Paul Murray’s novel The Mark and the Void is set in the bleak landscape of 21st-century banking. It’s a story about the relationship between an idealistic banker named Claude and a jaded writer named Paul. It’s a story that is very aware of itself as a story, and within which two seemingly incommensurable narratives—totalizing financial capital and perspectivist postmodern fiction—collude to create a satire that does a fabulous job of retaining, and representing, the essential weirdness of economics. Investment banking is often an exercise in magical thinking, and markets are usually run, this novel reminds us, as a kind of collective dream (or nightmare).
The Mark and the Void is in conversation with Murray’s debut, An Evening of Long Goodbyes (2003), which is about a louche aristocrat haplessly trying to come to terms with the brash new Dublin ushered in by the “Celtic Tiger” boom that began in the mid-1990s. The Mark and the Void describes Dublin after the fall. Ireland is one of the great tragedies of the 2008 financial crisis; the Irish economy, which ran at a surplus in 2007, was then swamped in toxic debt because the government chose to absorb and absolve its reckless banking sector. The “Celtic Tiger” economy witnessed perhaps the most spectacular crash in Europe, and the country has been enduring austerity politics ever since. Ireland remains, however, one of the least regulated markets in the Western world, and thus it continues to be a favored tax and banking haven for multinational corporations and banks. Much of this activity is concentrated in the International Financial Services Centre, in a fictional version of which Claude, the French banker who narrates the novel, works. As Claude tells it, the IFSC is in the middle of Dublin, and yet remains curiously apart, a “shadow-place” well suited to the shadowy transactions that occur within it. It is “real without being actual,” designed to be “a kind of legal elsewhere.”
Claude, whose father is a Parisian blacksmith, is an inversion of Charles, the entitled narrator of An Evening of Long Goodbyes. They are both extremely funny, if in different ways: Charles is droll and sometimes sarcastic, while Claude has a quieter and more ironic wit. An Evening of Long Goodbyes is for the most part an exuberant farce; The Mark and the Void consistently draws on the deeper, darker vein of satire. The humor in this book derives from a stark refusal to look away from the monstrous trick capitalism has played on humanity; to laugh, so as not to weep, at the full force of its absurdity. The Mark and the Void is thus a far more subdued novel than Murray’s debut—its jokes confined to dialogue and deft phrasing, its capers more grotesque than bawdy. Occasionally, however, he unleashes his gift for scathing description:
And here, on the teeming road, are the Irish: blanched, pocked, pitted, sleep-deprived, burnished, beaming, snaggle-toothed, balding, rouged, raddled, beaky, exophthalmic; the Irish, with their demon priests, their cellulite, their bus queues and beer bellies, their foreign football teams, betting slips, smartphones and online deals, their dyed hair, white jeans, colossal mortgages, miraculous medals, ill-fitting suits, enormous televisions, stoical laughter, their narrow minds and broad hearts, their drunken speeches, drunken fights, drunken weddings, drunken sex, their books, saints, tickets to Australia, their building-site countryside, their radioactive sea, their crisps, bars, Lucozade, their tattoos, their overpriced wine and mediocre restaurants, their dreams, their children, their mistakes, their punchbag history, their bankrupt state and their inveterate difference. Every face is a compendium of singularities, unadulterated by the smoothing toxins of wealth and privilege; to walk among them is to be plunged into a sea of stories, a human comedy so rich it seems on the point of writing itself.
The Mark and the Void is an ambitious book; it includes digressions into everything from the “fully networked isolation” of postmodern romance to ethnography to environmental catastrophe. Claude’s employer is the Bank of Torabundo, which is headquartered on a drowning island (and tax haven) inspired by the Trobriand archipelago east of New Guinea, which was where the anthropologist Bronisław Manilowski did the fieldwork that culminated in Argonauts of the South Pacific, his classic 1922 treatise against Economic Man. Manilowski argued that generous reciprocity, rather than frugal rationality, is the principal human impulse—an argument that, not to give too much away, the Murray of Mark eventually endorses. A lot of the strands within the novel converge in the figure of François Texier, a fictional philosopher-painter who seems to be something of a cross between Barthes and Baudrillard. Texier is the painter behind the artwork that gives the book its title: a painting so densely inscribed it creates a “cascading darkness that seems to devour the very possibility of meaning,” the visual representation of a literary abyss. He also provides the novel with its philosophical diagnosis: “We write the encyclopedia to explain the world, and then we leave the world to live in the encyclopedia.”
Hardwired into The Mark and the Void is a mocking critique of the hubris of high modernity and its insistence that reality is a text, open to interpretation—but nevertheless fully knowable with sufficient diligence and technology. And yet it has never been more true that we now invent (not reveal) our own reality, though we don’t actually understand it. This paradox—that we both shape and are shaped by worlds of our own making, that even as humanity grows more powerful, humans become less capable of controlling their circumstances—explains why so many of us increasingly make our way through the world with a cynical optimism. We believe we will survive because we must survive, because we always have, even as our collective imagination is busy spinning dystopian alternatives for our entertainment. At the root of financial rationality is the belief that risk can be assessed and mastered, and in a world dominated by economic thought, the possibility of annihilation is no longer an existential threat. It is an amusement.
I read the The Mark and the Void as a dystopian narrative, but it’s perhaps better described as a realist novel written with an extraordinarily clarifying pessimism. The beauty, and the terror, of the book is that it exists at a very slight skew from the reader’s reality: this is the world you would see, Murray seems to be telling us, if you could stare straight at it without going mad or blind. He delves, with painful accuracy, into the kind of despair that everyone who thinks for a living feels in their bones. If the point of thought, or art, is to excavate underlying truths, what does one do in a world that seems to run only on surfaces and spectacles? In a world where truth, assuming it can be found, is no longer that sublime residue that remains once all else is forgotten—the Pythagorean theorem, say, or Mughal miniatures—but is, instead, a cruel calculus so unbearable that the only way to survive is to escape, however temporarily, into “arts and leisure”? Is all thinking now mere gloss, in which we observe and interpret reality so as to render it less devastating? Paul Murray’s very funny book asks a very serious question: is all that we ask from art today that it tell us comforting lies? Murray refuses, and the result is a comedy that does Kafka proud.