If you’re at all familiar with Paul Murray’s previous novels, you’ll be expecting two things: comedy and a very convoluted (but very carefully constructed) plot. Well, The Mark and the Void won’t let you down on either count.
Okay, so: Claude’s a French risk analyst, working in the Dublin HQ of the Bank of Torabundo, who finds himself being stalked by a novelist, Paul, who says he wants to use Claude as a model ‘Everyman’ in his contemporary re-working of Ulysses. Claude, a former philosophy student, who’s fascinated by simulacra and reality, gets quite into this. Except it’s all a poorly disguised front: Paul’s actually a failed novelist with a family to support and a structurally-unsound apartment to pay off, and his real scheme is to fleece Claude’s bank’s vaults. But when this doesn’t work – BOT being an investment bank, as Claude points out, with no safes to plunder – Paul’s desperation ratchets up: when he’s not trying to fundraise for his surveillance-based online start-up, myhotswaitress.com, he’s brainstorming, under Claude’s despairing tutelage, a rather less literary novel, Anal Analyst. Meanwhile, Claude’s bank has a new boss, Porter Blankley, who’s into ‘inspirational emails’ and the drowning of Pacific islands; Claude’s falling for an actual hot waitress, the Greek artist Ariadne, while his Australian colleague, Ish, is failing to make her own feelings towards him known; and the Irish banking system is facing yet another round of collapse-and-bailout, but this time one that’s going to have a direct, and dire, impact on the crew at BOT. Oh, and a crew of protesting zombies are camped out on the quays outside the bank’s office – as you do.
We’ve got then, an economic satire, a boy-meets-girl love story, a heist-gone-awry plot, and a metafictional commentary on the process of novel-writing, as well as a sack-load of observational humour, one-liners and killer dialogue. It sounds a bit of a mess, sure. And isn’t crash comedy passé, by now? And haven’t we had enough novelists-in-the-novel metafictional gubbins, post-Amis et al? Well, naysayers, there’s no sell-by date on a technique or a topic if it’s done with panache, and Murray isn’t lacking in that. The Mark and the Void, in fact, manages to marry the lot together in a way that feels utterly inevitable: the simulacra of banking operations – derivatives and futures; the whole arcane, macho bravado of the industry – fits in brilliantly with the figure of the double-dealing sort-of-novelist as well with the weird disassociation of financial centres from the real, starving cities within which they’re planted; and the author-figure inserted into the text is a way of questioning – as do Paul, Claude, Ariadne and Ish within the novel – the role or function of art and the artist in a society that’s driven (to destruction) by forces that only see art as a means-to-an-end commodity. The plot, though complicated and long, is inventive and engaging throughout (and, of course, very, very funny), and Claude, as narrator, is an excellent counterpoint to the mania of the he-man traders and Paul’s adventures in pornography: Claude is introverted, thoughtful, very serious, and, increasingly, idealistic and dismayed by his own world. Murray pulls off the economic details well, too, mostly by the convenient placement of a clueless intern into Claude’s office to facilitate dumbed-down explanations – it’d be cheesy if Kevin, the intern, weren’t also very funny (in the laugh-at sense).
Downsides? Well, the gender-balance is way off. There’s four significant women in the text and three of these are love-interests: Ariadne (the focus of Claude’s desires), Clizia (Paul’s genius wife; also a stripper), Ish (fellow banker, dippy Australian, in love with Claude) and Rachael (evil overlord boss). These women don’t interact with one another at all, and though they’re not there entirely for sexual intrigue, it’s still a prime mover. Ish, the ex-hippy traveller, represents an alternative world-view, but she’s not a serious character in the way both Claude and Paul are, and Ariadne, too, while she helps to open Claude’s eyes to the evils of his industry (she donates food from her workplace to a soup-kitchen), she’s also, primarily, The Girl Who the Boy Meets. Clizia is a better person than Paul – she’s better read, a better parent, a better earner – and so, like the others, she’s Woman As Redemption. Rachael isn’t, of course, but she’s more of a background bogeyman than a foregrounded character. So, yes, banking is a male-dominated field, sure, but fiction doesn’t have to be so, and the Flawed Guys, Good Girls model is a tired one.
However: The Mark and the Void is a complex and witty reading of a world that we all know too well, where mortgage payments trump ethics and your boss makes the team go to a strip club and somebody’s flogging somebody else’s native heritage for profit and why wouldn’t you try to make a fortune from writing porn or planting CCTV cameras in the cafes with the hottest staff? All Murray’s excesses ring true, in a horrible, hilarious way, and the pretzeled loops of his intricate plot make perfect sense as you’re drawn into Claude, and Paul’s, version of reality.
Any Cop?: Deeply funny, very tragic, entirely absorbing. A+ from us.