The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray
It was inevitable that the 2009 crash would produce literature, and this book might be a start.
Irish writer Murray sets this novel in the International Financial Services Centre http://www.ifsc.ie/ in Dublin. This district is now infamous as an “offshore” tax haven and corporate boondoggle. Murray’s characters work there and give us a firsthand view of the appalling goings on. Is this autobiographical, or does he work from informants? In any case, the shenanigans are similar to reports from New York and elsewhere.
Amid the chaos of crashing markets, publicly funded bailouts for big companies and billionaires, and crushing “austerity” for the little guy, the story tracks the tensions of a banker who is navigating the financial world of imaginary, “virtual”, entities, the artistic world of writers and painters, and and the real lives of real people.
The characters are not all likable, but we sympathize with many of the imperfect specimens, even when they make decisions we wish they wouldn’t. Many of the people seem strangely clueless, missing the blatantly obvious in the midst of their own misery. On the other hand, many of them are blinded by love, or refuse to see the flaws of those they love.
Murray touches on some “big ideas” in the novel, clearly influenced by David Graeber (Debt: The First 5,000 Years, 2011) and the protest movements following the 2009 crash. He also portrays the misbehavior and incompetence in the financial sector and European governments. I believe he has exaggerated for a good story, but, unfortunately, his “satire” is appalling close to real life.
Murray also touches on art and art theory, including the obscure source for the title, “The Void and the Mark”. He clearly cares about this topic, but some of the discussion was dry and unreadable. For better or for worse, the book reads perfectly well if you skip all that.
The actual plot, such as it is, makes little sense. Given the artifice (e.g., one character is a writer named “Paul”), I don’t think we are supposed to take it seriously. One huge, huge, problem is that the protagonist is pretty oblivious to the people around him, so we see the “surprises” a hundred pages before he does.
The troubled writer in the story is deranged in his scamming, and he is incompetent, and irritating to boot. Much of the hustling is unpleasant to read, and not especially funny. For example, portrayal of his interactions with the publisher and his gay friends is excruciating, not amusing.
Overall, the characters are rife with stereotypes. We are treated to gruff Germans, troubled East European sex workers, weird Russian geniuses, brainless Cockney lads, sexy Greeks, and good hearted Aussies. Oh, and, of course, rich, fat, repulsive Americans. Sigh. Really? In the twenty first century?
Overall, this isn’t a bad read. It was inevitable that the 2009 crash would produce literature, but this book is no Grapes of Wrath. But it’s a start.
- Murray, Paul, The Mark and the Void, New York, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2015.
Sunday Book Reviews