Sunday 25 February 2018

A tale to bank on

The Mark and the Void, Paul Murray, Hamish Hamilton, €17.99, paperback

Paul Murray turns his rich imagination to the world of high finance. Pic. Mark Condren.
Paul Murray turns his rich imagination to the world of high finance. Pic. Mark Condren.

Niall MacMonagle

This is a curiously brilliant book. From the get-go Paul Murray's big novels teemed with inventiveness, oddities, unpredictable, confident narratives. A Killiney pile, a south county Dublin boarding school were the settings for An Evening of Long Goodbyes [2003] and Skippy Dies [2010]. For The Mark and the Void, it's IFSC Dublin, its offices, pubs, restaurants, clubs during the financial crisis. The opening sentence "Idea for a novel: we have a banker rob his own bank" does no justice to the book's intricately entertaining, self-aware plot.

Claude Martingale, a French research analyst in the "feverish hamster-wheeling" world of invest-ment banking, and Paul, a frantic novelist who claims to want to find the "hidden humanity" among bankers, spell odd couple. Four hundred pages later, in one of the novel's many send-ups, Paul concludes "if there's one thing people want to read about even less than a French banker, it's a novelist struggling to write his new book". But, handled this well, banker and struggling novelist equals page turner.

The deliberately named Martingale is centre stage. When summoned to advise the Minister for Finance in relation to the Royal Irish Bank, Claude, knowing it's "finished as a going concern", thinks to himself that "the Irish seem to absorb any amount of punishment without complaint". The report is submitted in the belief that the Minister won't "chuck any more money" at Royal Irish; "Best thing at this stage'd be just to shove them off a cliff." But the advice isn't taken. "The Irish people - along with their unstaffed hospitals, their potholed roads, their overstuffed classrooms, medieval prisons, dying pensioners - will become the proud owners of six billion euro's worth of . . . radioactive Greek shit".

This is a book of regulated anger.

When journalists address unfolding events, their reports and analyses are by their very nature incomplete. Murray plays a love-story narrative of sorts against a country in a state of flux. Claude's love for Greek waitress Ariadne contrasts with Celtic Tiger decadence: Dave, Kev and Gary are sizing up the women in a pub. Kevin, wondering "Is she hot?', has "looked at so much porn I can't tell any more if IRL women are good-looking or not. I have to imagine if I saw her on a screen would I click on her." Claude asks "IRL? This means Ireland? Irish women?" only to learn from Dave: "In real life, Grandad - here, Kev, look at her through my phone. See? She's an eight, easy."

Murray in this 'Way We Live Now' novel is on the button. There's a savagely ironic passage on Dublin's Famine Memorial, an obnoxious banker talks of "monetising failure". Paul, playfully alerting us to narrative strategies, has mad theories about waitresses, a website, and with zany, laugh-out-loud humour literary jealousies, art, a pretentious dinner party are exposed. Though the book claims that "Loneliness is one of the few growth areas these days", that novels are unwanted - "They want reality, up close and personal" - there is, nonetheless, an improbably happy ending.

Murray quotes Nathan Rothschild's grim "Buy to the sound of cannons, sell to the sound of trumpets", but this novel's arrival deserves a trumpeting fanfare.

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