Every so often you read a book that is just a puzzler. It was good; it was bad; it was everything in between. I just cannot make up my mind. That is how I feel about Paul Murray’s “The Mark and the Void.” Ireland’s fictional approximation of The Big Short, it has elements of reality and surreality, morality and immorality, evil and good, all told in a rather absurd and ironic fashion.
Murray’s lead character and narrator, Claude, has come to Ireland from France to make his fortune and to create a singular existence in his work as an investment banker. He is succeeding in his search for a one dimensional anonymous existence when he runs into Paul. Paul has been watching him from a distance and finally approaches him asking if he can observe and use him as his everyman lead character in a novel about banking. After a great deal of thought Claude agrees, and of course his search for anonymity and a one dimensional existence focused on banking begins to unravel in the most unlikely and unbelievable ways.
Claude’s bank, Bank of Torabundo, has been very successful during the volatile banking years due to the steady and conservative approach of its leader. Unlike its neighbor, Royal Irish, which has to be bailed out more than once by Ireland as a result of its aggressive ventures into risky markets, Torabundo avoided complex derivatives, as well as the secondary mortgage market. As a result, Torabundo rose to the top and as a reward, the CEO was fired for costing the bank investors. The bank’s new CEO is a charismatic counterintuitive risk taker and the bank goes from steady and stable to aggressive and volatile.
We learn that banks have their own class system and Claude explains the hierarchy of the bank by describing the back room. “There is a strict hierarchy to investment banking, of which back office lies at the very bottom, below even lawyers.” Oh no–not that low!
Throughout the book the bankers are making crazy investments, dealing with shady characters and spending a lot of time drinking and doping and going to sex clubs for lap dances. It becomes increasingly clear that the bankers do not even really know what is going on. When Claude interviews the CEO of Royal Irish, the CEO confesses: “‘Listen,’ he said, ‘you’re here to ask me how it all works, and I’m just going to tell you the truth, which is that I don’t have the faintest f…ing notion.'” A group of protestors dressed as zombies camps out across from Royal Irish to protest the bank’s excesses and the government bailouts (the Irish version of the Occupy Wall Street movement). By the end of the book the zombies have inexplicably disappeared.
Meanwhile, Paul observes Claude in his work environment, researching for his book, but all is not as it seems. Claude dumps Paul, then becomes inexplicably deeply involved in his life. Paul dumps Claude and they become even more entwined. Claude falls in love with the waitress at the local café and Paul tries to help him attract her. Torabundo and the Irish economy go into a death spiral, the café closes and the waitress is gone, Paul’s poverty is causing him to lose house, home, wife and child and who oh who will come to the rescue? I guess you need to read the book to figure it all out.
Throughout the book the worlds of finance and art are interwoven with the handwringing lifelong quandary of where and how to find meaning. The entire theme of the book can be summed up in one quote on page 427 where Claude is yelling at Paul to write his book and find his place. “‘Jesus, will you get off my case? You’re not going to make me feel guilty about this. If I was some big bank going bust I’d have governments around the world throwing money at me. Instead, because I’m just some ordinary defenseless Joe Schmoe, I’m left to rot.'”
The “Mark and the Void” is a cynical, surreal, unsubtle account of banking, art, and the unfairness of society. It is a story about the evils of greed, a lesson about the results of wealth disparity and an indictment of the banking industry. It is also a story about the importance of compassion, purpose and love. Was it good? I just don’t know. Did I like it? I cannot decide. Why don’t you read it and tell me what you think? You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11171009__Sthe%20mark%20and%20the%20void__P0%2C1__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold.