PAUL MURRAY’S 2010 NOVEL Skippy Dies, about the life and times of schoolboy Daniel “Skippy” Juster and his associates, starts with the scene of a doughnut-eating competition during which — lo and behold — Skippy chokes and dies. The astonished reader is then taken on a rambunctious tour of the months leading up to the fatal gorging: a 660-page voyage through the turmoil of male adolescence and the nightmare for those adults who try to help manage it. Described by critics as “a carnival of a novel,” “a blast of a book,” and “an exuberant saga,” the novel won praise from the likes of David Nicholls, Donna Tartt, and Ali Smith, and confirmed a writer with a masterful comic touch and a generous heart.
Short-listed for the Booker Prize, Skippy Dies left Murray’s readers eager for what would come next. The author took five careful years to craft The Mark and the Void, which exceeds Skippy in wit and vigor and is a more polished and mature work.
Our protagonist this time is a Frenchman named Claude working in Dublin as an analyst for the Bank of Torabundo. To any reader who balks at the idea of reading a 460-page work about an international investment bank, when there are not a series of Grisham-esque murders to spice it up, I say, do not worry. This is a novel about banking in the way that Catch-22 is a novel about war — the more deeply we delve into the neoliberal corporation’s madnesses and depredations, the funnier are our characters’ attempts to escape, exploit, or simply comprehend it.
Since the financial crash began way back in 2008, many of us have tried to educate ourselves in the impossibly and purposefully obscure ways of international banking, even as the crisis has resulted in ever-deeper entanglement of governments and taxpayers in what is essentially a neoliberal Ponzi scheme. Here, Murray examines how in god’s name the result of such a crisis could possibly be the triumph of corporate interests over social and political ones.
As with anything Murrayesque, the set-up is pure dark comedy. Claude is unexpectedly approached one day by a man named Paul, who claims to be a writer in the midst of research: can he trail Claude to find out more about life at the bank? Much as the request is a bizarre one, it’s instantly exciting to Claude and his fellow workers, who can’t believe that any outsider finds their lives interesting. For Claude, Paul’s attention is a possible affirmation that he isn’t just a faceless banker: “He says he wants to find the humanity inside the machine,” Claude reflects. “He says he can see something different about me.” For his colleagues, Paul’s offer is a chance to humanize their reputations as global villains, to tell their side of the story. In a typical Murray comic line — sweetly, subtly sarcastic — one banker muses, “Certainly it is time bankers were recognized by the art world. Given that we buy most of the actual art, it is frustrating to be continually misrepresented by it.” This character, a German named Jurgen, is totally unable to see the contradiction or corrupted relation between the spirit of art and temporary guardianship of art work; a conceptual mistake, as it happens, that is the heart of financial capitalism’s evils.
The bank decides to allow the writer Paul to conduct research on the premises, along with an assistant, a professor of contemporary art named Igor, even though Igor “looks more like a murderer than a poet” and a Google search of his name triggers a virus alert. Igor’s research in the office takes unusual forms including “knocking on walls, poking at ceiling tiles” and “making a gun-shape with his thumb and finger and boring an imaginary hole into the wall.” It doesn’t take Claude long to realize that Paul is actually planning a bank heist. This isn’t a spoiler: as ever, Murray has pre-empted much of this at the start, with the prologue beginning, “Idea for a novel: we have a banker rob his own bank.”
In addition to fantastic dialogue and an eagle eye for the absurdities of quotidian details, Murray elaborates the comedy with ever more Wodehousian confections of plot, all of which build toward inevitable catastrophe. First, the fictional writer Paul (to distinguish from the real writer Paul) suffers the dismaying realization that investment banks don’t have vaults and, what’s worse, don’t even hold cash — dashing his plans for a robbery. Simultaneously it is dawning on Claude that no book will be written about his life; that, far from being romanticized or affirmed, he is simply being exploited for the moneyman that he is. But, by this time, the two men have forged too much of a bond to truly break apart. Paul, much more of a fool than a criminal mastermind, will do virtually anything to gain a financial benefit from his acquaintanceship with the wealthy banker — even if that includes writing a book. Claude meanwhile has undergone an identity crisis and come to value himself more; partly as a result, he has fallen for the beautiful waitress who works in the bank’s cafeteria. However cack-handedly — I will make only tantalizing reference to a website idea called “myhotswaitress.com” — Paul inserts himself in this romance, claiming to be able to liberate the passions and emotions that are surely trapped deep in a banker’s heart.
With this compelling bromance propelling a reader through to the book’s conclusion, a number of interesting side-plots develop.
There is Ish, an Australian woman who has found herself almost cornered in her analysts’ job thanks to a large mortgage that she has to pay off (taken out before the crash). She has the pep and the work ethic to keep her head up and carry on, but really yearns to be back in the Pacific with her adventurer ex-boyfriend; she works hard but has deeply uncertain loyalties toward the bank and its aims have been severely damaged. There is also Howard: the biggest egotist of all, he gets his way and reaps huge rewards through sheer machismo and Vegas-style betting. No great economist or mathematician, Howard’s method is intimidation: “You need to go into that conference room and slaughter them,” being one of his more modest pronouncements. Claude and Ish report to Jurgen, who has a fairly robotic personality, exemplified in his utter failure to grasp humor or irony — to wit, his reggae band back in Bavaria, “Gerhardt and the Mergers.” Not surprisingly Jurgen’s loyalties lie with the bank in virtually any scenario. Finally, there is the absentee American CEO, Porter Blankly, whose early promotions in finance are owed largely to prowess on the golf course. Blankly has made and lost a personal fortune in the Wild West banking conditions prior to the crash; now that the crash has been “fixed” by gargantuan bailouts from Irish and other taxpayers, he has been called on to work his “magic” on the Bank of Torabundo. This results in random memos from his office in New York spurring employees to “think counterintuitive” and perform other meaningless actions.
Initially, the fictional writer Paul regards banks as too dull to be a subject for novelization, but gradually he becomes aware of the real problem, which is that they are too abstract. The Bank of Torabundo, for example, is “based” in empty offices on an eponymous Pacific island for the purposes of tax evasion. The bank has effectively ceased transacting in money (which is itself an abstraction) and trades in “derivatives” according to equations worked out by a mathematical genius who is totally removed from the real world. Paul, himself crippled by housing debt, simply can’t make any sense out of the company, whether he regards it as an author or a criminal. The bankers themselves barely understand what’s going on, and certainly can’t grasp advanced mathematical formulas.
The pre-crash, boom economy of Ireland (whose zombie-like resurrection is the scenario of the book) has been referred to as the “Celtic Tiger.” The “Celtic” element of things is important to Murray; even trans-national corporations have to base themselves somewhere — and this somewhere is increasingly Ireland. (Look at Amazon, Apple, Google, eBay, and Twitter.) Murray is interested in knowing what these headquarters are like, and what relationship to place they might have, if any.
Whilst at work or his nearby home, Claude could be anywhere; the restaurant that Ariadne works at serves on-trend international cuisine, which is so many kinds of cooking that it’s not any kind at all. It’s only when Claude visits Paul at his flat in an abandoned development, or delves into the city’s nocturnal underworld, or visits a homeless shelter, that a living, vital, human city shows its face. How pointed that Murray, a writer who lives in Dublin, birthplace to James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, and Samuel Beckett, sees fit to represent “Irishness” only in the occasional visits to the city’s extremities; which might illustrate how traditional notions of nationality are being pushed out by something hotchpotch and international and anonymous; as though the new “Irishness” holds nothing Irish at all. The same could, of course, be said of London, New York, Los Angeles, and Berlin, and this fact will make Murray’s book seem uncannily familiar to people who’ve never been to Ireland at all.
In an age when we supposedly have reduced attention spans, it’s a tribute to Murray that his 400-page-plus novel can be unceasingly engaging, amusing, and compelling. Given that this is ostensibly a novel of investment bankers, the feat is all the more astounding; for that reason alone it warrants reading. Who’d have thought such a topic could yield such hilarity? It takes Murray’s brilliantly jesting mind to find a way. As with any good jester, though, the face is only half-laughing.