sex with a pie-chart – and they are all entitled, rather knowingly, Simulacrum. For the simulacrum or the false image – the image, we might say, that is not an image or is an image of nothing – is at the heart of this novel:
“You guys in front of your screens all day long, selling each other little bits of debt – it’s a whole different order of nothing. … It’s this incredibly powerful entity, storming all over the world, levelling everything in its path, but at the eye of it, where you are, it’s just . . . it’s just a void. A dead space.”
Ariadne remains a shadowy figure for most of the novel; no more than Claude, we get little access to her interior life. Sexism is institutionalised in the bankers’ world, both at work and especially in the seedy joints they frequent after hours, and the female characters to whom we do have closer access have a rough time of it. The novel presents their experience with some empathy. The unfortunate and idealistic Ish, Claude’s colleague and good friend and clearly secretly in love with him, is outspoken about the female experience and magnanimous both in her silent relinquishing of Claude at the end of the story and in her saving of him from ruin by means that cannot be revealed here. (Claude also saves Ish, earlier in the novel, from sexual humiliation, and their friendship and mutual loyalty is an endearing core of decency in the execrable world they both inhabit.) Paul’s petulant wife, Clizia, from an imaginary eastern European country, is a former (and not-always-former) lap-dancer – the clue is in the name, folks. But though she comes across at first as a caricature, she blossoms into a character with real guts as the novel progresses.
There’s a lot of that in this novel: characters are set up as caricatures of one kind or another and then are revealed to be far more complex than first appears. (Not all of them; some remain at the level of caricature, all the better to be the butt of Murray’s savage comedy.) This extends to themes as well as to characters. There’s a certain amount of poking fun at French philosophy, for example, and the French philosopher who is most consistently quoted in the book is an entirely fictional construct, but at the same time, the spirit of 1968 underpins the novel’s value system (“Capitalism needs war”), and real French thinkers are also quoted, if not in the body of the novel then certainly in the peritext.
The Mark and the Void is fiendishly clever, loosely yet convincingly plotted, brash and vulgar at times as the world it portrays; it is wild, playful, baggy, perverse, exaggerated, carnivalesque; but it is relentlessly, endlessly engaging as well as entertaining, and above all it is riotously funny; but here’s the thing: it is also a devastatingly serious study of the filthy and abusive practices that banks were (are) allowed to engage in, the incredibly inflated and delusional hubris of bankers and politicians, and the appalling consequences that this whole self-serving financial shenanigans loosed on the Irish people, and especially on the most vulnerable, now and for generations into the future. Paul Murray has pulled off an extraordinary feat with this novel. He has used a comic mode, the burlesque, to make a searing indictment of financial malpractice and political corruption attractive to readers who might otherwise have found such an analysis too painful and, for the economically inexperienced, too boring to entertain. This book may make you rock with laughter, but it is also the most profound fictional exploration of what is really happening in Irish society in this century that you are likely to read this year, possibly this decade.
Siobhán Parkinson is a writer, translator and publisher.