Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray

When the ship goes down, I want to be in Murray’s skiff. At least there will be laughter, love, generosity, poetry, and with any luck, a gulp of whiskey among us. If you thought the financial meltdown and its aftermath was too complicated to understand, read Murray. His account is a little like that fabled whiskey, warming and clear. At the inevitable end, we wonder where our head was, to think we could carry on like that and not have a hangover.
"[The restaurant called] Life is so loud, it takes a few moments to realize it is almost empty."
Murray gives his reading audience almost everything we want in a modern novel: a little mystery, a little romance, a little grand larceny. He does not neglect important, relevant subjects like the isolation of lives wrapped in technological bubblewrap or the failure of the banking system to protect and build a middle class. His bright gaze reveals the cracks in individual and institutional facades. But it is all done with a lightness of touch that makes it clear we can understand this, that we must, in fact, understand this, if we are going to save ourselves.
"If it’s a choice between a difficult truth and a simple lie, people will take the lie every time. Even if it kills them."
A successful French banker, Claude Martingale, takes a job in Dublin to escape snorts of derision from his father over his choice of career. A blacksmith and former radical, his father was unreasonably proud when his son graduated college with a degree in philosophy. “Philosophy was France’s greatest export,” he would boast to neighbors. How then could his son side with the thieves and quants who knew only how to cut experience into saleable lots, “using the underlying only for what can be derived from it,” rather than understanding the real value of life, of experience itself?
"Technology allows unprecedented quantities of reality to be turned into story. Reality becomes secondary…life becomes raw material for our own narratives."
Claude’s investment bank in Dublin creates financial instruments that fictionalize reality. What better place to set a novel? The problem of trying to make interesting the life of a banker was the central struggle of this work, and the central lesson we are meant to take away. Claude’s life in the bank was soulless, but not without moments of excruciating drama. And there was money…lots and lots of money…for some.
"'What is the most reliable area of growth in the twenty-first century?'
’Inequality,’ I say.
‘Bingo.’ "

Even financial disasters wholly created by the banks could be capitalized upon for their benefit. Murray gives us the example of a small island, Kokomoko, experiencing climate-related tide incursions, transformed to a golf course by a hedge fund. “I’m talking about monetizing failure”:
“Don’t you see the bottom line here? Even when it all goes tits up, you still get paid! Profit is finally liberated from circumstance! It’s the Holy Grail! It’s the singularity!...Seizures in the electricity grid, degradation of ecosystems, the spread of epidemics, the disintegration of the financial system—they’re all part of the same phenomenon. Civilization has become a bubble.”
Murray warns us that members of society have a responsibility to call out the farce and refuse to play...or get them to pay. They need us, after all.

But this insistence that we think comes to us with many examples of the fun part of thinking: madcap imaginings of a literary dinner, complete with a novelist camping up his meeting with his editor who, in his quest to sign the “next big thing,” appears strangely blinkered to the outrageous behaviors and opinions in his stable of authors. The reviewer who panned him (“I’m a little surprised she has flesh. I always pictured her as a sort of floating skull”) appears oblivious to the careers she has skewered. A slip of an editorial assistant captures everyone’s attention with her tremulous defense of art.

Murray invites us to look at the lives of writers: the crazy cash-flow between a novel’s conception and publication, the procrastination, the wacky attempts to jump start the creative process, the whoring (literally, in this case) of life partners, the desperation and despair. And then the reviews: “TL, DR” (Too Long, Didn’t Read), or the cavalier online dismissal of the years of effort because “Wombat Willy” received the book late and got a papercut getting the book out of the box.

Why bother with art at all? Because it reminds us who and what we are, Murray responds. The painting central to the novel could be seen as a type of graffiti whose price has risen, parallel to banks’ mystical valuations, to unheard-of heights. Threaded throughout the novel are constant references to Joyce and then suddenly, there it is, Ullysses II, the Irish folk in all their beautiful blemish:
”And here, on the teeming road, are the Irish: blanched, pocked, pitted, sleep-deprived, burnished, beaming, snaggle-toothed, balding, rouged, raddled, beaky, exophthalmic; the Irish, with their demon priests, their cellulite, their bus queues and beer bellies, their foreign football teams, betting slips, smart-phones and online deals, their dyed hair, white jeans, colossal mortgages, miraculous medals, ill-fitting suits, enormous televisions, stoical laughter, wavering camaraderie, their flinty austerity and seeping corruption, their narrow minds and broad hearts, their drunken speeches, drunken fights, drunken weddings, drunken sex, their books, saints, tickets to Australia, their building-site countryside, their radioactive sea, their crisps, bars, Lucozade, their tattoos, their overpriced wine and mediocre restaurants, their dreams, their children, their mistakes, their punchbag history, their bankrupt state and their inveterate indifference. Every face is a compendium of singularities, unadulterated by the smoothing toxins of wealth and privilege; to walk among them is to be plunged into a sea of stories, a human comedy so rich it seems on the point of writing itself…”

This is the first book I have read of Paul Murray’s since Skippy Dies, his magnificent second novel about the horrors of Irish Catholic public schools and just about everything else, including quantum physics, climate change, history, and music. I found myself relaxing into this new novel, enjoying the ride while harboring a nagging feeling that this is not Murray’s finest work. His talent, understanding, and deep sense of the absurd are undeniable. If I wish for more discipline, focus, and seriousness, will I have to give up the sheer joy in the unwieldy construction? Writers are who they are and do what they will do and thank goodness for it. I note, however, that Murray was hoping to write a short novel this time, which would imply his interest in a greater adherence to those other qualities of style. Perhaps we will get it one day. Murray has the goods, and lord knows I wouldn’t trade one of his laughs for its reverse, not in this world. Joy.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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