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.  


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