The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray
The self-reflective metafictional novel – a book that, with a tilted head and a squint, appears to be written by one of its characters – is an engaging and dizzying concept that has unfortunately been over-used by many young writers. The idea has come to adopt a Chekhovian aura: if a new novel features an aspiring novelist, by the end of the third act they’ll begin writing the story we’ve been reading all along. At its best, this fate is a thrilling and ground-shaking renegotiation of literary conventions and narrative; at its worst, the decision is reflective of an amateur author, hiding behind narrative trickery.
Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void, luckily, is a work of the former. While Murray’s novel might have been even better without a writer-character named Paul and the consistent distraction of whether The Mark and the Void is the book he finally comes around to write, this is an accomplished, impressive read. Underneath a deluge of well-timed jokes, The Mark and the Void is a deeply funny and intellectually thoughtful work about international banking, the book industry, and contemporary socio-economics.
Claude is a French investment banker working in Dublin whose boring (but satisfactory) life is upended when a stranger named Paul confronts him with an idea for a novel. A few years back, Paul made a small literary splash with his book For Love of a Clown, but after spending his advance and royalties at a strip club and buying one particularly erudite dancer out of her contract, he’s in need of a new success. “What’s it about?” Claude asks, only discover it’s about him. “It seems to me that your life embodies certain values, certain fundamental features of our modern world,” Paul tells him. “If James Joyce was writing Ulysses today, if he was writing not about some nineteenth-century backwater but about the capital of the most globalized country in the world – where would he begin? Who would his Bloom be?”
Claude, of course, is flattered, and undeterred by the ridiculous idea of writing the modern Irish novel about a boring French banker. Paul’s book would give Claude’s life a story, something he didn’t realize he was missing. And this is where Paul Murray (the author) sets himself apart from the other metafictional novelists out there: Paul, the character, has no intentions of writing a book, but instead is using Claude to research his workplace and rob his bank. While Claude fantasizes about the café waitress nearby, thinking she might become a character in his life, Paul (and an ex-KGB grunt named Igor) struggle with the realization that no physical money actually changes hands at an investment bank.
Naturally, the bank-heist plot derails, but Paul has unknowingly ignited a desire in Claude to mean something. Even after learning that there was never a novel, and after finding Paul’s writing notebook not full of story ideas but doodles of “either breasts or erect penises” and a note reading “WHO’S OUR MARK,” he’s determined to prove to Paul (and himself) that there is indeed a story somewhere inside him. “When we spoke in the café you told me my life lacked a story,” Claude tells him, tiptoeing towards a proposal. “Obviously you had your own agenda. Nevertheless you were right. What I am asking you now is to write that story.”
Over the next four hundred pages, Claude and Paul develop their friendship in their shared desire to reinvent themselves. As they grow in both professional and social confidence, Paul Murray drifts his plot towards the world’s tumultuous economic climate: Claude’s office delves shadily into sub-prime lending, capitalizing on losses as the world around them falls apart. Claude’s colleagues explain away their loss-profit conversions by way of non-Euclidean mathematics; it’s as funny as it is scary, and as financially manipulative as a The Mark and the Void is with its literary conventions.
While consistently funny and enjoyable to read, The Mark and the Void falters from a bad case of episodicism. The novel features multiple smaller arcs that follow a handful of Paul’s entrepreneurial endeavors, from a voyeur website to an art heist, and it’s tempting to imagine a leaner story with a few of these humorous exploits removed. The Mark and the Void is at its best when Murray embraces the more theoretical and philosophical elements of the novel, but these are often dropped for a great joke. It’s difficult to vie for a tighter novel while recalling the 500 pages of smiling and laughs that Murray so effortlessly achieves with The Mark and the Void, but it’s clear there’s an even better novel nestled within.