What are the odds that an enterprising Irish novelist sees an everyman in a lonesome French investment banker?
“Idea for a novel: we have a banker rob his own bank,” Paul Murray writes in opening The Mark and the Void, the follow-up to his breakout comic novel Skippy Dies.
Ah! So, apparently, not good. And yet in the novel, Paul, author of the critically massacred literary fiction For Love of a Clown, convinces Claude, a junior analyst at the Bank of Torabundo, headquartered on “a big extinct volcano with an extremely benevolent tax climate,” with offices in Dublin, that he must shadow his life (and gain access to his workplace) in order to write the next great Irish novel.
“ ‘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. What’s it like to be alive in the twenty-first century?” Murray writes.
Despite the shadiness of Paul’s proposal, a colleague encourages Claude to accept: “ ‘It will be a chance to tell our side of the story. Certainly it is time bankers were recognized by the art world. Given that we buy most of the actual art, it is frustrating to be continually misrepresented by it,’ ” he writes.
Henceforth Claude finds himself entwined with Paul in a madcap adventure. The Mark and the Void is a spirited romp through the inevitable excesses of the financial services sector—alcohol, cocaine, superfluous bidets—from the strip clubs of Dublin to a feminist café. The unlikely duo will encounter critics and artists, politicians and refugees, an imposing Russian exterminator, and zombies in Murray’s clever, carnivalesque, and timely tale.
“My sense of how the world works is that we really don’t know what we’re doing, and the biggest mistake you can make is to imagine someone else knows what they’re doing,” says Murray, with a shout-out to early modern French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, who famously sported a medallion engraved with “que sais-je?” (What do I know?). “Ireland went from being this very Catholic country, ruled in a pretty literal way by priests in about a decade to being ruled again, fairly literally, by businessmen. What those two classes of people had in common is that they both thought they were right: the priests said, ‘It’s all in the Bible,’ so just do what we tell you and everything will be fine. The businessmen and bankers said, ‘We have the market, we can look at our screens, and we can tell how the future will unfold’....When we [the people] sort of overrule our premonitions and surrender to big, complicated, but secretly stupid explanations, we find ourselves in trouble.”
Throughout The Mark and the Void, Claude will encounter his fair share of trouble, perpetrating several imprisonable offenses with varying degrees of reluctance. The beauty is THAT the drama seems to breathe life back into him.
“I just wanted to add in closing that I didn't want the book to be a pessimistic one,” Murray writes in an email after our phone conversation. “We live in dark times, it's true, but that there are still ways to lift ourselves out of the darkness—art, friendship—and while these are increasingly being hollowed out and monetized there is still time! to save ourselves. I honestly believe that, or at least, I'm surrounded by so many great people who honestly believe it that I find myself constantly having to interrogate my natural pessimism. People have the power, as Patti Smith says. That's why the book has a happy ending.”Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.