The Short Version: Claude is an analyst at an Irish bank just after the financial crash when he meets an author, Paul Murray. Paul maybe wants to write a book about Claude – but he’s got a strange way of doing it, and slowly these two men are pulled into a narrative that is, perhaps, being created as we read it…
The Review: It’s hard to make financial writing flashy or sexy. There are your pop-science type books, like The Big Short, but those still require a certain amount of knowledge (or at least willingness to learn) – so much so that people would not immediately consider such a book “easy reading”. It’s why that particular book was transformed into that god-awful (yet still critically lauded) film of the same name: in the hopes that more people would come to understand just what happened in 2007-8.
That’s a noble cause – but it turns out all folks needed to do was pick up Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void and they’d discover perhaps the best novel so far about the banking crisis… and as a bonus, get a sneaky meditation on writing, metafiction, and narrative. Seriously though, Murray does the best job of just about anybody I’ve read so far (including journalists) at explaining not the exact things that happened during the crash but instead explaining the kinds of things that bankers do that, in that particular case, happened to cause a global near-catastrophe. It’s the idea of a “margin call” that stands out to me (although for other readers it might be another thing): suddenly, this thing that I’d read articles about and seen several movies where it was prominently discussed (including one that’s named Margin Call) was crystal clear to me, all through the magic of a few conversations between these employees at this fictional Irish bank.
Or, perhaps more accurately, through the magic of Paul Murray’s prose. His last novel, Skippy Dies, was shaggy as hell but also completely charming and one of the great discoveries brought into my life by the Tournament of Books. His keen sense of humor coupled with an incisive delving into the emotional truth of humanity in that book are what have stuck with me, long after the various quibbles I had about the book’s flaws have faded. He brings those same qualities to this novel while also making sure to teach without seeming pedantic. If you knew nothing about the financial crisis going into reading this book, you would come away with a basic grasp of the situation – enough that you could ostensibly keep up in a general conversation about it, even if you weren’t contributing too much.
The book, though, is a little more metaphysically shapeless than Skippy. Murray himself is a character, or at least there is a character named Paul Murray – also an Irish novelist, although I think the similarities pretty much stop there. The one in the book has written a single novel, seven years ago, that was critically drubbed and commercially destroyed by another novel that had rough similarities to it (they were both about clowns). Now, Murray is wedded to a former stripper, they have a four-year-old son, and Murray is more interested in scheming than he is writing another novel.
The scheme that he brings to Claude, our Frenchman narrator, is the idea of writing a novel about an “Everyman” in the banking system. Shining a light on the ordinary people and the ordinary lives behind a sometimes inscrutable system. And while this proposal is so obviously a scam… the novel also opens with some unknown narration proposing pretty much exactly this fictional novel’s conceit. Then, as it progresses, there is just enough similarity between the story that Paul and Claude occasionally conceive (albeit often abandon) and the one that the real-life writer Murray is laying out before us that a reader can’t help but wonder, somewhere in the back of their mind, just what the hell is going on.
A saner author might’ve gone full gonzo, letting things get really crazy – but Murray, wily fox that he is, instead uses the wackiest moments as though delivering them via an eyedropper. Here are a few examples of some (but by no means all) of the silliest and zaniest things that pop up throughout the novel: “Zombies” create an Occupy Wall Street-esque encampment in front of the new Royal Irish building, the unseen new CEO of BOT has reached his height of power primarily because he’s a great golfer (in fact, Porter is rarely mentioned in the novel without a mention of golf nearby), the club they all go to after work is called “Life” and there’s a late-novel appearance from the company’s #2 whose name is George Death – and don’t forget about the Russian mathematician in the closet who is working on a system that effectively alchemizes loss into profit via non-Euclidian algorithms. But Murray doesn’t let these things swamp the “everyman” story that he is, in fact, writing. Claude remains not-quite-human (he’s aloof and French, plus a banker, so how “everyman” could he really be?) but he’s also a perfect narrator for this not-quite-human world. The strange moments are instead happening sort of at your periphery and the dissonance, while it forgoes some of the easy humor, makes for a far stronger novel in the end. In terms of structure, I was reminded of the opening scene of the failed pilot for the Zombieland TV show.
I went out of my way to pick up the two-volume slipcase version of this book, partially because I have that sweet three-volume Skippy Dies and partially because I really love it when books are split into paperback slipcases – and I realized, while reading this one, that the experience of reading this book in this manner was fundamentally different from reading it as a single tome. I read the ~200 pages of the second volume in a single day; I couldn’t put it down, burned through it on the strength of Murray’s plot (which sprawls but is never lacking coherence) and his prose. But when I was finishing the first volume, I had an uneasy feeling and frankly couldn’t tell if I was enjoying the book. The two halves, split somewhat arbitrarily (to my eye anyway – they just cut the book in half as opposed to the book crying out to be two separate volumes), manifest very differently to me, perhaps because I was reading them in a fundamentally separated fashion. They made me far more conscious of the book’s structure and highlighted, I think, a few flaws along the way that I might never have encountered had I read the FSG edition, for example.
Rating: 4 out of 5. The first half is a little shaggy, not unlike Skippy Dies, and the ending returns perhaps a little too strongly to the metafiction of it all (although I did also really love the ending, so what do I know) – but damned if Paul Murray doesn’t pull off something special here. He’s written the best novel so far about the banking crisis by making it understandable to the layman while also writing a far more intellectual novel about the nature of narratives, particularly those we build for each other in the course of our lives. Claude is often a little inscrutable but just as human as the co-worker we see everyday but don’t really know, Paul is a terrific caricature of a needy nervous author, and the world Murray presents here is as charmingly fucked up as our own. This novel won’t be for everyone, but those who like a strange, smart laugh would do well to give it a shot.