The other day Robert over on 101Books (he’s busy reading his way through Time Magazine’s List of the greatest books of all time) prompted a discussion by asking his readers what is the funniest novel? Funnily enough, (gulp!) I’ve just finished reading a very strong contender for that title and it is a book which is due to be published within the next few weeks. So following on from my previous Paul Murray review here is one that I’m sure you’ll going to be hearing a lot more about.
I was delighted to be chosen by Penguin to read Paul Murray’s new novel for review purposes before publication. When I found out the set-up my heart sank- the educational institutions of “Skippy Dies” are part of my psyche so I felt an immediate attachment to it, the financial institutions that form the basis of “The Mark And The Void” leave me cold. I’ve got to my advanced age pretty much avoiding any books, films or television which deal with financial matters or are even set in offices. Perhaps the only related thing I have ever enjoyed is that moment in “Superman III” where Richard Pryor deposits all his fellow employees unrounded half-cents into his account! So it was with hesitancy but an open mind I began Murray’s book.
The Irish financial crisis has been responsible for at least one great novel already- Donal Ryan’s “The Spinning Heart”, one of the best books of this century (so far). That concentrates on the effects upon a small-town community. This book is even better and may very well be the Great Comic Novel of our time.
The narrator, Claude Martingale, a French analyst working in an Irish investment bank, is approached by Paul, looking for an Everyman for his new novel set in Dublin’s financial institutions . This news permeates through Claude’s workplace. This is a place where little exciting or “real” happens- a bank which “produces nothing tangible, which trades only ever in the virtual”, one of the factors for the economic collapse we all suffered.
It soon becomes apparent that Paul’s heart is not in his novel and that Claude at work is just “A Void. A Dead space” and that there is no story to be told. He has other plans in his shadowing of Claude. Murray doesn’t simplify matters, finance is a complicated subject but he makes it all understandable, plausible and, extraordinarily, very very funny. There’s a lot of “nothings” in this book; the bankers work with it, the writer produce it, Claude’s very life is it until he meets Paul. I may still have no idea what a hedge fund is (does anyone?) but I learnt a lot and my sheer enjoyment of this book is not diminished one iota by my economic stupidity. Within this there’s also Philosophy, Art and Literature and the role they have to play in the modern world where “the void” is so prevalent. This is a world where the nothingness has to be finely balanced, where banks can implode because of rumour, where the world of work sees “everyone completely oblivious to everyone else, eyes fixed instead on screens or on that empty point in mid-air where so much of life now takes place.”
I loved the characters in this book, Claude, the “Everyman” with little going for him, Paul, always hopeful he’ll find the next big thing before total destitution, whose literary career was stalled by one bad review, Ish, the female analyst of out place in a male dominated world because she believes in things rather than “nothings”, the boorish men who make up the majority of the workforce. It’s intelligent yet outrageous and Murray gets it just right. I felt with “Skippy Dies” that the book took a time to settle and that the author just crammed too much into it initially and that it was only after Skippy’s death is confirmed and we move away from the events leading up to his demise that the book really took off and we saw the true quality of the writing and the potential of this writer. I was with “The Mark And The Void” all the way. The pace never flags and it becomes funnier and funnier, which is some achievement in a comic novel. If Paul Murray can get me enjoying a book so much with this premise then he can write about absolutely anything. If Joseph Heller with “Catch 22” managed to make war funny (and I’m not entirely convinced he did) then Murray’s making us laugh at loud at Ireland’s financial crises is a comparable achievement.
This is the best book I have read this year and I am looking forward to seeing it appear on prize shortlists.
“The Mark And The Void” is published July 2015 by Penguin. Thanks to Netgalley for providing this copy for review.