Monday 18 December 2017

Savaging of recessionary Ireland is on the money

Fiction: The Mark and The Void, Paul Murray, Hamish Hamilton, pbk, 463 pages, €17.99

Post-modern fun: Paul Murray has a dig at the financial players involved in the economic crisis.
Post-modern fun: Paul Murray has a dig at the financial players involved in the economic crisis.
The Mark and the Void
Author Paul Murray

Five years after the exuberantly inventive Skippy Dies, a satirical tragi-comedy set in a boys' boarding school on the outskirts of Dublin, Paul Murray's new novel skewers post-Celtic Tiger Ireland with venomous glee.

The reader may wonder at the outset whether, in the wake of Donal Ryan's The Spinning Heart, Dermot Bolger's Tanglewood and other recent novels about recessionary Ireland, there's anything new to be said on the subject, but Murray's take is so sharp and funny that you happily succumb to its caustic pleasures.

And you can derive amusement, too, from matching some of its subsidiary players to real-life counterparts - including silver-haired Miles O'Connor, CEO of a bank that's too big to fail; maverick multi-millionaire construction boss Walter Corless, who unwisely has dealings with that bank; and an ailing finance minister who, in the words of an investment analyst, "hasn't got a clue. If we told him to buy a really big mattress and stuff all the country's money in it, he'd go and do it".

The speaker here is the sardonic Ish, a young Australian woman who works in the Dublin headquarters of the International Bank of Torabundo and whose colleague is the book's genially sceptical narrator, Claude, an exiled young Frenchman more skilled at analysing figures and financial trends than at filling the void in his personal life.

Enter Paul, who proposes that Claude be his 'everyman' model for a novel he wants to write about banking, though the reader soon wonders if there's something shadier about his intentions. And so it turns out, though Paul then reinvents himself in other no less outlandish guises.

The author makes fashionable post-modernist fun with the notion of Claude as a fictional character and with the novel as an artefact, offering knowing hostages to fortune at various junctures.

"This book needs a story, and right now it doesn't have one," Paul says at an early stage in their creator-character relationship, while later he declares: "Who wants to read a story where nothing happens for the first 200 pages?" This rhetorical question occurs on page 217 of a 463-page novel, and though it's cheekily meant, the reader may be inclined to concur. Indeed, the book's main problem is that Paul is a lot less fascinating than the author clearly thinks and his madcap schemes and volatile behaviour a good deal more tiresome.

Thus, we're asked to go along with Paul's elaborate internet and spy-cam attempts to bring about a relationship between Claude and Greek waitress Ariadne (he's also working on a MyHotWaitress website), while all the time we simply wonder: why doesn't Claude just ask her out?

Various other subplots (including larcenous schemes involving Paul's maniacal, and frankly unbelievable, sidekick Igor) are equally implausible and may well test even the most tolerant reader's patience, and on those occasions when Paul doesn't feature in the narrative, it comes as a welcome relief.

But the book is wonderfully good at evoking the insular world of its main financial players, who are based in the bubble of the IFSC ("like a pygmy Manhattan") and who are nonchalantly playing with the lives of millions, while outside their security-protected glass walls, "zombie" protesters chant anti-austerity slogans.

These players include such whizz kids as Claude's brash young colleague Howie, who's the bank's star trader and of whom Claude notes: "Howie's only reaction, win or lose, is to smirk. I am fairly sure he smirks in his sleep."

Then there's office boss Rachael, "streamlined, frictionless, like a virtual avatar of herself" and "loathed with a violence that goes past the usual banking misogyny or boss hatred" - indeed it's said that "she has a USB port instead of a vagina, and that her husband uses her to charge his phone".

There's also Claude's boss, Jurgen, an eternally upbeat former member of a German reggae band who spouts the company line at every available opportunity, and there's Ish, the one patently decent member of the office, who yearns for Claude, though he fails to notice.

Not much, though, escapes the gaze and consciousness of this amiable narrator, a compliant company man by instinct and temperament and unwilling to rock the lucrative boat, though fully aware of the duplicities that are being enacted on the market and on the public both by himself and by his colleagues.

Eventually, the cocooned world in which Claude and his colleagues exist comes crashing down ("We're like lepers out there", Howie fumes. "We're like Greece."), but a craven Irish government ensures their survival and the partying and lapdancing in the IFSC nightclub resume, just as if there was no yesterday and no tomorrow, either.

All of this is exhilaratingly savaged by Murray, who also manages to locate a good deal of poignancy about the fragmented nature of contemporary living and the basic loneliness of someone like Claude.

Indeed, it's Paul who observes that 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".

It took Murray seven years to follow his fictional debut, An Evening Of Long Goodbyes, with the much-praised Skippy Dies (longlisted for the Man Booker and shortlisted for the Costa), and it's taken another five years for this third novel to emerge, issued by its enthusiastic publisher both in paperback and in a limited boxed edition. Overall, the wait has been worth it.

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