Thursday, February 08, 2018

The Mark and the Void - Paul Murray

A few years ago, I read another of Murray's novels, Skippy Dies. The title describes exactly what happens in it - the book explores why. The title of The Mark and the Void is a bit harder to tease out. It is set in Dublin when the Celtic Tiger was in full roar, and is more specifically set in the International Financial Centre, which has been structured to allow financial deals to be made without much regulatory oversight. Claude Martingale works for the Bank of Torabundo, which has its offices here although its head office is nominally on a small south Pacific atoll, where the economy is primarily a gift economy. The bank has actually done quite well in the Global Financial Crisis, by employing good analysts like Claude and making conservative financial decisions while the other banks have gone wild and gone bust. 
One of the biggest failures was helmed by a bloke called Porter Blankly. Such is the logic of the out of control financial world that the people behind the Bank of Torabundo think that the best way forward is to employ this bloke to run the bank. His strategy is to make the bank too big to fail, so that if it does get in trouble, it will be bailed out. So there is a buying frenzy and increasingly improbable financial products dreamed up by a Russian physicist locked in a cupboard. So, one element of the book is the skewering of the moral void at the heart of these institutions (with the island of Torabundo providing a nice contrast).

But then there is Claude himself - who is he? Just a cypher, a void, or a real person? He has no family to speak of, no relationships, no real interests - he just comes in to work and goes home. It is a tough job to make him the hero of a novel - so Murray makes a joke of it. He has an author - called Paul, with no last name - come in to follow Claude around so he can write a novel about an Everyman of today. Yes - the point is made that The Mark and the Void would be the result of such an exercise. But Paul gets bored with the nothingness of Claude's life, tries to suggest plotlines for him to follow - such as robbing the bank (even though it is the sort of bank that has no money). He brings in an accomplice, someone obviously an east European gangster type who is really annoying.
Another plotline Paul suggests is more fruitful - he notices that Claude is taken with a waitress at a cafe they frequent, Ariadne, and says that a love story would provide a plot. She is beautiful, interesting, an artist (of dubious quality) but he doesn't really bring much to the table. Nonetheless, after the suggestion is made, he finds that he longs for her and, well, there are developments.

Paul himself is an important character - he wrote a novel years ago but has had writer's block for 8 years. He is jealous of a prize winning author who also wrote about clowns, has a troubled relationship with his publisher, and his wife has lost her belief in him to the point that she has taken up dubious employment that she keeps a secret from him. He wants to redeem himself, but hs schemes are mad and bad - he actually wants to rob the bank, steal a painting, set up a dodgy website, myhotswaitress, which involves surveilling waitresses to extract all their personal information to be sold to whoever wants it.
Then there is Ireland - this novel is pointedly disconnected from any recognisable Ireland, being set in the Financial Centre, a cafe and a club which could be anywhere. There are virtually no Irish people in the novel - they are only seen in the distance, protesting the collapse and bail out of the Irish banks, starving in the streets as the empty housing crumbles. The only Irish person to feature is the Irish Minister of Finance, trying to prop up the financial system but on the verge of death himself, until he actually dies.  

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama

This is a large and somewhat odd book which took me about a week to read over the course of some recent travels - about the same time it took for a million copies of the book to sell in Japan . Its genesis is a cold case, a kidnapping 14 years earlier. The title refers to the 64th year into the previous Emperor's (Hirohito) reign, despite the fact that it actually happened just inside the present incumbent's time. The kidnapper led the cops on a wild goose chase - the victim was instructed to stop at a cafe to make the handover, only to find get instructions to proceed somewhere else. This happens about a dozen times, until the victim is told to throw the ransom into a river - it is never seen again and the kidnapped girl turns up a few days later, dead.
Mikami was one of the cops, a rising star in the crime team of a prefectural police force - we are never told where. Recently, his own daughter has gone missing - some sort of communication breakdown (actually, she blames her dad for imprinting his "gargoyle" features on her face) leading her, at age 16 or so, to think she can do better on her own and walk out. Her mum is devastated - won't leave the house in fear Ayumi will ring when she's not there. Mikami is no longer in the criminal team; a couple of years ago, he was switched to the Administrative Branch, as its press director - a job for which he has no training. The point is that he is a man with divided loyalties, particularly as he hopes to get back to his former unit.

So, yes, solving this cold case is ostensibly what the novel is about, and it is, in a very impressive way, but it is very much in the background for most of the novel. Instead, we get to spend our time in the Administrative side of the police, viewing the world through our conflicted press director. He has a good team, but is bad at managing them, especially the female team member as he won't give her credit for being able to do the job. She, of course, turns out to be keen and fantastic at her job. A big dispute arises with the local press, over the level of communications they can expect from the police, and whether it is for the police or the press to decide to keep certain information private. There are very mixed messages from within the Police, making Mikami's position impossible at times. He is not particularly good at sticking to his job, gets involved in the kidnapping case and finds that the Police themselves could have done a much better job, something they have concealed.

There's another big dispute - between the two branches of the Police force, coming to a head when a bigwig is due to visit from Tokyo, possibly to replace local command. It gets so bad that when the criminal branch pretty much disappears, Mikami believes it is because of the dispute, not because they have a major crime, another kidnapping, to solve and have assembled at a command post. All of the tensions come to the fore with this second kidnapping, with the Police basically trolling the press by giving them a spokesperson who had no idea what was going on. At this point, the novel finally burst into action, as Mikami was able to get inside a mobile command unit and report directly back to the press conference.

I liked Mikami - he's not a very imaginative man, but he is a good man, wants to do right. For much of the novel, he has to struggle to work out what is right, and then work out how to act. But there's a lot of tenderness in his fractured relationship with his wife - they don't know how to connect, but he makes sure there is food delivered to her for lunch (because she would otherwise forget to eat) - and unlike many men, he gets and acts on suggestions from other women as to how to make things better.