I’ve been really looking forward to reading “The Mark and the Void.” There’s been what I think of as “rumblings” about it for some time including mentions on Twitter and in the press (both very positive and very negative reviews). Now that Booker predictions are already being made it’s tipped by some as a strong contender. References to it have made blips on my radar and, after receiving enough blips, I was sufficiently intrigued to put it at the top of my TBR pile. At one point I was chatting with two authors I really respect and both enthusiastically praised Murray and this new novel so I became determined to read it. Now I wonder if it’s one of those tragic cases of a book receiving too much hype because my overall response to this novel is something of a shrug.
It’s a fun idea which Murray self-consciously outlines at the start. A banker with hidden depths of spirit meets a writer who turns out to be a shallow charlatan. This combo yields thoughtful passages about the banking crisis in Ireland and observations about the interplay of art and life. French banker Claude uses his background in philosophy to assess the meaning of value for things and people in the modern world. It’s observed that “Life and the living of it have, for the first time in history, become separate. In recording our own reality – that is, in simultaneously experiencing and deferring experience – we pass from the actual into the virtual.” At the same time, the writer Paul makes a foil to Claude’s search for meaning in the modern malaise by seeking to exploit these foibles with his schemes to get rich. So he seeks to use our desire for intimate personal connections in real life filtered through the safety of virtual arenas to create a website Hotwaitress.com where you can be served by actual waitresses while knowing a profuse amount of personal details about their lives.
This is ridiculous and funny – the dark humour being that such sleazy disgusting websites do exist. Unfortunately, much of the humour in this novel feels quite broad and not all that haha. So periphery characters like Paul’s immigrant stripper wife who is also a well-educated literary theorist, protestors that dress like zombies and an artistic gay couple who slyly confess to adoring the musical Mamma Mia came across as a bit clunky to me because they’ve been inserted into scenes that read like situational comedy. It was difficult to feel much for them. There were some exceptions that show more of the shady reality of the world. For instance, Claude’s female co-worker Ish is put in the extremely uncomfortable situation where potential investors demand she get a lap dance at a gentlemen’s club (a situation she thankfully escapes). Her gradual disillusionment with her profession is effective, but she has a lovesickness for Claude which felt cloying. Probably the character I found most endearing was Paul’s young son Remington whose absurdist interjections provide a light relief.
All this might be okay if protagonists Claude and Paul succeeded as characters. Their relationship reminded me strongly of Stefan Zweig and his biography of Balzac. Like Claude, Zweig was devoted to the way art can elevate us out of the mire and pettiness of daily life. Yet he’s continuously frustrated because, like the character Paul, Balzac’s primary motivation was to get rich through ridiculous ploys which fail miserably and he only goes back to writing out of necessity to pay off debts. This tension makes for amusing interactions in “The Mark and the Void” but it’s a relationship so strained it comes across as unbelievable. If it weren’t for the author’s controlling hand Claude would certainly block Paul out of his life. Because their connection is the impetus for the story, they can’t be separated so the charade continues. Maybe that’s the point and, as the novel progresses, we’re made more and more self consciously aware of the limitations of novels. It’s stated that “The stories we read in books, what’s presented to us as being interesting – they have very little to do with real life as it’s lived today… People looking back over their lives, people having revelations, people discovering meaning. Meaning, that’s the big thing.” This condemnation of literature would seem to make the pursuit of reading fiction pointless because all the little insights we find within don’t offer any succour in reality. But if you take away the story there is little left to appreciate but clever artifice and I would have preferred to read a non-fiction book about the banking crisis in Ireland.
The trouble is that highlighting the characters and situation as a sort of post-modern construct means they never get much beyond that. It’s difficult to feel any heart. To be honest, there were long passages of this novel I found boring. This too is self consciously pointed out in the novel: “He’s boring, his life is boring, isn’t that the point? Isn’t that what makes his story true? He’s the modern man, he lives in his cocoon of numbers, he has everything anyone could want – or rather, he has enough money to buy anything anyone could want – yet his life is empty.” So the novel moves along giving details of the inner-workings of banking while the protagonists engage in a game of cat and mouse. I wanted more than that because I could feel real anger and frustration from the author about the financial crisis in Ireland. In one passage, seemingly out of nowhere, there is an extended searing critique of “the Irish, with their demon priests, their cellulite, their bus queues and beer bellies…” and later it’s remarked “the fact is that the Irish are at root a slave race.” This chastisement a man has for his own countrymen in relation to the economic disaster of his time is what I would be thrilled to read about – not a novel as an intellectual postmodern game-play. Anne Enright’s recent novel “The Green Road” did much more to capture the Irish in all their complexity and say something meaningful in the lead up to the housing bubble.
I don’t mean to condemn this novel because there are a lot of interesting things in it. The title itself takes on multiple meanings throughout the book. People target each other to exploit and use one another for empty monetary pursuits in a way that drains life of meaning so we’re left “swimming around in this void together.” An accusatory finger points from character to character to author to reader. “The Mark and the Void” made me wonder about the way we’re lulled into absenting ourselves from taking responsibility for participating in all of this. It has force and something to say; for me it just didn’t find the right framework to express it in or give me the fully immersive experience I want from a novel.