Comic genius Paul Murray presents a convoluted tale about the lack of principles in international finance in his latest offering, “The Mark and the Void.” I fell in love with Murray upon devouring the hilarious and poignant “Skippy Dies,” and was looking forward to him taking on the banking industry. Murray uses his patented, quirky, dark humor to draw parallels between the art of writing a great novel and the deception involved in the shadowy world of finance.
The premise is a strange one: a lonely Frenchman living in Dublin and working for an international investment bank is approached by a strange stalker who claims he wants to model the lead character in his second novel after him. The novelist, (named Paul) tells Claude the banker that he is the perfect “Everyman,” for his story and helps Claude to see his life as full of exciting possibilities… That is, until Claude realizes Paul wants to rob the bank. Because one cannot rob an investment bank that holds no cash, and Claude is desperate to learn more about the life Paul had never really envisioned for him in the plot of his fake book, Paul decides to extend the farce in hopes of making some money. Eventually the pair forge an unlikely friendship.
The result is a maddeningly messy but ultimately endearing tale featuring a wild cast of characters and staggering number of subplots: an island full of natives in the West Pacific that survive on a gift economy, a beautiful waitress/artist who paints philosophy-inspired visions, European publishing firms, enigmatic leaders of finance and sovereign nations striking deals, families foundering in the aftermath of the collapse of the Greek economy, strippers, bartenders, and reggae bands composed of bankers. It’s exhausting, lovely, and funny in ways that are painful.
As Paul’s various con efforts fail to reach the big payoff that will resolve his plethora of debts, Claude gets increasingly involved in his struggles and sees what his own life (which has financial security) actually lacks: meaning derived from love and family. Paul and the Greek waitress Ariadne draw Claude out of his safe banker bubble, showing him the effect that his seemingly meaningless exchanges and trades have on the life of everyday Irish people and beyond.
Paul the character knows how to turn a pretty devastating phrase in teaching our banker life lessons: “Loneliness is one of the few growth areas these days. And it’s self-perpetuating, you know? Because the more people pay to stop feeling lonely, the lonelier they tend to get.”
The book can be summed up in another fine quote from Paul: “The truth is fine in principle, but stories are what sell.” While not for everyone, I certainly enjoyed the efforts of Murray to create a cast of characters that individually pursue their own happy endings. It was also eerie to read the conclusion as the Bernie Madoff movie special aired on network television. If you want a sprawling, thought-provoking tale that is darkly humorous, go for it.