Paul Murray: The Mark and the Void
Our hero is Claude Martingale, a Frenchman. He comes from a relatively poor background but, thanks to his parents’ efforts, gets a reasonable education and becomes a banker. However, the more successful he becomes, the more his father resents him and his success. His mother dies but things get no better, so he moves to a new job, as a research analyst with Bank of Torabundo a rising investment bank, based in Dublin. (Torabundo is a (fictitious) tax haven island in the Pacific.) When his father dies, he does not seem too unhappy.
Claude lives for his job and seems to be very good at it. Apart from eating, drinking and some casual sex, there seems to be nothing else in his life. The Bank of Torabundo had weathered the financial crisis as its CEO has held out against derivatives, as he was conservative. (The CEO is called Sir Colin Shred, a reference to Fred Goodwin, who was famously nicknamed Fred the Shred. Shred is replaced by Porter Blankly. The main Irish retail bank mentioned in this book is the Royal Bank of Ireland. Given that Ireland is not a monarchy, this is clearly a reference to the Royal Bank of Scotland, Goodwin’s bank. Yes, satire is a key part of this book.) However, the board now feel it is time to be more aggressive and Shred goes and Blankly comes in. We learn a fair amount about Blankly – ruined one bank, several successful banking careers, two wives who killed themselves and clearly a risk-taker.
Claude has noticed that he seems to be being followed by a suspicious man in a dark coat. One day the man introduces himself. He is a writer and he is called Paul (though we do not know if his surname is Murray.) He is a not very successful writer but now wants to write a book featuring an Everyman and he thinks a banker might do as a model(!). He has selected Claude. He wants to shadow Claude in his work and then develop a novel from that. Rather unconvincingly, both Claude and his boss agree, without, apparently, any concern for security and confidentiality. Both Claude and his colleagues, who hope to appear in the book, are somewhat flattered by Paul’s attention.
Paul does indeed shadow Claude but he is not too happy, as he cannot get a story out of it. A research analyst at a bank does not lead, on the whole, an exciting life, as Howie, one of the traders, is quick to tell him. Paul brings in Igor, a strange-looking poet, who, apparently, can help with some of the more conceptual stuff. Igor pokes around the building – he is good on locale – and no-one seems suspicious. We are suspicious, as we have been told from the very beginning that this novel will be about a banker robbing his own bank. When Paul asks for a copy of the office plans, we get more suspicious. When he suggests the character based on Claude should rob the bank, just to make a good story, we are even more suspicious.
When Paul seems to disappear, Claude manages to track him down and comes to realise that Paul really did plan to rob the bank. He and his colleagues decide that, to avoid embarrassment the best approach is a quick word with Security and get back to business. With Greece collapsing, Ireland’s credit rating being downgraded and major new client being signed up, Paul is soon forgotten.
We follow Paul and his travails throughout the book. He keeps disappearing and then popping up and the somewhat naive Claude seems willing to help him. This help involves jump-starting his literary career, not helping him with his website (hotswaitresses.com – the hots (plural) is not a typo) and managing his Eastern European wife, Clizia, and strange four year old son Remington.
We have two other plot lines going on. The first is Claude’s non-existent, unrequited love life, where Paul is called upon to assist and at which he makes as much of mess as he does with everything else in his life. The second is the activities of the bank which can best be described as colourful and where Murray lets loose all of his satirical fervour. The bank rises, falls, rises again and carries out deeds which may be fictitious but which may be based on fact and which, to the non-banker observer, can only be considered horrendous, albeit described in a very humorous way. In other words, the three plot lines can be summed up as sex/love, money and literary creation, the most common plot-lines to be found in the modern novel.
However, though there is a story and we are presumably meant, at least in some way, to identify with Claude, the reasonable if somewhat naive Everyman, Murray is a satirist. He takes the various ideas of banking – derivatives, shorting and so on – and then takes them to extremes. He runs Ireland and Greece into the ground (which, of course, more or less happened in real life.) He mocks everyone and everything: banking and bankers, of course, the Irish government, the EU and IMF, the English (particularly those that went to Oxford University), the Irish, the East Europeans (who tend to be painted in a very stereotypical and racist way), the art world, the climate change debate and love and romance.
However, apart from banking and bankers, the main thrust of his satire is what we might call the literary industry, i.e. writers, publishers, agents and so on. As mentioned, Paul is a (failed) writer and may well be based, at least in part, on our author. Paul seems to have few moral scruples. In particular, he resents a successful writer, Bimal Banerjee, who has won the Raytheon (the equivalent of the Booker though, of course, Raytheon is a major US arms dealer; yes, we are all complicit in the world’s nastiness, even (especially?) writers). It is Banerjee who says We are in Dublin, so I will quote to you a Dubliner, George Bernard Shaw, who said that man looks in a mirror to see his face, and at art to see his soul. But modern man has no soul to see. He has become little more than a conduit for the transfer of wealth between corporations and The writer is the most tragic figure of all. The parasite that does not realize its host is dead.
And the banker? What happens to the banker? Nothing happens to the banker. The banker is paid to be a person to whom nothing happens.
This is a hilarious novel and very much makes its point. Bankers are, essentially, evil, and writers naive dupes. You may disagree with that proposition but Murray brilliantly portrays it in this novel. While Paul (the fictitious one) maintains that you cannot write a novel with, as its hero, an Everyman banker, Paul Murray (the real one) shows that you very much can.
First published in 2015 by Hamish Hamilton