Ever since I read the first two novels by the wonderful Irish writer Paul Murray in 2011 (about which I previously wrote a brief essay), I’ve been eagerly awaiting his next book. Thankfully, The Mark and the Void finally arrived on American shores in fall 2015, and I read it over winter break.
While Skippy Dies remains my favorite of Murray’s novels, The Mark and the Void might be his most ambitious and sophisticated work to date (even if the comedy occasionally verges on the overly broad), in that it’s one of a select few novels that not only engages with the complexities and contradictions of late capitalism, but also reflects that struggle to represent that which we cannot access or understand on the level of literary form. (The only comparable novel I can recall is William Gaddis’ 1975 masterpiece J R, to which The Mark and the Void is a worthy successor.) The metafictional frame story (concerning a frustrated, penurious, and none-too-bright novelist, also named Paul, who is shadowing Claude Martingale–a Frenchman who works at an Irish investment bank during the meltdown of 2008, closely paralleling the actual history of Ireland during this period–purportedly as part of the research process for his next book, but in reality as an attempted criminal plot to figure out how to rob the bank, which in turn devolves into a number of other harebrained business schemes) is more than just a clever but meaningless postmodern conceit. Rather, it serves as a running commentary on the representational difficulty with which artists are faced when they attempt to find the human drama in bureaucratic structures, an environment that effaces the historical and geographic specificity of both character and setting: non-people in non-places. And as with fiction, the capitalist ideology of investment banking has a curiously undefined ontological status; while it lacks embodied existence or the fullness of being per se, it nevertheless possesses uncannily persistent material effects / affects upon the real world, which we might call the “force of the fake.”
The madcap narrative resists easy summation, spiraling into digressions about the anthropology and political economy of debt and social class, the nature of the global financial crisis and its social costs, the cultural and sexual politics of banking, the absurdities of contemporary literature and publishing, the desire for authentic connection in the loneliness of the internet age, and post-structural philosophy and abstract art, but ultimately the book’s title–which ostensibly refers to a valuable painting that drives part of the plot–is best understood as a pun: it’s about the ethical void at the heart of capitalism and the marks who are duped into falling for its con games. Like the nonfiction books on the financial crisis by Matt Taibbi and Michael Lewis (or the film based on Lewis’ The Big Short), it manages to educate and entertain the reader simultaneously, puncturing the myths of late capitalism. But because of Murray’s great facility with character and dialogue, The Mark and the Void is both uproariously funny (although often in a bleak and all-too-plausible fashion) and deeply serious and empathetic as it plays with the dichotomies between fiction and life, haves and have-nots. Its slingshot ending is as unexpected and delightful as anything I’ve read in a long time.
If there is a flaw with the book, it lies in the fact that the fruits of Murray’s research sometimes seem a little too obvious and on-the-nose in the text. I read it almost back-to-back with David Graeber’s latest collection of essays on bureaucracy, stupidity, and violence, The Utopia of Rules–the implicit dialogue between the two works greatly enhanced the experience!–and it was immediately apparent to me that Murray had seriously studied Graeber’s previous monograph, Debt (which interviews with Murray later borne out). For this reviewer, there were too many expository passages on the subject of money, credit, and debt that were not as well-integrated into the narrative as they could have been, as with, say, the many digressions of Skippy Dies. (Of course, readers who are not already familiar with Graeber’s work may not find this to be the case at all.) Other bits recall the themes and concepts explored by thinkers like Marc Auge, Jean Baudrillard, Franco Berardi, Guy Debord, Gilles Deleuze, Fredric Jameson, Marcel Mauss, and Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, but these allusions are mostly accomplished with stylistic elegance and a lightness of touch. Murray nevertheless deserves commendation for engaging so thoughtfully and thoroughly with ideas from modern anthropology, philosophy, and political economy, and as a result, The Mark and the Void feels directly and uniquely relevant to the present situation. Indeed, we might call it the first great post-Occupy Movement novel! On the level of both content and form, Paul Murray is dragging the classic social novel into the harsh light of twenty-first century realities.