Friday 2 December 2016

'There's a little banker in all of us' - writer Paul Murray

Paul Murray has followed his hit novel 'Skippy Dies' with a book about the banking crisis. He spoke to our reporter about greed, failure and why history is destined to repeat itself

Edel Coffey

Published 22/07/2015 | 02:30

Boom and bust: Paul Murray outside the old Anglo Irish building on St Stephen's Green, Dublin. Photo: Arthur Carron
Boom and bust: Paul Murray outside the old Anglo Irish building on St Stephen's Green, Dublin. Photo: Arthur Carron

When I met Paul Murray a few weeks ago, the unassuming author of Skippy Dies was in that jittery limbo world of having completed his long-awaited third novel but not yet having launched it.

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Murray was anxious about how the critics would react to his new offering, and expressed the usual authorly fears that accompany transition from five years writing alone in a room to promoting and selling a book.

As it turned out, he had good cause to be anxious. Less than a week after we met, a review of his new book, The Mark and the Void, a satire on the banking crisis, appeared in the Irish Times. It was so negative, it became instantly notorious.

Murray, wrote the paper's literary critic Eileen Battersby, was "trying to find a plot". Reading the novel, she added, feels "as long as the recession, only twice as boring".

The review left many open-mouthed: it is unusual to see an Irish novel so thoroughly panned by an Irish critic. One tweeter threatened to go out and buy Murray's novel in 'protest at such vicious reviewing'.

Battersby's words must have stung, but when I contacted him after its publication to see what his response was, Murray chose the time-honoured - and probably wise - response of 'no comment'.

On the day we met, however, all of that was still to come. We met in the old Anglo building on St Stephen's Green, now home to a Starbucks, a suitably bland successor for such controversial former occupants. It's a fitting location for our interview. The Mark and the Void is set in the Ireland of the boom and bust, and follows a French banker who is working in the IFSC.

Murray is dressed in a casual T-shirt, and his soft ginger hair and beard give him a boyish look that belie his 40 years. It's warm enough for us to sit outside and we watch the busy locals coming and going with their venti lattes, while tourists languidly queue in the coffee shop, happy to recreate the generic experience of home whilst on their holidays.

First things first, Murray is a genuinely nice person. He says 'off the record' a lot, even when he's being only mildly disparaging about fellow authors or former politicians.

His first novel, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, was published in 2003, but it was follow-up, Skippy Dies, which made him an international big hitter. That book made a big splash with reviews in The New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as appearances in the literary bible The Paris Review. It had been nearly 10 years in the writing, but it was well worth the wait.

Murray had intended on following up on that success quickly and write a short book, but The Mark and the Void took five years to come to fruition and clocks in at nearly 500 pages.

Ultimately, though, says Murray, while it makes sense for a writer like Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James to publish again quickly, getting a book like his out in a hurry is different.

"If you look at Grey, everyone's going to go out and buy it and it doesn't matter if it's a bad book, and people will buy it before the reviews come out, whereas with a literary novel there's no point in rushing it because it will be counterproductive."

While Murray's previous subject matter was a comic coming-of-age book about life in a south Dublin boys' school, this time the author turned to the more serious topic of the economic downturn. It's no surprise considering the crash is the biggest thing to have happened to Ireland in generations and Murray and his peers have all found rich pickings in the details of the cycle of the Celtic Tiger. It is surprising, however, that Murray first started writing this book in 2002 before shelving it.

"I set it in the IFSC because I wanted to write about a man without qualities and I thought where would a man without qualities find himself in the 21st century? That seemed like a good place to put him but I didn't know what happened in the IFSC in 2002 so I dropped it. But when I came back to it in 2010, I thought I could do something interesting with it and I thought I could do it quite quickly." He laughs at this notion now. "The material is quite difficult and the banking world is quite complicated and trying to make that interesting was also difficult so it ended up going through redraft after redraft after redraft."

Still, Murray manages to make it not just interesting, but humorous too. The research must have been tedious though.

"I just read a lot of books. It's really interesting because it's so boring. The characters in it are all Monty Burns from The Simpsons, toxic, bilious, bitter, so wealthy, all worth billions of billions. It's very boring, people are just driven by greed and accumulation. How can you make these hideous people interesting and the way you do it is to make fun of them."

But surely it wasn't just bankers. Didn't we all became a little greedy and grotesque in the boom? "I think bankers are like an extreme version of the way we've all been led to start living our lives. There's a little banker inside all of us now. Since Thatcher and Reagan in the '80s we've been urged to prioritise money more and more and even though we know the best things in life are free - your health and families and friendships are important, broadly speaking, that's not how we act.

"Most of us work harder and harder and longer and longer hours at work, and we're not with friends or family or doing the 'important things'. I think that banking culture has spread outwards like a toxic gas to infect our lives and it's a trap. Bankers get trapped in a more extreme version of this.

"The money you need to be reasonably secure and happy is quite low but people are scared. It's not greed. The way our society has gone is that more and more people are living without pensions, without health insurance, they're working freelance, they're living without all these things that we used to have and it's sold to us as a good thing.

"People are drawn into this trap of trying to earn more money because they're afraid they will end up being impoverished. The banking thing doesn't lead to happiness. Banking erodes the things that help us lead happy lives - friendships, trust - it's a lonely life and at the end of it you get a giant house and your kids and wife hate you and yet it remains the model of a successful life."

And yet it seems like our main goal, since that fateful night of the banking guarantee, is to return to where we left off. "One thing I learned from the research is that all this stuff has happened before. Since 1967, there have been five or six very, very big financial crises. History teaches us that history teaches us nothing. Ireland suffered particularly severely from the crash so it's really hard for me to understand why we're letting this all happen again, except that it seems to be something in the Irish psyche where we're just gifted at erasing history, for looking the other way."

While Murray's main protagonist in the book is the banker Claude, there is also another character, an author called Paul Murray, along with a host of very familiar public figures. "The book is a parallel universe," says Murray. "The Minister for Finance character is quite like Brian Lenihan, but my thoughts were, it's a parallel universe, it's just quite similar."

He's now working on a screenplay with Hugh O'Conor, "a comedy drama about death" and Love/Hate creator Stuart Carolan is working on the screenplay for Skippy Dies.

So, no fourth novel in the works just yet. "I generally feel it is really hard to keep your spirits up when you're working on a long project. With Skippy, I felt so despairing by the time I handed it in that I thought it was going to be a disaster. I remember doing a reading and saying 'maybe I'll just read from the new thing'. I think that's just the way my psychology works. You start with an idea and there's a honeymoon period and it's exciting and then after a while it turns into work and then after a while it starts to feel like something that is just a failure."

If this is what Murray considers failure, our bankers could learn a lot from him.

The Mark and the Void is out now, published by Hamish Hamilton

Irish Independent

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