Sometimes all it takes is a dud sentence. Paul Murray’s much anticipated new novel begins: “Idea for a novel: we have a banker rob his own bank.” Funny. It sounds so simple, yet it is sufficient to cause the blood of an eager reader to course that bit colder. In the time it takes to read that opening sentence a thought could strike: “Idea for a novel: I don’t think I am going to like this.”
Murray's engaging second novel, Skippy Dies (2010), was set largely in the joke-rich hunting ground of a privileged secondary school for boys; this predictable caper takes place in and around the blandest of venues, the International Financial Services Centre in Dublin. The Mark and the Void is about the financial crisis, a subject so thin on comedy, not to mention basic humanity, that even the most daring stand-ups tend to look elsewhere for material. If only Paul Murray had done the same.
Still, it is only the opening sentence. Our narrator, Claude, is a French investment banker based in Dublin. He is depressed, has money, favours dressing in black, and wears his hair neat but “slightly long”. He also likes to think he is snobbish about food and superior to the Irish. He sounds about as French as the average south Dublin male, but Murray has other things on his mind, such as trying to find a plot.
He is not overly bothered with the niceties of characterisation; his approach to character is closer to caricature. Claude shares his tiny universe with fellow investment bankers, such as Ish, an eager Bridget Jones-type Australian girl and the world’s least likely investment banker – a cue for laughs. Streaked in fake tan, Ish is concerned with justice for native tribes. She is also searching for love. The object of her affection is unaware of her devotion – as we already know. Also present is Jurgen, a German who occasionally indulges in mildly fractured syntax for fear the fraught reader has forgotten his Teutonic origins. Enter Paul, a pale writer still living with the disaster of having written a forgotten debut novel, once savaged by a reviewer named Mary Cutlass.
Paul needs to write something, but, more pressingly, he needs cash to appease his beautiful if sullen eastern European intellectual-but-forced-to-lap-dance-and-pole- dance wife and their improbable toddler son, Remington, who is about to turn five but sounds more like a 10-year-old. There are so many false notes that the best way to explain this novel is to compare it to a piano held together with thread.
Paul has selected Claude as an Everyman subject, and informs Claude that he wishes to observe him. But Paul craves much more. By page 90 – although readers will have figured it all out – exactly what Paul wants becomes clear. Claude is only an investment banker playing with numbers, not with physical cash, so he seems surprised when the artful Paul asks: “Okay, how about rather than the Everyman just working in the bank, instead we have him rob the bank?” Who hasn’t dreamed of robbing a bank? But the gag cannot stand up. Investment bankers stare at computer terminals, not safes filled with other people’s money. Paul wants to rob a bank; Claude needs a life, and a girlfriend.
As a writer Murray relies on quickfire dialogue rather than descriptive prose. His style of writing demands action, response and timing, none of which is well served in this tedious, laboured, self-conscious book. Here he has two-dimensional characters who convey the desperation of sitcom actors dependent on canned laughter to fill the silences. But there is no canned laughter, and there are no real jokes.
Claude may not be the most perceptive of individuals – and he had a difficult relationship with his welder father, who worked hard for his son’s education and success only to turn against him – yet at times Claude stands beyond the narrative itself to brief the reader on the financial crisis: “In short, the whole world was massively in debt, but it didn’t seem to matter; then suddenly, almost overnight, it did. Someone, somewhere, realised that the global boom was in fact a pyramid scheme, a huge inflammable pyramid waiting to catch light.”
Everything anyone might wish to know – and more – about investment banking is lightly scattered through the book, as are many references to the Greek crisis. There is even Ariadne, a Greek femme fatale, who paints large works while working as a waitress in a worthy cafe, the Ark, to which Claude is drawn.
Paul makes the occasional sweeping literary reference: "We're in the middle of Dublin, where Joyce set Ulysses. But it doesn't look like Dublin. We could be in London, or Frankfurt, or Kuala Lumpur. There are all these people, but nobody's speaking to each other, everyone's just looking at their phones. This whole place is about being somewhere else. And that's modern life."
Paul likens Claude to Leopold Bloom. Yes, sir, the gags come ready made and dead on arrival.
The bankers, all sounding pretty much like the schoolboys in Skippy Dies, are smitten; it seems exciting to have a real writer watch your every move, or so the bored, and unexpectedly naive, investment bankers decide. (And to think the rest of us once regarded bankers as cynical.)
Claude soon adopts literary references, but as the bankers speculate about Paul’s lifestyle, and Claude admits he knows nothing about Paul, he reckons that should he ask, Paul will retort: “ ‘Do you think Billy Budd knew where Conrad lived?’ he’ll say if I press him. ‘Do you think Emma Bovary knew what Flaubert did all day?’ ” Presumably, Paul – and by default Murray – would know that Billy Budd was a creation of Herman Melville, not Joseph Conrad.
Dull straight man
Also mixed up with Paul’s desire to rob a bank – and, later, steal a painting that his toddler son, who has accompanied him on the robbery, has scrawled on – are a suitably brooding and egotistical writer, a subservient editor, sexist jokes about pole dancers and strippers, and impromptu skits about trying to write a book.
The problem is that Murray lacks the linguistic verve and energy that sustain Martin Amis. Murray's comic arabesques fall flat. There is no Skippy sidekick of Ruprecht Van Doren's quality to carry the narrative, as Murray never develops Jurgen, and Claude proves a very dull straight man to Paul the delusional writer.
Bloated and complacent, the sloppily written narrative meanders along. It does seem unfair, even imprudent to write of a dying, and potentially recognisable, minister for finance: “Shadows devour his features, beads of moisture cling morbidly to the grey folds of his skin; his courtly, reasonable bearing is belied by great dark rings around his eyes. I had heard he was unwell: when I lean in to shake his hand I am hit by a stench so deathly I have to fight the instinct to recoil.”
The sharpest sequence may be when Paul and Claude pretend to be gay lovers at a literary soiree. But there is little genuine humour and no dominant comic set piece; the dialogue is but lame banter. Skippy lives. This one might not; it does not deserve to.
Late in the narrative – by which time I was ready to scrub the barn with a toothbrush – Paul intones: "The problem is writing, Claude. The problem is writing, and writing is the problem. Coming up with an idea is just like the entrance ticket into this enormous fucking labyrinth of – oh, what now?"
That just about sums up a struggling novel that feels as long as the recession, only twice as boring.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent