Like you, I’ve read that review.
I sat down to read The Mark and the Void with evil glee, twirling my writerly moustache with one hand and my blue pencil with the other, ready to underline the most grotesquely incompetent passages before going one further, and slating that review in the process.
I had the first paragraph worked out before I’d even read the book. “The problem with that review,” I would begin, “is that it doesn’t go far enough . . . ”
Imagine, then, my disappointment when I began to read the novel and was forced to concede, “Damn it. This is actually pretty good . . . ”
We are introduced to Claude Martingale, banker and nominal Everyman, adrift in a world of numbers, but estranged from matters of the heart. His job, as we would expect, is the soulless, depressing kind that lovers of literature are probably removed from. “The screen, the phone, that disembodied world is the one we truly inhabit; the International Financial Services Centre is merely a frame for it, an outline, the equivalent of the chalk marks of a child’s game on the pavement.”
Enter Paul, the author who, it will not escape your attention, shares the same name as the actual author of the book. Inside, you groan. Is this going to be one of those annoying, tricksy meta-novels, which some people love and some people loathe?
I’m reminded of sitting in the cinema, watching Nicholas Cage in Adaptation, and wondering why half the audience was braying with laughter while the other half, including me, sat in stone-faced silence. Go on, I think. Wow me. Make this work.
On the whole, it works, juggling plot elements at a frenetic pace, only occasionally dropping a ball. There are enough throwaway jokes to distract you from any clumsiness in the execution.
Yes, the sections where characters explain financial transactions feel a little forced, as if the background research has been inserted to give the story weight. There are entire paragraphs which feel a little more like journalism than literature, and the author’s voice seems to supersede Claude’s.
“Someone, somewhere, realized that the global boom was in fact a pyramid scheme . . . Investors panicked and began to pull their money out of the megabanks; the megabanks desperately began to call in loans from the regional banks, the regional banks called in loans from their customers, the customers called in loans from their trading partners, or tried to, though all of a sudden no one was answering their phones.”
Yes, yes, I think. I’ve read the newspapers. Give me a story. A love story, maybe?
There’s a love story, in the alluring shape of an unattainably beautiful waitress, Ariadne. Paul promises to help Claude win her love.
“Many of my colleagues have attended weekend seminars on picking up women, the kind of that advise you to begin by insulting whoever it is that you want to sleep with; others are signed up to Internet dating agencies that promise ‘perfect love without suffering’ by feeding your personal data into a computer to find your optimal match. Hiring a writer to mastermind courtship does not seem significantly madder than these.”
Much of the humour comes from the fact that Claude does not realise what a schmuck he is, although the reader is in on the joke. Claude’s “Frenchness” is referred to often but rarely demonstrated. Despite the narrator’s reported speech usually reading like a non-native English-speaker’s, the prose is peppered with words that I found hard to imagine coming from a Frenchman writing in English (“dolorous”, “malefic”, “aphasia”), but then, we are invited to imagine that the author is, of course, really the Paul who appears as a character in the novel . . .
For all its meta-narrative high jinks, tasteless but believable lines by the interchangeable bankers (“This whole fucking week has been an inconceivable disaster, like getting raped by a guy with a tiny cock”), and social commentary, the book really soars during the comic set pieces.
Paul’s son searching for his lost pet ant in their crumbling apartment; Paul’s increasingly desperate attempts to scam money out of everyone while his spooky cohort Igor steals Claude’s toilet paper; Paul and Claude posing as a gay couple at an excruciating literary dinner party with the jolly critic Mary Cutlass, who enjoys nothing more than a novel about genocide “as she chomps on her croissant in her enormous fucking mansion in genocide-free Killiney”; this is the true gold in the vault.
And naturally, in the end, the search for the humanity in a boring banker’s empty life does not go unrewarded.
The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray (Penguin, July 2015)