‘The Mark and the Void’ by Paul Murray (2015) – 459 pages
‘The Mark and the Void’ is a brilliant preposterous ragtag jumble of a comic novel. It is about the banking industry.
“The story of the twenty-first century is the banks. Look at the mess this country’s in because of them.”
It takes place when the Celtic Tiger, the years of phenomenal Irish prosperity, collapsed and died. Some banks had made large outrageous investments which proved to be worthless, and they needed the Irish government to bail them out. Huge amounts of government money which were meant for the handicapped, the disabled, and the destitute instead went to failed executives at corrupt ‘too big to fail’ financial companies as multi-million dollar severance packages. The United States had this same problem as Ireland when the investment firms Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns went bankrupt in 2007, and the entire financial industry was shaky. It was the onset of a severe global recession.
“The radio waves are clogged with hard-luck stories derived from the last wave of cuts: grandmothers and children and chronically ill whose pensions were cut or whose special-needs assistants were withdrawn or whose care was cancelled overnight by governmental austerity, even as yet more billions flow in decidedly unaustere fashion to the notoriously corrupt bank.”
Despite this sorry backdrop, ‘The Mark and the Void’ is a comic novel told from the viewpoint of a banker named Claude. After the first hundred pages, I thought this novel was the most insightful sharpest dissection of the banking industry I had ever come across. However after I completed the novel, it seemed to me more like a hodge-podge, somewhat of a mess. ‘The Mark and the Void’ is a shaggy dog tale that keeps getting shaggier and shaggier as it progresses, but I forgive Murray because of the long stretches of humorous brilliance.
Somehow Claude’s bank, due to a policy of moderation, had avoided the collapse but now they bring in an executive from one of these failed banks. He has the banking crew make ‘counterintuitive’ investments.
One of the most absurd characters here is a novelist named Paul. Paul approaches Claude to ostensibly write a novel about a banker as Everyman. Claude agrees, and Paul follows him around at the bank for several days and then brings in his Russian friend Igor. Paul and Igor are casing the bank for a burglary, not realizing that this bank is an investment bank and has no vaults.
Since Paul is a novelist, we do get into a literary subplot which is so ridiculous it somewhat undermines any serious points to be made about banking. The novel really does not contain any original or shattering insights into banking, nothing that hasn’t shown up already in the newspapers. It is strictly for laughs.
There is a nice little subplot about Claude obsessing over a waitress in the nearby café while he is oblivious to the woman working right near him at the bank who really cares for him.
There are too few novels about the modern-day business world, so ‘The Mark and the Void’ is a welcome, if shaggy, addition.